California Code for space btwn countertop & cabinet? Need help!

michellelovesbeesDecember 12, 2012

We are doing our first ever remodel (kitchen) and having major issues. One of the upper cabinets was installed today and it was not the same size as our previous ones. They are 36" so they are currently 60" from the floor and the contractor is telling us that the spacing is 21" with granite because "that meets california code which is 20-24". Our previous cabinets appear to have been 42" (even though he's saying they were 39", but that seems wrong based on old holes & paint lines).
Is there really such a code? All my research is indicating that standard top cabinet should be 54" from floor and standard spacing is 18". As of right now, as an average woman of 5'5", I can't even use my upper cabinets! My husband is 6'2" and he feels uncomfortable w/ the height.

We're to have a talk in the morning with him. He expressed over text message though that this was "his bid". As I said, we're new to this and well, don't have any parental units we can go talk to about this. Could really use some advice before our "talk". We did not get copies of the plans with our contract so I cannot tell you if it said 36" in them. Even so, isn't it a reasonable expectation that all cabinet space should be usable?

We didn't just pick this guy off the street. He did a friend's kitchen and did a great job. He seems to have a good body of work, but man. I just am so worried that we're going to get screwed here. :( Our kitchen is VERY small. We need all the usable cabinet space we can get. It's bad enough that he didn't include a silverware width sized drawer in the design, but completely unusable upper cabinets? :( Well, this pregnant lady is freaking out.

Thank you so much in advance for any help you can provide.

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There may be a code concerning the distance between the cooktop/stove and the upper cabinet, but 20-24" between your counter and the uppers is ridiculous. I might buy that number for over the stove. 18" is a standard measurement for the distance over the counters, but it's not hard and fast. With 36" uppers, they need to be set down to give you that 18" (ours are closer to 17"). Honestly, nobody does 20-24" for the exact reason you cite - they're not useable if you can't reach them.

If the GC keeps insisting that the taller number is code, you just keep saying stuff like, "Those cabinets are so high, I can't even use them. It's hard to believe that high would be code. Could you show me where it says that?" You could even volunteer to call your Planning Dept. and ask the question. Sounding like a broken record is very useful in this case. Don't get angry, just insist that he either back up his assertion or move the cabinets down to an 18" gap. Remember, he isn't doing you a favor, he's your employee completing a job to your satisfaction. Moving the cabinets down to 18" is not that big of a deal and he just needs to do it.

P.S. Regardless, you're going to need to plan to have a step stool vs. dragging over a chair to reach the top couple of shelves.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 9:31AM
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i was just going to say the same thing....he must be talking about over the cooktop.

In my home, built in 2000 in CA, the low point in the cabinets (light valance), its 18.5". we have a vent under cabinet doors, so its hidden, and looks like its flush with the other cabinets over the cooktop. My coffee pot and mixer have about an inch to spare so I like this distance and will do it again on the house we are remodeling.

you need to plan that you cant reach the top shelf. you can use the space, but need a stool to each it.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 9:39AM
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I'm in Calif. and he's pulling that one out of a dark recess. What would be the point? What about appliance garages that are basically cabinets sitting on top of the counter (zero clearance), usually made of granite?

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 9:42AM
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Been a licensed CA contractor for over 30 years, and I've never heard of such a code. I'm not saying one doesn't exist, maybe it's a regional thing? Next to range or cook top is usually specific to the appliance mfg. Uppers at 18" above counter is pretty standard, unless an owner or designer dictates otherwise. 60" off floor will be more like 23"-24" above your base cabinets, not 21". Maybe ask to see the code, or ask your city building inspector.
...very odd that you do not have copies of your plans

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 9:44AM
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Did he make your friend's cabinets with 21 inches of space? If he did then he just doesn't know what he's doing. If he didn't, he's just giving you some bs so he doesn't have to change cabinets that he hung incorrectly.
Don't let him intimidate you. That is too much space between counter top and cabinets. Did your previous cabinets have crown molding. They could have been 39 inches with 3 inches of crown making them a total of 42 inches. They still should have been about 18 inches above the countertop.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 10:05AM
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The space between counter and cabinets is custom, not code, except around the stovetop as others have mentioned (which is determined by the stove manufacturer's specifications). 18" is considered standard now, but it used to be 15" or so. This changed as appliances populated that space; if you keep a tall appliance like a stand mixer on the counter, a taller space is necessary. I don't, and when we built our kitchen recently, I chose 16" for easier upper cabinet access (I'm 5'1"). I do keep a toaster oven on the countertop, and 16" gives plenty of room for both the oven and air space above.
Maybe your GC is feeling uncomfortable with how much shorter your new upper cabinets are than your old ones, and is trying to place them higher to deemphasize that. But the 36" was your choice (we did 39" instead of 42" to save money), so maybe you could reassure him about that so he'll be more at ease about lowering them. (My guess is that his contract did specify that the uppers would be 36", but probably didn't say how high the space above the counter would be.)
Also, it sounds like with the cabinets hung lower, there might just be enough space that you could come back later and add a row of cube-like uppers above the 36" (I love that look, especially when they are lighted glass-front cabinets).
He should definitely not try to charge you extra for rehanging the uppers, though, as 21" is not standard (unless, surprisingly, it's specified as such in your contract).

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 10:51AM
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Just call your city planning department. It is a free call. There is usually a code for distance between cooktop and the cabinet above (this is usually a fire safety type code. I do not have cabinets over my stove and my hood is 30 inches from cooktop. The uppers are 18 inches from the countertop. I am in bay area and I just passed inspection.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 10:51AM
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Thank you so much everyone for your input. You made me feel more confident about having this conversation this morning.

Grown pants were put on and a conversation has been had. He kept swearing that it was standard, that 21" is code, and a bunch of other BS. In the end, I think what happened was he wanted us to have crown moulding up there, we said no, and he didn't adjust the cabinet height and spacing accordingly on his plans. In other words, he screwed up and he will be eating his mistake. Not us. Our friends send a LOT of work his way and I think he'd hate to lose those referrals. Luckily, we had a picture of me standing in our old kitchen and you could clearly see that my head came over the first shelf so that I could easily reach the first shelf and the front edge of shelf #2. As of right now, I can barely reach the front edge of these 36" shelves.

We clearly just told him that we want 42" uppers, just like we had before. Not lowered. Our kitchen is TINY. We cannot afford to lose that upper shelf space for pitchers, tall bottles, etc. Grumpy whispering is coming from the kitchen and grumbling about how he cannot return the 4 36" upper cabinets... but it seems like he is moving forward to make us happy. Time will tell.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 12:02PM
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Hi hypersparkle,
I would do as GWlolo suggested. Call your planning department. Then have the conversation w/your GC.

You have to be in control so that you do not get taken advantage of, and believe me, I am speaking from first hand experience. I have been taken DEEP, at a very high cost - because I believed and wanted to believe in my GC. I was completely taken advantage of.

So once you have the information from the building dept, I would also say at that time, "before we go any further, I need a hard copy of all plans so we can be sure we are on the same page." You NEED to have EVERYTHING in writing!!!

Good luck.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 12:34PM
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Good on ya, Hypersparkle! Recite Blfenton's mantra to yourself:

My money
My reno

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 12:41PM
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I live in CA and in our new kitchen the space between countertop and upper is 18". I picked the standard distance and my contractor didn't say anything. The old kitchen had 16" space between the counter and upper and it was built in 2000. I think they would have adhere to the code in 2000 if there is one.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 4:20PM
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Really?! He's going to swap out the 36" for the 42"? I didn't even think that was on the table, so I didn't even suggest it. Glad to hear it, because you'll be much happier. The top shelves are handy for stuff like the angel cake pan and Christmas cookie plates and other holiday items that get used once a year.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 7:37PM
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@Suzanne - Yup! He already did it actually and some are installed. He wasn't happy, but he did it. We love the top shelves. As avid cooks with a small kitchen, there is always a need for space. We really did not want to lose 6 inches.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2012 at 8:11PM
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