The Kitchen That Ate the House

Earlier this year, builder/architect Mohamed Hadid put the final touches on a 5,000-square-foot space in Beverly Hills, Calif., with whitewashed oak and limestone floors, hand-carved crystal chandeliers, two flat-screen televisions, a dining table that can seat 16 and a large couch overlooking a sleek gas fireplace. The space, which opens to manicured gardens outside, isn’t a new estate home. It’s a kitchen.

Long the de facto central gathering space of the home, the kitchen has ballooned in size in recent years to become the new great room. At the highest end, some are over 3,000 square feet, outfitted with walk-in refrigeration rooms, multiple seating areas, wet bars and fireplaces, with fixtures and décor intentionally designed to look like hip living rooms. In some cases, much of the actual cooking is being relegated to a second, smaller kitchen space, so that the main kitchen can be used for entertaining—minus the unsavory dirty dishes or cooking smells.

“The hierarchy of the home is changing,” says Mick De Giulio, a Chicago-based designer who is currently working on a 1,500-square-foot kitchen in a client’s roughly 5,000-square-foot Detroit Lakes, Minn., weekend home. “People’s lives today are more kitchen-centric than ever before.”

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average floor area of the kitchen has increased by about 50% from 1973 to 2007, when the average kitchen size topped out at 303 square feet, or about 12% of a home’s overall space. Though it decreased slightly during the housing downturn, to 298 square feet, the amount of floor space dedicated to kitchens showed an uptick in the fourth quarter of 2011 amid the housing market’s tepid recovery, according to the American Institute of Architects Home Design Trends Survey.

The trend is partly driven by a shift toward a more casual lifestyle, where people often want to prepare food with company either watching or helping them cook the meal. Joanne Hudson, a Philadelphia-based kitchen designer, says she also attributes the trend to more people cooking at home for health reasons—as well as wanting to show off the latest in increasingly pricey commercial-grade home cooking appliances.

As a result, builders and architects say space they once allotted to formal living rooms and dining rooms is now reserved for the kitchen-centric great room. Jeffrey Collé, a Hamptons-based designer/builder, says his latest custom homes include “country kitchens,” open spaces that include large casual living rooms. One house he has on the market for $8.95 million in Wainscott, N.Y., has a nearly 1,400-square-foot kitchen great room with hardwood floors, a fireplace and informal family and dining area, as well as a pantry, powder room and outdoor cooking area. It takes up almost half the square footage of the home’s ground floor.

To address things like cooking odors and dirty dishes, designers are also incorporating a smaller “dirty” or “wok” kitchen near the showpiece kitchen. These are elaborate butler’s pantries where the actual cooking often takes place or where dirty dishes can be shuttled away.

“Everyone likes to be seen cooking, but they don’t want to be seen cleaning up the mess,” says Malibu, Calif., architect Doug Burdge.

Joan Marcus-Colvin, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based New Home Company, says in addition to making kitchens larger and more attractive, her company has begun adding wok kitchens and butler’s pantries to many of their new designs, partly to appeal to Asian buyers who are used to the two-kitchen set up. (Korean buyers, for instance, may use the smaller kitchen for pickling kimchi or frying chicken to avoid having the smell permeate the rest of the living space.)

Then there are people who do little cooking at all. Lars Voelkel, the CEO of German-based kitchen-designer Poggenpohl, says company research has found that although people are requesting larger, more open kitchens in high-end homes, they’re actually cooking less for themselves, instead buying ready-made food and eating it at home or preparing foods socially with friends.

Others may be living a more formal lifestyle—with personal chefs preparing and serving most of their meals. They may still want a showpiece kitchen for dining with friends. Miami-based designer Jeff Howard says he’s currently designing a Miami Beach home for a client with a great room built around a sleek-looking kitchen. Most of the real cooking, he says, will likely take place in a “prep” kitchen downstairs meant for staff, which can send prepared food up on a dumbwaiter. The owner “will have this clean-looking kitchen, but all the slicing and dicing is downstairs.”

High-tech gadgets, like ovens that can be controlled from a smartphone are also changing the way designers think about kitchens, with an increasing amount of devices for homeowners to show off—or hide behind cleverly designed cabinets. Steam ovens, which heat foods quickly, have become somewhat standard in high-end kitchens, designers say.

Whitney Fitzgerald, the owner of a wholesale food company, recently gut-renovated her 6,000-square-foot Glencoe, Ill., home. Per her designer’s suggestion, she decided to convert an oversize two-car garage into an 700-square-foot kitchen.

When her designer, Mr. De Guilio, first showed her the floor plan, she says she was “hesitant” about the kitchen “kind of creeping into the house…and taking over the whole home.” But now that space is completed, she says she and her family of four “live in that room,” spending 90% of their waking time in the kitchen area, which has wide-plank hardwood floors, vaulted white-painted wood-panel ceilings, an office alcove and a seating area decorated with a plush, cream-colored couch and armchairs.

Mr. Hadid says his 5,000-square-foot kitchen “is like a whole apartment…. You put one bedroom next to it and you’re done.” In addition to seating and dining areas, the space also includes a walk-in-size glass-doored refrigerator, a commercial-grade walk-in freezer and a butler’s pantry. The home has an asking price of $58 million; it’s in escrow.

Kitchen sprawl has also trickled down to more moderately priced homes. Mass builders are now offering new model homes with their largest, most open kitchens ever. Steve Ruffner, the president of KB Homes’ Southern California division, says the company introduced a kitchen/great room model about five years ago, replacing the formal dining room in many homes. Last month, the company rolled out its largest great-room-style kitchens in Irvine, Calif., which connect to outdoor kitchen areas on the patio. The homes are priced between $600,000 and $1 million.

Toll Brothers, TOL +0.38% the country’s largest luxury-home builder, says its most popular home model, the Columbia, now has the option to include a 440-square-foot kitchen, up from 180 square feet two or three years ago. The New Home Company says kitchen sizes, on average, account for about 15% of its homes’ total floor plans in a typical 4,800-square-foot model, up from 10% of a similar home’s plan seven years ago.

Investing in a major kitchen remodel in an upscale home costs $111,000, on average, with 57.4% of the costs typically recouped in a resale, according the most recent annual Remodeling magazine report. That’s down from 85% recouped in 2005, near the market’s peak.

New York-based real-estate appraiser Jonathan Miller says kitchens generally account for the most expensive square footage of any home, but investing in a remodel typically pays off when it comes to resale—except when homeowners “go overboard” on the cost of fixtures and materials relative to the rest of the home. For example, it would be difficult to recoup the cost of a $150,000 kitchen in an otherwise modest, one-bedroom apartment.

Ms. Hudson, the Philadelphia designer, says the largest kitchen she has ever designed was 2,400 square feet for a client’s summer home on the Jersey Shore—”bigger than most people’s apartments,” she points out. Recently, another wealthy client requested a steak-grilling system for his home kitchen that he saw in a Paris restaurant, which involved a piece of meat dipped vertically over an open flame. Such kitchens, she says, are also a way for homeowners to “look as if they’re gourmet cooks with the latest and the best.”

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