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What is a Modular Kitchen? Pros? Cons? History

A modular kitchen has huge benefits for many homeowners these days. If you’re thinking of investing in one, but want to understand the pros and cons, look no further! We’ll look at the fascinating history of modular building, and all of the benefits and downsides of this type of construction.

Example of a modular kitchen


What does modular mean? Modules refer to units that can be composed together to complete a form, whether that be a kitchen or a couch. The units can be independently created, modified, replaced, or exchanged with other modules or between different systems. Think of it like building blocks or lego for a child, where pieces can be moved and rearranged to create different arrangements. The world modular derives from the latin “modulus”, and the word itself has spiked exponentially in use since the 1950’s, which makes sense, as that is the turning point post World War Two when it started to be employed as a design method on a larger scale. In the past, modulation was a word that referred to mathematical practices, referring to small measures or amounts.

History of Modular Design

The origins of modular buildings date back to the 1600s, or so some say. One of the first reported modular homes was brought to life by a colonial American fisherman who had recently moved from England and wanted a home built with trusted English construction methods. The solution to this was to have a disassembled home shipped by boat across the Atlantic Ocean. This, however, could also just be considered prefabricated building and not in fact modular. Modular construction and prefabricated construction are different but often overlap — Prefabricated construction consists of any structure designed and produced in a factory prior to building.

The origins of the mass market variety of modular design that were popularized in North America weren’t until the late 1800’s. In 1897, E.F. Hodgson opened a manufacturing plant in Dover, Massachusetts which profited from the rapidly growing American population. Then, the E.F Hodgson Company catalog became a household name for selling modular homes across the country. Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward soon followed in their footsteps and sold hundreds of thousands of modular homes over the next few decades. Following World War II, the US faced a housing crisis with the return of soldiers from war who were starting families: modular construction offered quick, low-cost housing options to house a new generation of Americans. From the beginning, modular buildings have provided innovative and affordable solutions. Again, these homes were prefabricated, but there is still debate as to whether they are in fact modular. Some, instead attribute the beginning of modular home building to the iconic architect uckminster-Fuller, whose flexible housing experiment of the 1920s and 30s, the Dymaxion House, came with things like  notably advanced prefabricated bathroom modules.

The first construction of a fully modular home system did not come to fruition until 1933, with the Winslow Ames House by Robert W. McLaughlin. Modularity then spread across the United States, but mostly in the form of interior solutions, as opposed to the entire structure of the home itself. This is where things like modular couches and kitchens came into play. Experimental mid-century modern homes began to burgeon onto the scene, with affordable materials, and a space-age inspired aesthetic.

In Canada, one of the greatest successes of modular experimentation was the prefabricated modular megastructure by Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67, built for the Exp 67 in Montreal. Today, it has become luxury condos, while at the time, it was built for the very purpose of housing many people at a low cost.

This style has further developed into the micro-apartment, a housing solution with origins in extremely high density cities such as Hong Kong, has spread to cities in the US, with a notable projects in New York and Seattle. Projects such as My Micro New York, consist of prefabricated 313 square-foot modules assembled on a steel frame on-site.

History of Modular Kitchen Design

A modular kitchen is one that is constructed with units that can be dismantled and moved, meaning that shelving units are not constructed as one whole cabinet. 1961 saw the launch of “Gloria”, the first modular kitchen in polyester lacquered wood made by Snaidero. The domestic appliances were built into the kitchen: what were once simple storage units now became wonderfully equipped cabinets arranged around the contours of the room. The rise of these product designs came with a wave of marketing geared towards a new American way of life. It was about economic development, and expansion, and a growing accessibility of upper middle class lifestyle mobility.

Modular kitchens, and design in general, has expanded a lot since then. The great advances in technology during the 1990s and 2000s inspired a new generation of architects to return to the concept of experimental modular housing. Improvements in computer rendering led to innovative manufacturing concepts like the Klip House, whose computer-designed parts could be snapped together like LEGOs. On the other hand, mid century modern design has continued its legacy: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House was featured in a catalog of popular midcentury-Modern kitchen trends. The home’s layout offered the perfect means through which to show off the open-plan kitchen, whose rise to popularity in the 1960s has continued to this day.

Usonian House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Usonian House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Now, if you’re looking to install a modular kitchen today, it’s important to understand all the ups and downs of this system. Let’s delve into the gritty details.

Modular Kitchen Examples (Photos)

Modular kitchen in pieces before installation

Modular kitchen example

Modular kitchen example

Modular kitchen example

Modular kitchen example

Pros of a modular kitchen

1. So much Choice!

Modular kitchens come in so many different colours, finishes, shapes, and materials. Your kitchen is your oyster, so to speak, when designing a modular kitchen. In addition, if you so choose, in the future you can always swap out some parts if your tastes change over time. While some people find so much choice to be overwhelming, it can also be a real benefit. While having variety, a modular kitchen is pre-fabricated, so once you make your choice the parts will be made for you.

2. Space Saving

One of the major upsides of choosing a modular kitchen is their unique ability to save on space, with customized storage solutions. Some modular kitchens can come with special slide out racks, and compartments within drawers and cabinets that can be interchanged. On the other hand, some are modular themselves, meaning that each cabinet unit can be moved and interchanged. Because you can tailor them to your space, they will also usually have space-saving solutions like corner racks and drawers that would usually end up wasted.

3. Durability

Often, modular kitchens are built to last. It does depend greatly on the price point and the quality of the kitchen company you select, but there are many that will last you a life-time. Modular kitchens are created from core materials that are very durable and resistant to borers or termites. The core material is usually made of high-quality plywood or MDF that is boiling water-resistant and does not bend or warp over a long period of time.

4. Easy to Install

Usually around 5 days is given for Modular kitchen setup, making it more than double the speed of any other kitchen model. Modular kitchen assembly takes 2 days but 3 days are kept as spare for any changes to be done due to Modular kitchen setup. On the other hand, renovating a basic kitchen to Semi-modular kitchen, the job can be completed in 12-15 days time. So, if you are tight on time, and also want a project that is possible to do yourself without any real woodworking skills, this may be the right kitchen for you!

5. Sleek Look

Most modular kitchens have a very sleek modern design, and their compartments help to declutter, keeping your kitchen looking neat and clean all, or maybe most of the time. At the same time, if you are more traditional in your aesthetic leanings, there are modular kitchens that can be made with traditional finishing, more antique aesthetics, or rustic finishing. So, this does really come down to taste. Predominantly, modular kitchens are fabricated in a modern style, as they are speaking to a desire for modern functionality. If that’s what you’re going for, you will love a modular kitchen.

6. Easy to Clean

The simple construction of the modular kitchen, and high quality materials make it easy to clean. With their smooth and water-resistant surfaces, these kitchens are simple to clean. All one needs to do is periodically wipe down the cabinets and counters with a mild detergent solution to get rid of grime and dirt. In addition, they are designed in a way that every tiny crevice can be accessed, so they’re extremely easy to clean and maintain. Since these systems are almost entirely collapsible, the skirting and other accessories of a modular kitchen can be easily removed to ensure thorough cleaning or repair. In addition, Modular construction reduces waste and site disturbance compared to site-built structures. So, even in its construction, it is clean and efficient.

Cons of a modular kitchen

1. Delicate

Sometimes, because they are built in units and pre-fabricated, the structure can be a little more delicate that one that is built structurally as a whole. If you’re looking for a kitchen that will last generations, and stand up against a lot of hard use, you may want to look into solid wood and steel, and other options that are built as a whole structural unit. At the same time, for most people’s modern day purposes, a modular kitchen should stand up to the job.

2. High Maintenance

Some say that modular kitchens can be high maintenance. There are a lot of parts and components that allow it to function as it does, like hinges and wheels, and racks. Therefore, they have more change of these components breaking over time and needing to be replaced. The benefit with this system, however, is that the parts are readily available and should be fairly easy to replace.

3. Expensive

Modular kitchens on the whole do tend to end up being more expensive than a regular kitchen build, mostly because of all the customized components. You want a functional and beautiful kitchen, but depending on the materials you choose, it can be significantly more or less pricey. Some view the kitchen as the centre of the home, and are thrilled to spend the money to get their space feeling high quality and beautiful. Some, on the other hand only want a kitchen that will allow them to cook at not much of a cost and time expenditure. So, if you do choose to economize on materials, and have a smaller kitchen, the modular system can work really well as a cost saving method. On the other hand, if you want to splurge and have the kitchen of your dreams, with exceptional organization, go for it!

4. Potentially not a unique design

Most modular designs, as outlined earlier, are also pre-fabricated, meaning that they are made by a company, and usually they make more than one of that design. The way you customize your kitchen will make it uniquely yours, but you may go over to someone’s house for dinner and find they have the same cabinets finishings as you. If uniqueness is a priority for you, the modular kitchen may not be the right one for you. On the other hand, it does offer the opportunity to customize without the cost and time of working with a contractor.

The history of modular design is connected to movements in design and architecture that were tied to socio-economic conditions at the time, like the post World War Two economic boom, and then the suburban development in the 1960’s. Designing our surroundings to be adjustable and customized to our needs is a really beautiful invention, and has provided so many with upgraded comfort and joy in their spaces. If you’re thinking of buying a modular kitchen, hopefully this helped you sort through all the details and make an informed decision!