Are “Standard” Kitchen Design Dimensions Practical?

At the dinner table on Sunday, my family and I got to talking about kitchen design. {Surprise, surprise!} I recently had a client who wanted to mount their wall cabinets higher than normal, and my sister has a Facebook friend who is currently going through a kitchen remodel and has been sharing pictures. My sister was sure that she had more than the usual space between her counter and the wall cabinets. So we ended up having an in-depth discussion about the standard dimensions in kitchen design.
My parents’ wall cabinets, which my dad built and installed himself
What exactly is “STANDARD,” anyway?
  • Base cabinets are 34-1/2″ tall, and 24″ from front to back (without doors)
  • A finished countertop height is typically about 36″ above the floor (based off a 1-1/2″ counter thickness)
  • Wall cabinets are mounted at 54″ off the floor, or 18″ above the counters.
  • Wall cabinets are typically 30″, 36″, or 42″ tall, and 12″ from front to back (without doors)
kitchen guidelines visual.jpg
Original source unknown; Saved from a discussion on

What makes these measurements accepted as standard is that they’re the guidelines used by cabinet manufacturers. If you use different dimensions and mount your wall cabinets too low or too high, they won’t line up with tall cabinets or appliance garages. You may also have interference with your appliances.

In this design, the wall cabinets and pantry all run to the ceiling. We finished it with crown molding the whole way around the room.

As many of you probably know, the standard ceiling height is 8′. For decades, wall cabinets were most commonly built 30″ high to accommodate a 12″ soffit above them. This would take everything to the ceiling {54+30+12=96,” which is 8′}.

In recent years however, soffits have not been popular. People either prefer for their cabinets to extend the whole way to the ceiling, or they allow an open space above the cabinets to decorate. When using “standard” cabinet sizes,  you will run into various dilemmas when choosing your wall cabinets. For example; How do you incorporate crown molding? This post by does a good job of discussing your options.

It’s becoming more common to see 9′ ceilings in new construction homes. In that case, this is how the cabinets might be placed. {Note: The wall cabinets are still hung at 54″ above the floor.)

Kitchen Elevation1
A recent kitchen design of mine for a room with 9′ ceilings

As an individual who has designed kitchens and sold cabinets for about 9 years now, all of these numbers are burned in my memory. I have studied the NKBA guidelines and use them regularly. If I had the time and money, I probably would have taken the exam to become a certified kitchen designer.

But… are these “standard” dimensions even practical?

These guidelines, which came into use in the 1930’s, are based off the average kitchen user being 5’7″ tall. We know that most women are shorter than that, and most men are taller. So if I have a client who is 5′ tall, they will only be able to reach the first shelf of their wall cabinets. In that instance, should I even design wall cabinets into the kitchen at all? What if I’m working with an NBA player who would bump his head on a 7′ ceiling?

I run into instances all the time where both NKBA guidelines and standard cabinet sizes go right out the window. I still know them and try to follow them as best I can, but sometimes you just can’t follow the rules. If you’re working with a mobile home or an old house, sometimes you don’t even have a 7′ ceiling to contend with. Let me tell you, odd ceiling heights can really mess with “standard sizes,” but I run into it all the time!
Final - Perspective2
In this recent kitchen design, the ceiling height is a couple inches under 7′. In order to give them the look of a tall cabinet, I had to stack wall cabinets on top of one another and use a finished shelf in between.
Many people will tell you to do what feels right for you in your kitchen. Others will tell you that anything other than “standard” will not meet code, especially pertaining to appliances.
The measurements for this kitchen were provided by the homeowner. He did his own installation, too. Although they loved the finished room; if I had known about the 4″ space between the crown molding and ceiling, I probably would have made the wall cabinets taller.
Most NKBA-certified {and even non-certified} kitchen designers that I know would defend these standards aggressively. However, if you disagree with them, you can easily find articles that argue against the ergonomics {“ease of use”} of these measurements. People who focus on accessible and ergonomic design will tell you that the correct countertop height is NOT 36″. In addition, they will say that wall cabinets should not be spaced 18″ above the surface of the counter. StarCraft Custom Builders has an excellent {and very in-depth} article about kitchen design, and why it actually makes much more sense to design residential kitchens based on principles used in commercial kitchen design.  Read it HERE.
Applying “standards” to humans who do not come in “standard sizes” in order to create a kitchen design that is functional and beautiful is quite tricky. It doesn’t matter how many guidelines we use or rules we try to apply. The bottom line is always that we’re here to serve the individual client we’re working with. You know the slogan in restaurants and retail, “The customer is always right?” Although this slogan may not apply to design 100%, the homeowner IS the one paying the bill, and they will be the ones using the kitchen when it’s completed. If this means lowering the countertop or wall cabinets by a few inches so they can reach them, then I say, GO FOR IT!

Published by CDH Designs

I am a Mom and self-employed Interior Designer. I own a small design studio & home decor shop in downtown Emporium, PA. It’s a small town in the PA Wilds of north-central Pennsylvania. We have some of the most beautiful scenery, and Fall (my favorite season) is breathtaking. I blog for fun to keep my friends and clients informed of what's going on in the design and decorating world, to share my designs, and to show what we're working on in our own home.

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