Common Sense Crafts Attractive, Safe Spaces

The world is a dangerous place; your client’s home remodel shouldn’t be. We often seem to focus most on safety features for homes with children and the elderly, but safe design is a necessary consideration for any new project.

From range placement in the kitchen to providing plenty of grip surfaces in the bath, there are a number of ways to introduce safety into a remodel without having to sacrifice style.

“A lot of designers are ‘Yes’ people,” says Rob Bortell, designer at Albany, NY-based Modern Kitchens. “We’re here to do a job for our clients, and part of that job is to make sure we’re creating a safe, healthy space.”

Designers queried by Kitchen & Bath Design News agree that it is up to the professional builder, designer or architect’s expertise to set the tone for the client.

“Clients will tell you what they want, and then it’s up to you to assess the safety of the set up and introduce a better alternative, if what they want presents hazards,” observes Cynthia Radcliff, designer for Steamboat Springs, CO-based Thurston Kitchen & Bath.

Beyond that, says David Frym, owner of Northbay Kitchen & Bath of Petaluma, CA, “Every client is different, so no two jobs ever look alike. It’s critical to assess the safety needs of your client before beginning to design.”

Kitchen Caution

The kitchen, with its various hot surfaces and electric appliances, is a natural place to begin any conversation about safety between designer and client.

According to Bortell, adding children into the equation means carefully considering the placement of the range.

“I don’t believe in putting the range on an end,” he says. “In a lot of new houses especially, in builder-type configurations, the range is often found on an end, and if kids are running through the kitchen, that’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Bortell acknowledges that designing the range placement is easier in a new construction, but dismisses the notion that it is impossible in a remodel.

“If it is a small kitchen, I’ll put the range on a 45 degree angle. You waste a little bit of countertop space on either side,” says the designer, identifying having to reach across a hot stove to put something on a counter as a potential safety hazard.

“That’s a good place to start designing the various work stations in the space,” adds Bortell.

Even with the most top-of-the-line induction system, every cooktop presents a heat hazard. Radcliff says that any kind of reaching across the cooktop can, and should, be avoided.

“I think burns are just the worst, and we’re constantly trying to prevent against them,” she says. “To that end, we leave a lot of space around the range so that children can’t lean up and over.”

Radcliff also identifies a modern convenience she avoids specifying due to potential safety hazards.

“I absolutely try to avoid microwaves that sit above range tops. It’s a piece everybody uses, those microhoods, but think of the danger.”

She imagines a worst-case scenario where the user is not only leaning over a hot stove, but reaching up to pull something hot from the microwave.

“The location is just horrible. If you think about it, you’re grabbing a hot cup of tea at 5', with the potential to pull it down on top of yourself or dropping it while leaning over the stove, potentially catching your shirt on fire on the gas range,” she says.

The designer identifies microwave drawers as a common sense alternative, if there isn’t space to put the microwave on the countertop.

Frym agrees. “If we’re working on a kitchen where children will be preparing their own snacks, we most often put the microwave at undercounter level by putting a space for it in the base cabinetry,” he says.

Frym also sees the trends for safety mirroring Universal Design principles.

“Heights and depths are big in this arena,” he says. “Lots of people – not just the elderly, but people of all ages – have back troubles. We try to design and specify comfortable counter heights, bump-out sinks and pull-outs and roll-outs for cabinetry.

“Recently, we had a project for an older couple who had problems bending down, so we set the oven higher to eliminate the need to bend to extract hot food,” Frym continues.

Bortell says that, on a recent project for a 6'6" tall woman, he designed the kitchen to suit her height, but made it somewhat flexible so that the kitchen would have resale value to someone shorter.

“She was 6'6", so she desired countertops at bar height, which would be too tall for most people,” he explains. “We extended the backsplash down 9" beyond the countertops, attached the countertops to the base cabinetry and raised everything off the ground.”

The idea is that, should the next person to live in the space be shorter and desire the heights to be changed, the whole kitchen could be lowered to traditional height without ripping out the whole space and starting again – an unusual, custom solution.

Frym’s location in California leaves him subject to that state’s specific electric codes, as well.

“There’s been a real movement toward safety here. There are a lot of codes the state has added about electric plugs, so there are consequently a lot more outlets in the kitchen,” he says.

Additionally, Frym notes that the extra outlets mean the elimination of overloading one outlet or having to resort to extension cords for appliances, which presents both fire and trip hazards.

Bath Basics

Bath safety can be boiled down to just two words: grab and grip. An argument can be made, designers agree, that grip surfaces and grab bars are just common sense design for any bath, even those that aren’t being designed to meet Universal Design criteria.

Radcliff says that a way to ensure safety in the bath is to design spaces for sitting while bathing or showering.]

“We often design bench seats into showers so clients have a nice, sturdy place to sit. We usually will put in a hand shower with control neck right next to the bench seat so they can use a hand shower on a hose as well as a fixed shower head,” she explains.

Frym notes that treadable floors are imperative for the elderly and for children.

“Lots of people come to us and say, ‘We want a marble floor,’ without thinking of the slip factor,” he says. “We try to steer them toward a honed marble floor, so it’s safer. We also make the tiles in the showers a lot smaller so that there’s more grout – more friction for them to stand on in the shower.”

Convenience adds to safety, reports Bortell. “Lack of linen storage in most bath designs has always bothered me,” the designer says. Towel, toilet paper and toiletries storage should be worked out ahead of time to cut down on trips out of the bath for bath-related things. “It’s Murphy’s Law: One day you’ll sit down and there will be no toilet paper.”

Finally, the simplest idea for bath safety deals with antiscald devices such as thermostatic valves, which allow the user to set the maximum temperature that can come out of the showerhead.

“These prevent children from burning in the tub and elderly people from having to jump out of the way of the stream from the showerhead,” says Radcliff. “So much of safety in the bath owes to common sense design, and it’s up to us as designers to set the standard for our clients.”