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Kitchen Specialist

Several factors come into play when choosing a countertop height.

photo: The Kitchen Specialist Inc.

A tall order

Adjusting countertop, cabinet heights to suit your home

by Mary T. Liebhold, CKD


The holidays are a distant memory. The crowds, parties and feasts of winter have given way to the everyday world of early spring. This is the time of year when many homeowners re-evaluate their kitchens — the center of life in a home. If a full remodel is in order, then there’s a variable that’s often overlooked as plans are made.


Mixing the materials of the cabinetry and countertops in different areas of the kitchen has become common in many different design styles, but changing heights is not only a potential plus to a kitchen’s visual design — it’s also a safe and healthy choice that should not be ignored.


The long and short of it

Various cabinet, appliance, and countertop materials are considered carefully either as a straight replacement or as part of an entirely rearranged and perhaps enlarged space. Countertop height often is assumed to be a fixed dimension, not a variable, but gourmet and casual kitchen uses should be quite different in size and function in order to perform specific tasks comfortably and safely. Several factors have come into play that allow for more choices than in the past.


Ranges — ones with the oven and burners combined — typically are only variable in height by an inch or two. Years ago, many kitchens switched to separate ovens and cooktops, but the standard 36-inch height for countertops remained the same. Gas cooktops themselves then changed — with heavier, thicker and higher burner grates — and cooking surfaces could be another two inches higher. For shorter cooks, working at that height often meant the inability to see into a tall stockpot, not to mention an uncomfortable reach to stir and move rear pots.


These days, a separate cooktop without an oven below it can be installed in lower cabinetry to match the end user’s comfort level. Care should be taken, however, to maintain adjacent counters at this lower height for a safe distance on each side of the cooktop, preferably a minimum of 15 inches.


Lower counters have been specified for some time as a baking center and are effective for most cooks when using large mixers and processors. This lower height makes it easier to see to the bottom of the bowl and keep shoulders dropped to a comfortable height while scraping. Chopping at a lower height, as well as rolling pastry and kneading bread, also allows for a more ergonomic body position and less fatigue.


A good stretch

Conversely, taller clients often consider raising countertops above the standard. Bending is difficult for some, and an extra inch or two of countertop height can make quite a difference when preparing a meal.


When a sink is mounted underneath a standard countertop, the bottom of a deep sink can mean uncomfortable bending while washing pots and pans. The depth of the sink should be considered in combination with the height of the countertops.


The height of upper cabinets and the space between the counter and the bottom shelf should change to suit the homeowner as well. Most people can reach the first shelf, but the juice glass on the back of the second shelf could be out of reach for some. By the same token, a taller user might visually lose the full depth of a work counter if the upper cabinetry is too close to the counter and in his or her line of sight. This is why mocking up different countertop and upper cabinet heights is important during the planning stages.


Varying the heights of built-in appliances also should be considered. Double or single separate ovens can be placed so that the upper oven can be accessed safely across a hot open door. Microwaves, steamers, and coffee machines also should be placed for ease of use and cleaning.


Rest assured that a safe and comfortable kitchen is within your reach. 


Mary T. Liebhold, CKD, is owner of The Kitchen Specialist Inc. in Durham. To learn more, call (919) 490-4922 or visit