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Built-in seating gets you more out of your kitchen

By Annie Schwemmer and Ann Robinson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Nov. 16 2012 2:56 p.m. MST

Before: This common 1970's kitchen/dining setup is efficient; yet, clients often report the kitchen is congested, the dining area cramped, and people rarely sit at the bar because there isn't room between it and the table.

Brent Murray, Renovation Design Group

Last week, we started our kitchen remodeling series in honor of Thanksgiving — the holiday with the most time spent in the kitchen.

Beyond Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings, modern families are actually spending more time in general in the kitchen. The kitchen has become command central. It is not only a place to store and prepare food, but also serves as a place to gather, visit, eat, do homework, sort mail, pay bills, surf the Web — you name it. More and more activities are being crammed into a space not originally designed for such a workload.

If space is tight in your kitchen or if you would just like a change for the fun of it, one solution to consider is a built-in seating area. These come in a variety of options and may be just the answer to create more gathering space in your kitchen.

A common built-in option is counter seating. Originally, this was only a support area to the more formal dining areas in the home. It was considered "kids’" seating — a place to serve a quick bowl of cereal or a peanut butter sandwich. But in some situations today, with the trend toward eliminating the dining room altogether, counter seating has become the main family eating area, mom and dad included.

The traditional height for counter seating is 36 inches. You can also raise the seating portion to 42 inches, leaving the rest of the counter at the lower height. This configuration may help you screen less-than-perfect work areas of the kitchen.

The chairs that serve counter seating have also evolved. Simple stools have long been available, but now you can get a variety of dining chair styles with longer legs. You should plan a minimum of 2 feet per chair when determining how many your counter will seat.

Counter seating is not conducive to great dinner conversation if the family or guests are just lined up in a row. If you have the space, counter seating can also wrap around two sides of the counter. Or you can even extend the end of the counter so you have seating on three sides — sort of a hybrid of counter seating and a table.

Another option for built-in seating is a banquette, which is essentially booth seating. This feature was popular in the 1940s and is fashionable again today. The banquette can have a table with built-in seating on two opposite sides, or have a bench against one wall with chair seating on the other side, or it can be some other variations such as an L-shaped or U-shaped benches.

This type of seating is conducive to casual, intimate meals. You can also incorporate cushions or pillows for back support, along with comfortable upholstered seats. Wonderful options for stain- and moisture-resistant fabrics are available these days, making this an opportunity for adding color and texture to your décor.

In addition, the benches of a banquette provide an excellent prospect for additional kitchen storage — something we are all seeking. Lift-up lids can be awkward if cushions and pillows have to be removed for access, and cabinets require one to lie on the floor to reach inside. A much better option is to provide drawers. The table may have to be moved a bit for full access, but these are nifty places to store lesser-used items.

The banquette arrangement takes up less overall floor space than a freestanding table, allowing a dining area where a traditional table and chairs would not fit. However, it can be limiting because diners have to slide into their seats and can become "trapped" once everyone is seated. If you have an especially long bench for seating, using two smaller tables will allow for easy access to the middle of the bench.

Let’s not forget the ever-popular window seat as an option for additional kitchen seating. Though this is not designed for meals, a window seat provides a great hangout spot for children or friends of the cook. It is also a wonderful spot for browsing through recipe books or visiting while the cookies bake. Again, drawers under the window seat provide convenient additional storage. A window seat can be added to the exterior of the home, often under the overhang of the existing roof, so it actually adds square footage to the room. Make sure the depth of the seat is at least 24 inches — 36 inches is even more conducive to comfortable lounging.

Additional kitchen seating may not even need to be built in. One of my favorite kitchens has a love seat at the far end under the windows overlooking their lovely backyard. This is a favorite spot for one or two family members or friends to gather, sip tea, read the paper and relax.

As you expect more and more from your kitchen area, you'll need more creativity and vision to make it all work. Alternative dining styles may be one way to get more function out of your existing space.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the Principal Architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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