One Size Won't Fit All

New-home buyers have an array of options for outfitting their kitchens: carpet, tile and cabinetry as well as the standard and upgraded offerings of countertops and appliances. Why so many choices? Because the kitchen is the most important room of the house, where one size never fits all.
By Wendy A. Jordan and Cheryl Cullen | May 31, 2006

[Kitchens] Off the Beaten Path
[Designing] to Win
[Wooing] with a 'Wow' Kitchen

New-home buyers have an array of options for outfitting their kitchens: carpet, tile and cabinetry as well as the standard and upgraded offerings of countertops and appliances. Why so many choices? Because the kitchen is the most important room of the house, where one size never fits all.

Home buyers' choices in the kitchen are largely aesthetic and have little to do with how the space will be used. Appliance manufacturer KitchenAid decided to delve into consumer expectations for its kitchens and found that buyers have a pent-up desire to create a space that serves their individual lifestyles rather than fashion something identical to their neighbor's. According to KitchenAid, home buyers can easily identify lifestyle needs, even if owners may not be able to afford them all. For some, cooking ranks as most important; others point to baking. Then there are those who don't have time to cook and want to prepare meals fast. And some homeowners who want their kitchens for entertaining.

KitchenAid is using these findings to work with builders to design kitchens with four different lifestyle options so home buyers receive a semi-custom kitchen:

  • Cooking/preparation
  • Cooking/baking/kids
  • Gourmet cooking
  • Cooking/entertainment

Distinguishing each zone is the appliance offering, the cabinetry and the countertop surfaces (including the height of the counters) and the lighting.

The Cooking/Preparation Kitchen

A kitchen devoted to fast food preparation would have an abundance of pantry-style cabinets or what builders are now calling super cabinets. These highly efficient cabinets are deeper and offer more shelving, including shelves on the inside of the door. They also feature pullouts to hold a variety of items. "Homeowners would tend to find these offerings in a custom kitchen, but in a builder-grade kitchen, they would be an upgrade," says Mark Johnson, FAIA, manager of architecture and design marketing at Whirlpool.

The Cooking/Baking/Kids Kitchen

A kitchen built for baking and kids would include a lower, 30-inch-high countertop, so it is easier to work with ingredients. The countertop would be offered in stone or a man-made material to facilitate rolling dough. Instead of overhead cabinets, there would be open cooling racks to keep the countertop clear. This kitchen will also include a double convection oven.

The kid zone would also have a lower countertop space, or it would include a low table where kids could do crafts and homework or play games. A popular item there is an under-counter refrigerator drawer.

"We try to keep the kid zone outside the main work triangle," says Johnson. "By giving these buyers a refrigerator drawer, they don't have to walk into the busy work triangle to get soft drinks or boxed juice."

The Gourmet Kitchen

The cook's kitchen would have a combination convection oven with built-in microwave, cabinetry with a cutlery drawer and an under-counter dishwasher drawers to handle the array of pots and pans. Over-the-stove pot fillers would add functionality, making it easy to fill large pots without having to move them to the sink.

Faucets come in a range of pull-down and pullout styles. Some are as high as 16 inches, making the job of washing large pots, pans and other dishes easier.

"These faucets allow the user to take the water to the work and reduce the clutter of deck-mounted accessories by combining spray and stream into one portable wand," says Ed Detgen, director of marketing for Danze. This manufacturer recently introduced the Parma Dual kitchen faucet, a single unit that can be operated by hand or hands-free, particularly after touching grease or raw meat. In addition to keeping the faucet cleaner, the added functionality makes it easier to use.

"Faucets are becoming the 'jewelry' for the home," says Judy Riley, Moen's vice president of design. "Homeowners really want them to be the centerpiece of a room. They use them to express their decorating style."

Likewise, sinks are being designed for both looks and function. Kohler has introduced a new double-sink with a low saddle so cooks and bakers with oversized pans and cookie sheets can soak them.

The Cooking/Entertaining Kitchen

Kitchens built for dinner parties and entertaining guests would include a built-in under-counter icemaker and more than one dishwasher, as well as warming drawers. The latter, when directly under the countertop, can become part of a buffet serving line.

"Put serving spoons in the metal trays and leave the drawers open for guests to help themselves while everything stays warm," Whirlpool's Johnson explains. "When they are empty or you're through serving, you simply close the drawer."

A bar sink is another feature of the entertainment kitchen, providing a water source without having to go back to the kitchen sink.


Like KitchenAid, Merillat has adopted a proactive approach to understanding what consumers want. To that end, the company recently conducted research of its own to gain insights into the motivations and preferences of new-home shoppers when it comes to cabinetry.

"Our study looked at where people store their pots and pans, silverware, trash, etc.," explains Paul Radoy, Merillat design services manager. "Which items are difficult to store now? What can you do better? Where do you put the mail? Do you drop it on a corner of kitchen table or counter? If so, even creating a little mail drop can be a good idea. It can be as simple as a basket on a shelf or under a cabinet."

Consumers love pantries, Radoy says, a reason Merillat offers a 36-inch-wide pantry that can be fitted with slide-out trays for owners to store small electronic appliances that often clutter the countertop.

Pantries can be built-in or stand alones. Whether the pantry is a closet-type or a walk-in, today's cabinet makers consider all that can be stored there — foodstuffs, wine and small appliances, as well as extra storage for soft drinks and dog food.

"Kitchen islands are no longer one-size-fits-all," says Lisa Kalmbach, senior vice president of the KB Home Studio in Los Angeles. "We are preparing option packages with different island and seating configurations, plus customizable bells and whistles, such as wine racks and shelves for cookbooks or collectibles, to meet the diverse needs of our customers."

Under the sink, homeowners want a slide-out basket to tote cleaning supplies and a tilt-out sink tray to store sponges. "Most folks usually focus on aesthetics, but when remodeling or buying a home, they forget to think about the function," says Radoy. "Later they say, 'Gee whiz, these things really can make life easier.'"

High Design at Affordable Prices

High-style kitchen trends don't have to mean high prices for home buyers. Many faucet, fixture, cabinet and lighting manufacturers are focusing on producing high-style products at affordable prices. "Homeowners can have kitchens with the in-style looks of homes featured in the most chic magazines yet without breaking the budget," says Kalmbach, adding that KB Home Studio features lighting fixtures and faucets designed by Michael Graves.

As long as manufacturers' keep offering new kitchen options, builders will keep offering them to the home buyer. For some builders, there will be certain options that won't be offered due to price, but that's how the top builders will keep up with the latest kitchen trends.

Author Information
Wendy Jordan is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose articles have appeared in Professional Remodeler. Cheryl Cullen is a Frankfort, Ill.-based writer whose articles have appeared in Professional Builder and Custom Builder.


[Kitchens] Off the Beaten Path

Kitchens generally remain in the center of the home, but several builders are designing differently. "We always want our kitchens and family rooms to orient toward the rear of the home," says Jeanne Stott, vice president of sales and marketing for MBK Homes in Irvine, Calif. "It's that tie-in of the kitchen and casual dining area that it has with the family room and the tie-in with the rear of the home.

"In Southern California, the indoor/outdoor living is a big thing," says Stott. "It's not just the kitchen in the home anymore — it's the outdoor kitchens. We may not build outdoor kitchens yet, but showing in the models how it can be done is important."

MBK isn't the only builder transitioning to outdoor kitchens; Toll Brothers and T.W. Lewis of Tempe, Ariz., have several models with outdoor kitchens. Toll Brothers displays outdoor kitchens surrounded by a sitting area with a television and a swimming pool. More recent models even feature pizza ovens within the outdoor kitchen. T.W. Lewis focuses on tying the outdoor kitchen into the interior of the home as a secondary kitchen space.

Designers sometimes place kitchens in locations typically not associated with cooking. Toll Brothers' architects, for example, have designed a master suite with a kitchen. "It's more of a lifestyle issue," says Joe Lisiewski, regional manager for Toll Architecture. "Some of our houses are larger. It's quite a hike to go from the master suite back to the formal kitchen."

[Designing] to Win

Although creating the right advantage over competition doesn't always come easy, being privately owned versus publicly owned can add advantages. "We're not as large of a builder as many of the Giants are," says Patrick McGlone, director of architecture for T.W. Lewis, a privately owned company. "From a management standpoint, we have a lot less layers in the decision-making process. If we feel there's a trend we would like to capitalize on, we're more agile than other builders.

"We're able to make decisions quickly and respond quickly," says McGlone. "In our design center, we've changed out some of our kitchens several times. If we feel there's an opportunity to demonstrate new trends or ideas, we'll just go ahead and do so."

SummerHill Homes is another privately held builder with a similar philosophy. "We can make decisions relatively quickly," says Tad Holland, vice president of marketing for SummerHill Homes in Palo Alto, Calif. "I think changes can happen very quickly over other builders because we seriously look at our competition. We're finding out what their buyers are really asking for, and we're take our products and fine tuning them."

For public builder Toll Brothers, winning competitive advantage means doing what private builders aren't while developing unique kitchen designs within different areas of the home Toll Brothers offers kitchens within the master bathroom suite or outdoor kitchens in courtyards as well as in the backyard.

Kitchens seem to be the area where home buyers want to spend their upgrading dollars, and offering them many options can win them over. Some builders showcase these options through design centers, while others cover the options in their models. "They do want choice, but they don't want to be overwhelmed," says Jeanne Stott of MBK Homes in Irvine, Calif. "They expect you to have thought things out and make them easier and efficient."

SummerHill Homes approaches the home buyer after figuring out exactly what they want in advance. Planning for an options program takes about a year.

"We really try hard on the packaging of the options," says Stott. "We try and offer higher-end products. We're starting to offer granite as a standard feature, instead of an upgrade."

T.W. Lewis offers a design center where the home buyer can customize and personalize. Three fully designed kitchens display all the options a T.W. Lewis kitchen can offer. "It's a good way to show how it's really going to look when they're looking at blue prints or a picture," says T.W. Lewis purchasing manager Brian McInerney. The company also offers standards like granite countertops and custom cabinetry that other builders sell as options.

The bottom line: if builders draw the home buyer into a kitchen loaded with quality standards, a plethora of options and upgrades, and a design that makes sense, they're more likely to make the sale. Offer the home buyer what they want by researching the targeted market first. "The kitchen is one of the big memory points, " says Holland. "

[Wooing] with a 'Wow' Kitchen

In 2004, Merillat conducted a two-phase research project to understand new home shoppers' preferences and behaviors when shopping for a new home. The first phase, "Model Behavior: How people act, think & shop in a model home," found new-home shoppers are more likely to have a high perception of the home and the builder if the kitchen "wows" them with upgraded features such as cabinetry, high-end appliances, higher-end countertops and ceramic or hardwood floors. With this information, Merillat categorized model home kitchens into two groups, Super Model kitchens or "wow" kitchens.

In the first phase, Merillat set out to determine if a Super Model kitchen could truly provide builders with a competitive advantage. To do so, Merillat had to understand the role of the kitchen in the new-home shopping process from a functional and emotional perspective; assess the characteristics of the model home kitchen that are of the greatest interest to home buyers; and determine the impact of the model home kitchen on the overall attitudes and opinions of the home and the home builder.

Findings proved shoppers spent 62 percent more time and interacted more with the features in a Super Model kitchen (1 minute, 8 seconds in a conventional model versus 1 minute, 50 seconds in a Super Model), and 54 percent of shoppers who visited a Super Model kitchen had a higher perception of the builder and were more likely to buy a home from that builder.

Phase two took place in 2005. "Model Behavior II: How people act, think & shop in a model home," measured and observed new-home shoppers' reactions to comparative model home kitchens. All the homes in the study were similar in square footage, price and shopper demographics.

Merillat hopes the research findings will allow builders to increase repeat visits to their model homes, sell more homes at higher margins, strengthen home buyer satisfaction ratings, differentiate model homes that are far and above those of their competitors, and increase the likelihood new home shoppers will buy from them.