Our kitchen is small by any standard but it works for our needs. It’s just the two of us and our cooking and food prep are modest. We wanted more counter space but there wasn’t room to add any in the kitchen itself without creating an awkward bottleneck at both entry points. Instead, I opened up the wall next to the stove and borrowed twenty-two inches of floor space in the adjacent living/dining room for a countertop with base storage underneath (photos above and below). Although it’s a modest addition, the impact on the feel and utility of the kitchen was huge. The two spaces are now visually connected with an easy sense of flow between them. 

While trimming out the new counter and yes, my finish carpentry skills leave much to be desired, I could see a way to develop this niche (photo above).  As a dead end corner, this space could have become an eyesore of small appliances and tangled cords. This small cubby for the coffeemaker  provides a home when it’s not in use and keeps things organized and clutter free. The filters are kept in a drawer below and the coffee is within easy reach from the nearby pantry. All it took was a little forethought and some simple woodworking to greatly enhance the usability of the space.

Architects and designers live and breathe this stuff. They’re trained in ways to support people in their lifestyle through the design of the built environment. Once you’ve experienced a space that was designed with your specific needs in mind, a generic room will never be the same. What I want you to take away is that we can apply the same lessons to layout design. All we have to do is learn to see the opportunities. Here’s an example: 

A Layout Is More Than A Track Plan
We know that operating schemes come with a growing list of  paraphernalia such as car cards, uncoupling devices,  schedules, handheld throttles, etc. Most of us pay little attention to how and where this stuff will be used in practice. We default to card racks, throttle holders, narrow shelves, hooks, all attached to the front fascia, where, more often than not, it gets in the way. (Supposedly no one has adequate aisle space to avoid snagging this stuff.) Barring that, the paperwork usually winds up on the layout where it doesn’t belong because there is no dedicated space to process it. 

 Often times there is a shallow depth structure flat at the front of a scene. The aisle side is often a plain panel that matches the fascia, with an empty void behind it. 

Since that hollow volume of space is already there, why not use it in support of your operations by turning it into a work station for the paperwork.  The example in the sketch would work well for larger scales like S or quarter-inch, because those scales can easily feature a large flat with generous surface area. HO or N could at least support a simple card rack for whatever system is currently in vogue.  

 An aisle side building flat could become a useable workstation in larger scales. If a building isn’t appropriate, then a simpler design may do (See the sketch below). The key is to consider the function that needs addressing and provide a space to make that task easy and intuitive.

The key is learning to see spaces like this and the ways they can be put to use. Yes, it takes more planning up front and a bit more construction, but the resulting increase in utility and operator comfort speak for themselves in my view. If a structure flat isn’t appropriate this work surface could be built into a hillside or other scenic feature. 

We know how to deal with track arrangements, but often leave other critical processes to chance or squeeze them into awkward nooks and crannies, thinking we’ll just make do. Design thinking is the process for dealing with how things function as much as how they look. The principles are there for the taking by anyone willing to learn them. 

Here are some thoughts to consider:

What do I want to happen here?  (Better question: How do I want to work here? (Do I have to spread out a bunch of cards for sorting to make sense of the moves required; what about the other stuff in my hand? What happens to it while I’m switching this spot?)

What do I need to make that outcome happen?

Where will the paperwork and other tools go while I’m here? 

 Why should they go there?

Before adding more space, is there existing space that isn’t being used to the fullest? Example: Is there space beneath the track for a storage cubby or niche to put stuff while you’re in this location?

If so, what could I do with it to enhance the experience of the layout?

These are just a tiny sampling of the non-obvious questions designers use to understand a problem and shape a solution. 

 We’re conditioned to think in terms of adding space and sometimes that’s the route to follow. I’ve learned however, that using the space you have more efficiently often results in a better solution. Treat this as food for thought and make it your own. 


Designing Your Thinking Part Two: Frameworks