If you can afford the kitchen design shown in the photo, good for you. Every item shown has either an Energy Star rating or other “green” label, all are at the top of their peer group for energy performance, and the whole ensemble looks terribly impressive. If this is the prettiest, priciest kitchen in the free world, give it a blue ribbon. The basic ergonomic triangle is present (fridge, stove, sink all accessible without traveling far), the storage space makes the supplies for each operation available where the work is to be done, the counters are small but well-placed for staging a meal-in-progress, and there appears to be room for a wheeled workstation that will serve as portable prep space, ingredient setup and serving dish transport. Woof. What a kitchen!
Now look at this kitchen. It’s plain, sports simple appliances, is short on storage space (presumably the hidden section at right contains the cabinets and cooking gear), and appears to have been squeezed into the corner of an existing room (the window would have been set higher in a room designed as a kitchen). This kitchen has no unifying theme, no flow of concept, no comforting proportions, no evoked period memory, no sense of who it is, and no self-declaring identity. I made all that crap up. Sorry. It’s a simple little kitchen, low in cost, ad hoc in design, crude in aesthetics, and it just about works. And oh- the appliances are still green-rated, such as they are.
Choose your kitchen. They’re both labeled green, both functionally adequate, both capable of facilitating good food preparation. I estimate one cost about $20,000 to install, appliances included. The other cost at least $100,000 dollars excluding structural remodeling. They both contain the same basic equipment: range, vent hood, toaster, microwave, refrigerator. One has an automatic dishwasher, the other not. They both, surprisingly, use about the same amount of energy to prepare similar dishes. They both accommodate informal eat-in furniture, they both work for either a single cook or a cook with a helper or two. They both work.
The kitchen in this photo is rated as LEED compliant (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design), which means it is built to rigid standards for energy conservation and sustainability. There are heat exchangers under the floor to capture the heat from drain water. The appliances are manufactured from materials not harmful to the environment, and the finishes on the natural wood cabinets contain no harmful chemicals. The refrigerator runs on a gas deemed no threat to the atmosphere. Don’t ask what this kitchen cost. Some of you might be able to afford it, but you would choose this kitchen not because it makes the others look wasteful, or pays for itself in energy savings, but because you desire the LEED rating and the prestige that comes with it. Despite its advantages, this kitchen runs on energy, and the more you use it, the more it costs to store and prepare your food.
Kitchens perform, I’m trying to say, much more according to use than to design. The most energy efficient kitchen is the one never used. The most energy extravagant kitchen is one that is used to prepare foods at high temperatures, that consumes large amounts of water and energy for cooking and washing, and that keeps the fridge door flapping constantly while things are taken out and returned to cold storage. The best kitchen, to sum up, can be either one, two or three from our discussion, according to how it’s used. The best kitchen, actually, is the one used by the smartest cook.