Relief for Your Aching Back:
Kitchens with Ergonomic Layouts

By Sophie Donelson
Special to The Wall Street Journal

When Alan and Petra Minoff renovated their kitchen recently, they were determined to have the latest in appliances, materials and culinary gizmos. Instead of hiring a kitchen designer, they turned to... an architectural coach with a specialty in ergonomics.

Today, the Minoffs have a layout choreographed to minimize walking, a stove-top set at a back-pleasing 35 inches and dish drawers in place of traditional cabinets. "I didn't want to schlep across the kitchen just to unload the dishwasher," says Mrs. Minoff, a linens sales representative in Wilmette, Ill. "Now, it's one movement of the hand."

The $47 billion kitchen-renovation business has a new agenda for tired soccer moms and dads -- turning them into high-energy home cooks. To get there, some designers are moving away from the classic "kitchen triangle," where the stove, sink and refrigerator are equidistant. Instead, they're experimenting with approaches that borrow from sources as diverse as the theater and the kindergarten classroom. The idea is to create workstations where supplies are close at hand and chefs bend or stretch less to reach them -- dish storage near top-loading dishwashers, for example, and pans under the stovetop where the oven used to be.

Arclinea, an Italian kitchen-design firm, has several layouts based on the economical movements of professional chefs. Johnny Grey, a firm with operations in the U.S. and Britain, takes design cues from an energy-saving technique used by dancers and actors. And makers such as Fisher & Paykel and KitchenAid are introducing a variety of products that are easy on the lumbar, like top-loading washing machines and freezers that take less bending to access.

Body-Friendly Designs

Beyond appealing to frazzled homemakers, much of the ergonomic-kitchen push comes from design firms homing in on baby boomers. The idea: to offer back-friendly designs to the population most likely to spend on their homes. According to the Boomer Project, a market researcher, boomers with disposable income spend one-third more on their homes than those in other demographics, and the kitchen is often the first place they start. What's more, the kitchen-renovation industry is gaining steadily, up 17% between 2000 and 2004, according to Kitchen and Bath Business's 2005 Market Forecaster Report. And then there's the Food Network factor: Viewership there has doubled in five years, according to Nielsen ratings, creating legions of fans who want to cook as fast as Rachael Ray -- with the flair of Emeril Lagasse.

To tap into that market, Arclinea recently commissioned studies of the movements of professional chefs, and began redesigning its kitchens. Among its new recommendations: Utensils and pots should be stored where they are used, instead of randomly around the kitchen; waist-high drawers are preferable to cabinets; warming and cooling drawers should be placed within reach of produce and bread. The firm also recommends putting the oven at waist-level, instead of at the knees.

Mercedes Farrando, an in-house architect with Arclinea in Boston, says her main goal is to take kitchen activity out of the corners. "It's about changing the flow of the space," Ms. Farrando says. "Everyone's used to looking at the walls -- I love centering work around the island."

Snaidero, an Italian design firm, is pushing the idea of universal design. Its Skyline unit, introduced last year, is a freestanding kitchen island with modular components, including rolling cabinets and counters that can be adjusted for users of different ages, sizes and abilities. The Johnny Grey firm uses the Alexander Technique, an approach actors and dancers learn so they can move efficiently while performing. Mr. Grey studied the technique, which holds that no part of the body should move unless it has to, and now, he emphasizes stations and dedicated spaces in the kitchen for everything. "[Your body] sort of memorizes this, and you can move easier," he says.

Appliance makers and retailers, too, are increasingly emphasizing ergonomics in their products. Maytag just introduced a $2,300 French-door refrigerator with clear, waist-level produce drawers, a pizza box/deli drawer, and a bottom cooler drawer with sliding bins for easy food retrieval. Whirlpool's higher-end KitchenAid line tested its "rotary torque force" knobs in 2001 with arthritic consumers.

Stressful Stew

For Joyce Berman, cooking something as simple as a beef stew in her 18-year-old kitchen used to be a stressful act. Now, having spent $30,000 on an ergonomic update, the retiree in Bannockburn, Ill., says she can get at her pots and pans much more easily. Her drawers no longer stick and there's not so much "bending and tugging and pulling," says Ms. Berman, 69 years old.

The traditional kitchen layout of the "triangle" was introduced in the 1950s in a study by the University of Illinois. The idea, also ergonomic, was that the total square footage in the triangle formed by the sink, refrigerator and stove should be between 12 feet and 26 feet. If it was more than that, the idea was people were wasting time and steps; if it was less, the feeling was your kitchen was too cramped. Many kitchens today are still set up according to this formula, and some retailers champion it: Ikea has an ergonomics section on its Web site touting the concept, promising, "You'll know you've got it right when you can make breakfast with your eyes closed."

The triangle plan was challenged a few years ago with the introduction of "universal design," a philosophy that sought to create spaces that could be used by people of any age, strength or ability. But some experts in the field say the idea of an ergonomic kitchen is just marketing. "You can have the right knife, the right shoes, but it won't make a difference," says Wendy Young, founder of ErgoPro, an ergonomics consulting firm. "If you work for hours until your back and legs hurt -- that's when you chop your finger off. The most important element of ergonomics is to listen to your body."

Martin Tannenbaum did exactly that. At 6 feet 2 inches, the business consultant in Jamaica Plain, Mass., was always having to stoop too much to retrieve pans and even to peer into cabinets that were hung too low for his height. After a $35,000 ergonomic make-over, including raised counter tops, eye-level cabinets and daily appliances within an arm's reach of one another, the set-up is perfect. The only issue: "The top shelves. There's no way in the world my partner can reach them," says Mr. Tannenbaum.