Part seven of the Luxury Travel Trailer guide series.
My wife and I have been itching to get away and re-capture some of that adventure and exploration we have so missed during 2020. As a couple working in the design world, finding unique and interesting hotels was something we always enjoyed. Being an architect, I’m particularly fond of an architecturally designed property beautifully curated with lots of amenities. After discussing the realities of a hotel experience in today’s climate, we decided on a somewhat local two-night getaway. The property we chose was a modest, modern boutique hotel with a collection of about 20 rooms set in the Palm Springs oasis.
Upon our arrival we were quite pleased – it was familiar. Except for the social distancing and mask requirements, everything seemed more or less the same since our last visit. Upon check-in, we were notified the dining facilities were closed due to COVID – that we expected. Over the course of the weekend, it struck Joanna and I just how vital a part dining played in our mini hotel vacation. What was previously extended evenings discovering new cuisine and beautiful environments was replaced with Grub Hub delivery in our room. It seemed oddly empty – still enjoyable, but not the same. Food in plastic bags, usually not warm, and while it met the need, it was in no way a luxury experience. For me, this really highlighted just how important dining was to the entire travel experience. I kept thinking back to all the years we traveled in our Living Vehicle and how much having our very own luxury kitchen with us wherever we traveled enhanced our day-to-day life.
Graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s School of Architecture, I quickly moved on to create an architecture firm focused on design-build interiors of mobile spaces. Over the last decade, I have designed and built literally hundreds of traveling homes. Nearly every custom project included a kitchen. I’ve personally lived-in houses of all shapes and sizes from an 80 square-foot van to a five-bedroom mountain estate (and everything in between). I have learned over the years that no matter how small a space is, there are common features that can make or break the live-ability and success of the kitchen. The kitchen is commonly seen as the heart of any home: gatherings of family preparing meals together, waking up for breakfast over coffee and so much more. It is with this article that I hope to share some of the lessons I have learned from my experiences when it comes to the best RV kitchen designs for small space living.
Here are six kitchen points to consider when looking for the best recreational vehicle kitchen.
Luxury appliances in kitchen design tends to be one aspect the RV industry focuses on time and time again. This seemingly demonstrates how capable and thoughtful their design team is – by giving you lots of RV kitchen accessories, stainless steel appliances, and other kitchen gadgets. As with all things, the devil is in the details, and I have learned that there is a very big difference in need-to-haves versus nice-to-haves. A lot of those seemingly nice-to-haves don’t really matter when it comes to full-time RV living. In order for a kitchen to function you need three very basic things: 1) the kitchen sink, 2) a stove, and 3) a refrigerator.
The kitchen sink should be deep and well-placed. This is by far where most kitchen activity occurs, and most RVs fall short. Remember, cleaning is a big part of cooking at home. Without a dishwasher, the sink becomes even more important. If a dishwasher is included, make sure the circulation around the kitchen is maintained when the door is down or the dishwasher is open. The dishwasher and sink should be very close to where you plan to store cookware, plates and silverware. If you are going from one side of the room to the other when washing dishes or emptying the dishwasher, it will become quite annoying very quickly.
The stove and oven are the true heart of cooking. Make sure the stove is directly adjacent to a good-sized countertop for food prep and ideally right next to the sink. When one person is cooking, it’s important that the sink, the open space countertop, and the stove should be on one continuous cabinet and within arms-reach. This space-saving design makes for very easy movement back and forth to the most-used kitchen appliances. It may seem so simple, but 90% of all RV kitchens I’ve seen have the strangest designs and do not function well at all.
The refrigerator should be as big as possible. Having lots of space to store fresh food and other perishable items encourages a “fresh-is-best” lifestyle. Make sure the freezer is large, as well. And an icemaker is a wonderful luxury if you’d like to make cocktails or other cold beverages.
There are so many other luxury amenities that will enhance the experience on a day-to-day basis and make the kitchen one of your favorite places for small space living. While these features are wonderful, the key here is not to get distracted with these luxury accessories and commit to a poorly designed kitchen. This can include a dishwasher, ice-maker, wine-cooler, instant hot water tap, water filtration, or any number of gadgets. The list really goes on and on. There are so many gadgets and built-in accessories these days that can enhance your experience, but can also distract from the key layout of what is important. So much more vital than an impressive spec sheet is where these appliances are located and how they will function on a day-to-day basis.
The kitchen is the heart of any home. I saw this amazing art project back in college where a student documented how people move about their homes. This was shown in a color-coded heat map overlayed on a floor plan. Spaces, where owners frequented most were bright red and those that were hardly ever used were dark blue and purple. The day-to-day movements were represented so clearly in a beautifully artistic way. In every home, it was clear the kitchen was the most popular place in the house, with every family member regularly passing through it multiple times a day. The formal dining room was completely void of activity.
With kitchens being used so often, the placement within the home is a key factor to the success. I have found centrally located kitchens that open easily to other spaces of the home encourage connection and flow between family members. Open spaces where families can come together are so vital to the connection of the family unit. Small daily opportunities where connections can occur strengthen the bond of togetherness. Kitchens should be centralized and open to as many other public spaces as possible: dining, living, and family areas. This will ensure the kitchen is used as much as possible and fosters connections with those who call it home.
My small space living companion and wife is a true chef. I have enjoyed many wonderful meals with Joanna. My architectural background combined with her real-life experience has led to some wonderful realizations about small space kitchen design.
When designing and cooking in a small kitchen, the concept of- flow becomes so important and even more so if there’s more than one person living in the home. There’s a simple concept for a kitchen design called the “golden triangle.” Imagine a top-down kitchen layout: cabinets, countertops, the works. Now picture the refrigerator, kitchen sink, and stove or oven and connect those three appliances together with lines. There you have it, a triangle. The proportions of this triangle are very telling about how well the kitchen will function in daily life. Those who are cooking tend to move between those three appliances regularly. If there’s more than one person in the kitchen at a time, (very, very common in my experience) it tells you how often those two people may be bumping into one another.
This is one of Joanna‘s pet peeves and rightly so – also dangerous. We carry pots full of boiling water, razor-sharp knives, and pans just out of the oven. Not exactly things you want to bump into someone with.
I’ve lived in galley-style kitchens with all appliances on one wall in a neat little line. No triangle to speak of. Whatever appliance is in the middle will be a constant point of intersection – an everyday kitchen capillary. This is the worst design possible as there is no way to get around other people in a kitchen. “Excuse me…” and “behind you…” are heard all too often in a poorly designed kitchen. The key is to look for a triangle that is as close to equilateral as possible – where the distance between each is equal. This provides plenty of space for circulation.
Even better, a centrally located island breaking up the triangle enhances circulation and workspace. The key is the island needs to stay rather small or else the very existence of an overly large island creates that dreaded galley kitchen layout all over again. In the end, the best kitchen design for family living can only be “so big.” Some of the most poorly designed kitchens I have seen over the years were in the most ostentatious mansions. They simply did not function.
As a complement to the refrigerator, access to dry food storage is a key. While not quite as important, it is still worth mentioning that how the three major workstations are accessed from the pantry, is also valuable.
We found that a pantry tends to get accessed most often at the beginning and end of preparing a meal – when taking food out, and then putting it away again. With this said, Joanna and I agree that a pantry should be easily accessed, and as close as possible to one of the legs of that golden triangle. If your pantry is around the corner, and several steps down the hallway or some other faraway location, those repeated trips to grab spices or small items will really add up to a big inconvenience. When considering a luxury travel trailer, I suggest laying out the sink, refrigerator, stove and pantry on the floor plan and consider how people move about the space on a day-to-day basis.
With the exception of tossing pizza dough, gravity requires that food preparation is almost exclusively done on flat surfaces. Mixing, cutting, blending you name it – without a countertop, it would be extremely difficult to put together a meal. Over the years, I’ve found one very common theme of recreational vehicle, travel trailer, or any other small space kitchen is the absence of any significant horizontal space for cooking. It’s as if the designers had a checklist of appliances and features that they needed to fit in and left out the need for any physical space to actually prepare the meal.
Joanna and I love cooking together. A minimum of two kitchen workstations/ prep spaces with at least 2-3 feet each of horizontal counter space is needed. Sure, one prep space might get a meal done if only one person intends on cooking at any given time. This is simply not the case in the real world as I have experienced. I don’t know if people tend to cook together, but one person who is cooking almost always can use the assistance of a companion who is cutting or helping in some way. Having a dedicated separate workstation for kitchen support activities will create practical cooking and connection with those who are sharing in the experience.
A third kitchen prep space is awesome if you can get it. This gives other family members or guests a space to hang out and visit while the chef is preparing the meal. The third space should be off to the side and not impede the primary circulation or golden triangle connecting lines, otherwise you’re likely to get a lot of frustrated family members.
In a previous article, I went into depth about storage capabilities of luxury travel trailers. Food refrigeration and pantry storage are essential to having a place to store cookware, pots, pans, mixing bowls and the all-important Vita-mix Blender.
When considering the cabinetry in a kitchen, I highly recommend opening the doors and drawers. You might be surprised how many of those drawers are actually just panels covering other systems or other hidden utility, such as a furnace or water heater. Just because you see a nice big deep cabinet drawer in a photo doesn’t mean there’s anything behind it. Make sure you have space for all these amenities.
Preparing a meal requires drawers that can hold at least two pots, pans and other cooking utensils, and they should be easily accessed and close by. As all of the spaces are designed to open and close often, take a look at that latch on the drawer or door itself. Make sure they’re designed to keep the drawer closed securely when traveling down the freeway. If the latch is plastic and looks like you could break it apart with a fingernail, chances are you will one day arrive at your destination only to find your silverware drawer and all the content spread across the kitchen floor.
Finally, we come to the dreaded kitchen cleanup! Joanna and I regularly laugh at how a dishwasher has many times saved our marriage. We simply do not enjoy doing dishes. After a meal is done, we are full, tired, and a couple of wine glasses in. Truly, the last thing I especially don't want to do is scrub pots and pans and wipe down countertops.
We have now discovered a style of cooking where we use the clean-as-we-go approach. Joanna is often cooking, so I support her with cutting, cleaning and tidying up along the way. Having a dishwasher makes this so much easier, so when something is finished it’s a breeze to simply open the door and place the messy item inside. If I only had a sink, I would be in the way during meal preparation.
What a wonderful feeling it is to take our plates and bowls at the end of a meal, put them away neatly in the dishwasher and with the push of a button grab that second glass of wine and sit back to enjoy the rest of the evening.
It’s key to recognize the active cooking it’s not an isolated event, either. When cooking at home bussers and cleaning staff are not part of the equation. So, a dishwasher is an Invaluable amenity, but there are other important – often overlooked – aspects of clean-ability.
All surfaces in the kitchen get dirty including countertops cabinetry and floors. It makes a lot of sense to have all of these be non-porous and easily cleanable. Waterproof floors will protect from spills, solid surface countertops that will not soak up red wine, and cabinetry that can be wiped down easily with a spray and sponge. I highly recommend aluminum cabinetry with an epoxy finish as one of the best surfaces. Not only is this lightweight but highly durable and is the same material used on the outside of vehicles. The faster you can clean the surface, the better a kitchen will function every day.
In closing, there’s so much more than meets the eye when it comes to the perfect kitchen, especially in a small space. A great architecturally designed kitchen goes well beyond having all those luxury appliances. Most importantly, how a kitchen functions is the most important aspect of what I would call the “Best RV Kitchen.” Kitchens are the heart of every home, no matter how small. Take your time and consider the details and with some of the knowledge I’ve shared with you today, you’re on a great path to finding that perfect kitchen to take with you, no matter where you call home!