- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

Kitchen islands have evolved from basic counters on wheels to elaborate centerpieces that provide more than merely storage for overflowing gadgets. The original concept of a central kitchen workstation remains, but the island often doubles as the social hub of the house. Builders and remodelers agree that the island has become a necessary fixture in today’s kitchens.

The popularity of this centrally located counter caught on in the past 10 years, says Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research at the National Association of Home Builders’ economics department.

“There is no question about it, the kitchen island is very desirable,” Mr. Ahluwalia says. “They used to just be in upscale homes, but now many average-sized houses have them.”

What is added to the island may be what separates basic kitchens from high-end kitchens. Mr. Ahluwalia says there are two distinct types of islands, one that’s just a counter and another with an eating and cooking area.

In addition to providing more work and storage space, today’s kitchen islands also are ideal serving locations for family-style meals and often include room for stools for seating.

Multilevel islands add interest and offer separate work spaces that help define the seating area as separate from the food-preparation or serving area.

Jenifer Bouchard, kitchen and bath designer with the Kitchen Guild, a kitchen design firm with offices in the District and Northern Virginia, says many of her clients request an island when designing a new kitchen.

“They usually want a function in an island,” Ms. Bouchard says. She has seen more requests for islands with an overhang for extra seating and islands that come with a second kitchen sink.

“A lot of people are also [installing] small refrigerators in islands for drinks,” she says.

As islands become more upscale, trends include adding convenience features such as a second sink, cooktop, warming oven — even a small dishwasher.

Designers say kitchen-island counters can match the rest of the counters and cabinets or offer a contrasting color, shape or counter material to create an exciting focal point.

Karen Trainor, managing broker with Weichert, Realtors, in Fair Oaks, says home buyers look for islands in the kitchen and sometimes look for those with upgraded materials such as granite or marble.

“They just look cool,” Ms. Trainor says. “Islands offer the whole nine yards, and people are doing more things to customize them.”

Dennis Melby, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, says an island is part of the whole package of a desirable kitchen.

“When buyers walk in and see a great kitchen island, maybe with a granite top and room for the family to gather, it just gives out a good feeling,” he says.

“Every year they improve them,” Mr. Melby says.

An island often reflects the homeowner’s personality and lifestyle. With so many features available, there is an island design to accommodate everyone from single people to growing families.

“The island usually has a purpose,” Ms. Bouchard says. “If you are an entertainer, then you are prone to have a lot of people hang around it for extra seating; or if you’ve got kids, it can be a space where they can sit and finish their homework.”

Comfortable kitchen interaction is key when designing a kitchen with an island. Ms. Bouchard says that because an island takes up a lot of space, sometimes designers are not able to fit one in a smaller kitchen. However, she says people often are willing to give up a side of their kitchen to accommodate an island.

Although there is no solid rule for size, design experts recommend that the island have enough space around it for people to maneuver comfortably in the kitchen.

The walkway between the island and stationary cabinets should be about 36 inches to 42 inches wide, according to guidelines posted on the Web by Kitchen Remodel Ideas (www.kitchenremodelideas.com). The Web site also advises homeowners to stack up empty boxes in the size and shape of the island to determine how it will fit in the kitchen.

Some real estate agents say home buyers focus on the kitchen when deciding on a house. An island can be a valuable attraction.

“It helps sell the home,” Mr. Melby says. He says buyers are pleasantly surprised when they see an island in the kitchen.

“People like to see kitchens that have islands versus just a functional kitchen,” he says. “It’s part of the whole package that helps to sell the home.”

The matter for debate is whether the island is a passing phase or here to stay.

“They are ‘in’ now, but who knows what will happen 10 to 20 years down the line,” Ms. Trainor says. “But the reality is there seems to be a lot of them in more houses, so they’re here to stay, for now anyway.”

Mr. Ahluwalia says islands are not going away.

In five to 10 years, just about every new house will have an island, he says.

“They are very popular; people love them,” Mr. Ahluwalia says.

Ms. Bouchard agrees.

“Once they get an island, they will always want one and can’t live in a kitchen without one,” she says.

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