All in the Family

In one sense, kitchen design can be compared to “Star Trek.” After all, both will always be a part of the “Next Generation.”

Indeed, if designed correctly, a multi-generational kitchen can be enjoyed by several different generations right now, and also continue to function efficiently for generations to come. This is more important than ever, as changing family demographics and continued economic challenges are increasingly creating households with multiple users of different ages, sizes and abilities.

Michael Kienzl, president of Bradco Kitchen in Los Angeles, CA, explains: “In today’s economy, more than ever, households are multi-generational. College students and even graduates are returning home rather than spending money to live on their own. Meanwhile, elderly parents are moving into their children’s homes to cut expenses for the entire family. These changes in lifestyle certainly bring about challenges for today’s kitchen designers, who must create spaces that work for these new, multi-generational households.”

Patti Boyd-Bowles, owner/interior designer of Fairfield, IL-based B-Way Design & Decorating, notes: “Effective multi-generational design is about creating a safe, functional and aesthetically pleasing environment. It’s important to incorporate safe designs that address our clients’ needs and their limitations or disabilities.”

Bruno Pasqualucci, CMKBD, of Mohawk Kitchens in Stamford, CT, adds: “It’s a matter of [designing the space so that] items are located at the point of use, or even having multiple utensils and accessories to allow each person his or her own work station. The best way to make sure that client issues are addressed is to look at the clients’ priorities and then look at the space from ‘outside of the box.’”

Boyd-Bowles adds: “All kitchen designs should incorporate Universal Design principles. You may be thinking of your children’s use now, but in a few years, your aging parents may be living with you. If you plan now, adapting later may be less stressful.”

Safety & Ergonomics

Of course, ergonomic and safety issues must be addressed.

“The key to effective multi-generational kitchen design is to include multiple heights for wall cabinet storage, work surfaces and tabletops, and appliances such as the wall oven, microwave and cooktops,” says Stephen Klassen, general manager for Affinity Kitchens in Scottsdale, AZ.

He adds that it is also important to have multiple prep zones – mainly to allow more than one cook at a time, but also to make it more convenient for those who must work while sitting or standing.

Boyd-Bowles adds: “Designing for ergonomic accessibility should be the first priority. Consider using varying heights of appliances, and cabinet accessories for safety and ease of use.”

She notes that this is a good idea, even if the home only includes frequent visits from young children or the elderly. One multi-generational project Boyd-Bowles completed was designed for a couple whose grandchildren often visited.

“We placed the microwave at a height accessible for smaller children to use,” she says. “We also designed several large, full-extension drawers to accommodate snacks and pots and pans.”

She notes that an island was designed to incorporate an undercounter refrigerator and icemaker for ease of use by the grandchildren. At the end of the island, counter-height barstools provided seating away from the cooking area. Martha Kerr, CMKBD, of Lake Oswego, OR-based Neil Kelly Co. Design/Building Remodeling, also cites a project where frequent visitors necessitated a design that would accommodate multiple users from different generations. “We designed a kitchen that had to accommodate a family with three growing girls who were very much a part of the everyday kitchen activities. Grandparents visiting from the East for several months at a time also participated [in cooking and food prep]. We used undercounter refrigerator drawers located next to the microwave drawer to allow each generation to be utilizing the island counter to prepare a snack or meal, while the full-sized refrigerator and ovens on another wall provided space for the primary cook to work there at the same time.”

Other safety features recommended by Boyd-Bowles include microwave drawers, side-open ovens and appliance locks on ranges and ovens.

“We’re also seeing an increase in induction cooking,” she says, noting that this can help prevent burns to careless fingers. “Hands-free faucets are another great tool for ease of operation, while undercounter drawer refrigerators are great for small children, and great for storing quick drinks and snacks,” she adds.

Large or oversized handles or pulls on appliances also add value, as they can help someone with arthritis.

Pasqualucci points out that it’s important to “be aware of the principles of Universal Design. Don’t think it just means disability. People who have bad backs or vision that is less than 20/20 can benefit from some, if not all of these principles.”

Kienzl adds, “It’s important to consider all of the ergonomic factors a specific family might require, such as using faucets with wide-levered handles so that people with limited dexterity in their hands can operate the faucet easily and without pain. Or, you may want to lower the cabinet height for a sink cabinet so that handicapped persons in wheelchairs can have access.”

Ease of Care

Easy to care for cabinets and surfaces can be a valuable addition to a time-strapped, multi-generational household, particularly for those in the “sandwich generation” who are busy caring for both young children and elderly parents.

Boyd-Bowles says she is seeing more requests for clean lines and slab-style cabinet doors that not only look good, but also provide easy maintenance.

Kienzl agrees: “Many of our clients are requesting easy-to-clean and durable cabinet doors. We recommend staying away from high-gloss cabinet doors, which are easy to scratch.” Kienzl also suggests using urea-formaldehyde-free cabinets, as well as selecting finishes and adhesives that are made with low or zero VOCs, as these not only provide long-term safety, but can also help minimize problems for those with breathing disorders, allergies or chemical sensitivities.

Pasqualucci notes that the right countertop material is equally important. “We’re seeing an increase in engineered stone, partly due to the more consistent color tones, and the built-in, antibacterial properties that offer a lower maintenance of the surface,” he says.

Kerr states: “Multi-generational kitchen users are often looking for very durable materials. In that sense there can be two or three users at the same time, so tough cabinet finishes will hold up.”

She adds that solid surface countertops “are a nice option, as they offer a seamless installation, are easy to clean and are very repairable.”

Meeting Storage Needs

According to Boyd-Bowles, there are numerous ways to meet the varied space and storage demands of a multi-generational kitchen.

“Islands are a wonderful tool in a kitchen – if space allows,” she says. “Not only does an island create an additional work surface, but it also provides valuable storage. And, an island can also create an area where children or adults can sit and interact.”

She cites a recent project designed for a family with two small children, where the island was critical to the overall design. “The client wanted an island in her kitchen so her children could sit in the kitchen while she prepared meals.

[We created] a small, narrow island that provides a lot of extra storage and finished the back of the island with wood and glass tile. We also installed down lighting, which provides mood lighting while it enhances the design,” she says.

Kienzl continues: “I would also suggest using soft-close cabinet doors and drawers to prevent children from smashing their fingers. Safety latches should also be considered on lower cabinets, especially those cabinets storing cleaning products.”

Boyd-Bowles also recommends doors and drawers with soft close features and full extension, both for safety and accessibility reasons.

“The keys to a successful multi-generational kitchen [include] storage accessibility, appliance accessibility, appropriate counter heights, proper passage space and lighting,” adds Kerr. “We approach this type of kitchen the same way we would a two-cook kitchen – trying to meet the needs of each user, while providing plenty of space for all to co-exist.”

She favors storage drawers for dishes, located at a lower height than traditional wall cabinets to provide greater accessibility.

“Very accessible storage from the floor to 54" off the floor is most welcome,” she notes.

“There are fantastic innovations that can [boost storage], such as shelves that pull down and doors that pull up, as well as drawers that open with the push of a button,” Klassen offers. These, he notes, can maximize space while catering to all family members.

Lighting the Way

Another critical design element for multi-generational kitchens is the inclusion of proper task and ambient lighting, designers agree.

“Lighting plays a major role in the kitchen and can be comprised of many forms,” says Boyd-Bowles. “Not having proper lighting for an aging client can be a major safety concern. In addition, task lighting, such as undercounter lighting, performs as a point-of-service light, and can provide mood or night lighting as well.”

She points out that sharp color changes on different surfaces or surface edges can distinguish areas for those with poor eyesight.

“If older generations have an active role, proper lighting designed so they can easily use the space efficiently is a major consideration,” Pasqualucci agrees.

Klassen adds, “Lighting must be adjustable and flexible to handle the variety of activities that will happen in the multi-generational kitchen. To that end, you may have different lighting systems throughout the kitchen, such as pendant lighting, can lights, under counter and over counter lighting and interior cabinetry lighting.”

Ultimately, the whole design must be flexible in order to work for different users. As Pasqualucci notes: “Understanding what the particular client’s needs are will be the primary start to any project. Although there may be similarities, each family’s situation is individual, since you are trying to blend different needs into one space.”

He concludes: “It is important to be sensitive to the family’s needs, but the space still needs to fit and function properly. [The key is to] brainstorm and offer suggestions, and allow your clients to think about their options.”