Unlike universal kitchens designed years ago, universal design today doesn’t mean boring design, but quite the opposite. It is important to note that universal design practices are broader than that of barrier-free design, and are in fact universal. Almost without exception, features or flexibility added to a product to accommodate individuals with temporarily or permanently reduced abilities in some areas have proven to be beneficial to users in general. In many cases, more people without a disability will find features useful than the number of people in the original target audience.
A curb cutout is a good example. First, they were implemented for people in wheelchairs; however, they are used much more often by people on bicycles, baby strollers, pushing grocery carts or wheeled luggage than by people in wheelchairs.
If you’ve been designing kitchens with your clients’ needs in mind, you’re probably utilizing universal design. Your clients most likely have specific needs for their families. When designing a universal kitchen, you have to keep in mind the capabilities of each person utilizing the space. In most situations, we are dealing with families with small children, parents and in some cases, even grandparents, so we will take this scenario into consideration. Following are some simple ways to incorporate universal design into a kitchen:
Surfaces. Make sure they’re firm and stable. If there are overhangs on countertops such as on snack bars, make sure they are supported well enough for anyone that might use it as an aid for getting up from their chair.
Dish storage. The bottom shelf typically is the only shelf accessible to average-size women, and it can also be too high to get a stack of dishes in and out of easily. Utilizing base cabinet drawers as dish storage will make dishes more accessible to people in wheelchairs, shorter people, elderly and for children. When possible, bring wall cabinets down to countertop height to allow more wall storage for dishes.
Dishwashers. When able, raise the dishwasher 6 to 12 inches from the floor by adding a drawer below or by using two dishwasher drawers mounted side-by-side or on either side of the sink
Cabinet pulls. There are several different options you can use for this application. The touch-latch option for doors and drawers on full overlay or European door styles make the doors longer than the cabinets to create a lip where you could put your hand behind the door to pull open. Knobs and pulls remain good options as long as they are not petite and smooth. Look for larger pieces with plenty of room for your fingers.
Appliances. Some refrigerators are extremely difficult and take way too much strength to open. If designing for somebody with little upper body strength, I would avoid large appliances with heavy doors. Microwave and refrigerator drawers would be better options.
Light switches. Switches with large flat panels will work best.
Lighting. Create well-lit space using combinations of under-cabinet lighting, general lighting, task lighting and decorative lighting. A dimmer switch on each fixture will allow adjustment for every user.
Counter edges. A countertop that is a contrasting color from surrounding cabinets and the backsplash or countertop, with a contrasting front edge, makes for a visual aid to determine where one surface ends and one begins.
Wall ovens. Mount double ovens side-by-side rather than stacked, and mount them at about 30 inches above the floor.
Faucets. Choose faucets that have levers you could operate with a fist, or better yet, faucets with touch control options. Avoid faucets with controls that take a lot of finger strength or dexterity to operate.
Flooring. Slip-resistant and non-reflective floors, distressed wood and slate are two examples of universal flooring.
Counter heights. Consider a table height for children, people in wheelchairs, and for those that find sitting and working easier. Create a standard countertop height for an average user, taller heights for taller people and for people that have difficulty bending over. The taller counter height can be anything higher than 36 inches and should be determined by the user.
Lisa Loushin has been in the kitchen and bath design industry for more than 20 years. Many of Loushin’s projects have been published, won design competitions on the regional and national levels. She has been a featured guest on the DIY Network’s “Kitchen Renovations” program. Loushin has served locally for the NKBA as vice president of communications, long-range planner, and also as a two-term chapter president and certified instructor.