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The Virtual Kitchen: Computer-Aided Kitchen Design

Planning an overhaul of your historic kitchen? Get some help from an unlikely source: your computer.

By Tony & Celine Seideman

Check out other homeowners' remodeling solutions in our roundup of old-house blogs.

Colonial kitchen with IKEA cabinets
To create a timeless look in their kitchen, homeowners Karen Burghardt and Matt Witchger balanced out IKEA cabinets with butcher-block countertops and period-inspired hardware. Dwayne Freeman photo.
Karen Burghart's 50-year-old kitchen was housed in a 100-year-old addition to her 150-year-old house in Peekskill, New York. The room was bedraggled and weary and inefficiently designed, so there was no doubt that she and her husband, Matt Witchger, needed to do a complete redesign. Their challenge? Coming up with a plan that effectively used every inch of available space and reinforced the charm of their pre-Civil War residence.

Karen had done the usual homework of visiting kitchen cabinet designers, builders, and stores, but the prices were stretching her budget beyond its limits—and besides, she couldn't get a real sense of what her dream kitchen would look like.

But through Internet research, Matt and Karen came up with an unexpected solution: IKEA. Although much of the selection at the Danish big-box store was more suitable for a cutting-edge office park than a historic home, Karen and Matt were able to track down a few cabinet styles that, with a little adjustment, could fit right into the style they were trying to create.

More important, IKEA had something else: a sleekly designed, easy-to-learn "kitchen planning tool" that allowed the couple to preview their kitchen on the computer before they ever spent a dime on cabinetry. Karen was thrilled with its capabilities, which allowed her to mix and match different style combinations on a three-dimensional digital model of her kitchen.

"It was fun to use," she says. "You can drop things in and take them out really easily. It makes it tremendously simple. If you want cream cabinets, click your mouse. If you want brown, just click again."

And, as opposed to previewing cabinets in a store, the possibilities are virtually endless. No store can stock every single combination possible, Karen points out. "Even though it's cyberspace, and it's not perfect," she says, "it made a huge difference when we were designing our kitchen."

Period kitchen planned with IKEA kitchen planning software
Using the IKEA software's 3-D view allowed Karen and Matt to see their new kitchen before buying cabinets.
Software Solutions
There's a reason why pencil and paper have become passé in the world of architecture and design: Computer-aided design systems are making it easier than ever for people to take raw concepts and turn them into detailed representations of what they want. Not only are computerized drafting programs faster and more efficient, but plans created using standard platforms like AutoCAD also can be shared easily between different parties involved in the renovation process.

"When I first came here about six years ago, they were still drawing everything by hand," says Randy Thoms of Stamford, Connecticut-based Kitchens by Dean. "Now, we have an AutoCAD system in both of our showrooms and four or five AutoCAD draftspeople in place."

Like most things in the digital world, the variety and complexity of the different programs available can make choosing and dealing with kitchen design software difficult. Adding to the challenge is the fact that there are untold numbers of kitchen cabinet brands, styles, types, and moldings—not to mention a vast number of appliances, too. In general, though, kitchen design software can be divided into three basic categories:

Business-oriented packages. In the software world, one program often comes to dominate an industry, and architects swear by AutoCAD (the acronym stands for computer-aided design). While firms may still do basic layout sketching by hand, "We pretty much do all our drafting in a CAD format," says Stephen Tilly of the respected historic architectural firm Stephen Tilly Associates. "We'll also use programs like Adobe Photoshop to help people visualize materials and color and lighting," he adds.

Purely professional setups such as AutoCAD provide detailed layouts that are wonderfully useful for architects, but consumers might find them confusing and frustrating. In part, that's because AutoCAD is targeted at a professional market, so it has none of the shortcuts or simplifications that characterize consumer-oriented packages.

AutoCAD designs also are made to be read by professionals, which means they're usually 2-D and thus won't give the same sense of visualization to those who aren't used to reading architectural drawings.

Then there's the final professional-level roadblock: price. AutoCAD lists for $1,200—a pretty hefty sum for the average homeowner, considering the steep learning curve for people outside the design industry.

Basic consumer-oriented packages. Fortunately, the basic features of AutoCAD have been scaled down into user-friendly, consumer-oriented packages that allow you to create similar layouts without the extensive training or steep price tag. Although these programs are usually easier to learn than AutoCAD, it's helpful if you have some familiarity with computers and design software.

One of the more important attributes to watch for when choosing a consumer package is whether it can work with symbol libraries. Many cabinet manufacturers have created libraries of symbols that are compatible with key programs so users can plug in symbols that represent different sizes, shapes, and styles. This will allow you to skip the difficult and time-consuming experience of individually drawing each cabinet.

"The more specific you can get, the better," advises Laura Hammond of Hammond Interior Design, which has offices in New York and Pennsylvania. "If you can go online and find a symbol—say, for a particular brand of an oven range—that's an important factor."

Product-specific kitchen design packages. Yes, it's free and easy to use, but the IKEA program used by Karen and Matt comes with a very specific, very deliberate limitation: It only works with IKEA cabinets. Users cannot create new cabinets or insert cabinets from other manufacturers. If you want any shape, size, or type of cabinet that's not in IKEA's inventory, you're out of luck.

"You're sort of stuck with whatever repertoire is built into the software," Tilly says. This can prove especially burdensome when it comes to dealing with older homes, which often have unusual layouts that demand creative solutions beyond the capabilities of product-specific packages.

"The software can push you toward conventional solutions that may not be appropriate for the historic house you're working on," Tilly says.

Another problem is that plans generated in product-specific packages may be easy for consumers to understand, but lack the specific measurements and symbols required by professionals. "You can't get the kind of elevation details you want with a drag-and-drop program," explains Thoms.

On the other hand, you can't beat the free price tag—especially if you're just starting to dream about redoing your kitchen.

Regular OHJ contributors Tony and Celine Seideman are working to restore a 1903 transitional Victorian in Peekskill, New York.

Check out other homeowners' remodeling solutions in our roundup of old-house blogs.

Start a discussion on this article in our old-house forum!

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