Kitchens & Baths: Integral Spaces

Rhode Island Home & Design Magazine

October 2010

Integral Spaces

By Ivor Hanson

At first blush, kitchens and baths could easily be considered near-opposites.

Kitchens, after all, are gathering places, the true living rooms of many homes, while bathrooms are places of privacy, if not escape.

Even so, they do share similarities regarding water, storage, and counters, just as they matter greatly in the ultimate success of a home.

But before diving into creating or re-working a kitchen or bathroom, it’s worthwhile to bear in mind the approach that architect/builder Todd Stunk, founder of the six-year-old Little Compton-based firm, Sixteen On Center, takes at the start of any major project.

“When a customer tells me the job is a total gut or re-do,” Strunk says, ”I take one deep breath, and then think: What does the space need? What does the space want to be?”

In other words, just as a musician gives himself over to a song, or a novelist lets her characters lead the way in developing a story, architects, builders, and homeowners should ideally work toward letting kitchens and baths define themselves.

It’s not about imposing; rather, it’s about realizing what’s there, and improving upon what’s at hand.

“You don’t want a check-list of elements, where, say, you’ve got to have a round window in the room, no matter what,” says architect Gale Goff, who earlier this year started her own Newport-based practice, Gale Goff Architect, after spending twenty years at the noted firm of Estes/Twombly. “You don’t want architectural clutter, or architectural noise. Nothing should jump out at you, nothing should scream at you.”

Such clutter and noise can begin simply and understandably enough as jotted-down wish lists. But they can get out of hand.

Goff recalls when the Diane Keeton and Jack Nicholson movie, “Something’s Got To Give” came out in 2003, how, suddenly, seemingly everyone just had to have their own “’Something’s Got To Give’ House”, a quintessential Hamptons beach house, picture perfect, no surprise.

Jacob Talbot, whose twelve-year-old firm Jacob Talbot Fine Homebuilders is based in Adamsville, has some ready advice for such compilers and wish-listers.

“Kitchens and baths can’t be a combination of all the things you’ve ever seen in magazines,” says Talbot, who apprenticed with his father, Dennis Talbot, a long-time leading custom homebuilder and restorer. “It’s all about what works in the space.”

So what constitutes a great kitchen or bath space?

Strunk, Goff, and Talbot all stress that for kitchens and baths, light – preferably plenty of natural light! — is key, so that a true connection exists with the outside, be it a patio, a yard, an ocean, a field.

Regarding kitchens specifically, the “working triangle” of how the sink, fridge, and stove all relate to each other is paramount.

“Kitchens are a lot like puzzles that need to be put together, that need to be solved,” observes Goff, “with a lot of geometry to line up.”

Part of what defines the kitchen equation is what kind of kitchen a client wants.

In a recent home that she and Talbot worked on, since the clients described themselves as “kitchen people,” they made sure that the kitchen was the focal point of the house.

Goff notes that in kitchen design it almost depends on what stage of life the client is in. Newlyweds? Parents? Retirees? Each period can easily have its say, its impact.

“Kitchens don’t have to be one room, they don’t have to be everything,” says Goff. “It just depends if you want the dishwasher and the TV to go together. It’s a real lifestyle choice.”

Whatever role the kitchen ultimately plays, it needs to have good flow, with multiple entrances to allow for flexibility, as well as lots of storage.

Goff is a fan of floor-to-ceiling storage, preferring it to a long row of overhead cabinets. And while she describes herself “as a bit of a minimalist,” Goff stresses that if you choose to go down that path, whereby a great deal of pots, pans and plenty else will be hidden from sight, that decision can easily lead to design challenges.

Strunk values what he calls the “farm sink” quality of a view out the kitchen window, for beyond bringing in more natural light, it enhances (or at least distracts) from a daily chore.

“Who wants to stare at a sink of dirty dishes?” Strunk asks. “Not many.”

As for bathrooms, Strunk strives “to make a bathroom a bathhouse,” while making sure that such spaciousness (or the feeling of spaciousness) does not undercut the room’s necessary intimacy.

“Everyone needs some alone space,” Strunk says, “a safe haven, a retreat. At the same time, you don’t want to feel isolated.”

Strunk, Goff and Talbot all stress not just the importance of light – even a skylight if that’s possible — but also of glass.

Mirrors, preferably large ones, can make a small room feel larger and lighter, but also allow for you to truly see yourself.

Further, by reflecting light, Goff points out, glass allows for a lot of “sparkle.”

“Bathrooms are very personal spaces, very special places,” she says. “You don’t’ want to be stuck in some hole.”

Strunk pursues that personal dimension by always trying to have light “come at you onto your face.”

A big believer in recessed lighting, Strunk likes how recessed “cans” allow the ceiling to remain a flat plane.

“Lighting helps indicate a moment,” Strunk says. “It captivates a person, like candles do.”

As a final note on bathrooms, Jake Talbot offers up some playful, but insightful advice:

“Don’t forget space for the tub toys!”

And since plenty of kitchen sinks at least occasionally serve as tubs for the little ones, that spot-on bit of wisdom can easily apply to that room as well.

Ultimately, as one goes about a gut job, a tweaking, or new construction, open-mindedness is essential.

“You have to be flexible and be able to shift away from initial thoughts and ideas, as you hone in on your goal,” says Strunk. “Every job, every room, is its own monster, its own entity.”


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