Universal Design in the Kitchen is for Everyone

Kitchen using universal design

Universal Design in the Kitchen is for Everyone

Since the kitchen is the heart of the home, universal design ensures everyone can use it safely and comfortably. Universal design is about incorporating good design that makes your home accessible for everyone, regardless of age, size or physical ability.

Universal design in the kitchen is simple and works for all members of a family, from children baking their first muffins to baby boomers suffering from joint issues, to people who are already dealing with physical limitations.

And, universal design principles don’t only consider accessibility, but also style. It’s not only functional, it is pleasing to look at and live with, as well.

Universal Design or Aging-In-Place?

Some people use the words “Universal Design” and “Aging-in-Place” interchangeably.

Aging-in-place design is used for people who require modifications to allow them to stay in their home safely and comfortably as they age and their physical abilities change over time. According to AARP, more than three-quarters of Americans ages 50 and older say they would prefer to remain in their homes for as long as possible. And with the number of baby boomers expected to surpass 73 million in 2020, it is essential that renovations accommodate older generations, while keeping their children and grandchildren in mind.

Universal design is more of a blanket category that includes aging-in-place remodeling. By incorporating universal design principles in your kitchen when remodeling, your home will be there for the entire family, even when their physical needs change.

Why Universal Design in the Kitchen?

Incorporating universal design principals in your kitchen remodel is the ideal way to meet the needs of everyone. If a design works well for people with disabilities, it will work well for everyone.

It’s a long-term investment. If you’re considering a remodel, consider how usable your kitchen will be in the future. It’s easier and more affordable to include accessibility as part of a planned renovation than to add these elements later in life.

ROI. A kitchen remodeled using universal design principles will increase your home’s value. A kitchen remodel upgrades the style of your home, and universal design will make it appealing to all potential buyers, from the multi-generational family to first time home buyers.

Universal Design: A Definition

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University has published their definition of universal design: 

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Their expanded definition includes seven basic principles:

1. Equitable Use | Make your kitchen usable and appealing to people with different physical abilities

2. Flexibility in Use | Provide choices or adapt to a user’s needs

3. Simple and Intuitive Use | Your kitchen should be easy to use

4. Perceptible Information | Important information should be clearly presented

5. Tolerance for Error | The risk of hazard is reduced or eliminated

6. Low Physical Effort | The amount of energy needed to perform a task should be kept low

7. Size and Space for Approach and Use | Provide enough room for ease of reach and travel

These basic principles can be applied to the following elements in a kitchen remodel.

1. Appliances in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

  • Locate the microwave oven 24” to 40” above the floor to avoid having to reach and to easily remove hot food.
  • Or install the microwave or a microwave drawer in the island or beneath the countertop
  • Place the cooktop and ovens close to each other and to the sink to reduce having to lift heavy pots and baking pans
  • Consider one or more dishwasher drawers. They’re easy to load and can be installed at various heights
  • Instead of dishwasher drawers, raise the dishwasher to make it usable for people in wheelchairs or anyone who wants to avoid having to bend over
  • Side-by-side refrigerators offer easier accessibility than ones with top or bottom freezers
  • Refrigerator and/or freezer drawers in lower cabinets make accessing contents easy
  • Wall ovens can be installed at any height. 30” above the floor is ideal
  • Ovens with French-style doors can be opened easily. The one shown in photo below is from GE.

Induction cook tops are recommended for safety and energy efficiency. Control the Bosch Benchmark Induction cooktop with FlexInduction from your smartphone or iPad.

2. Flooring in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Flooring is an important part of universal design. For it to be safe for all, it should be:

  • comfortable to stand on
  • impact absorbent
  • water resistant
  • non-reflective
  • non-slip
  • non-carpeted

To make it look good as well as be safe, recommended materials are cork, linoleum, matte- finished wood or tile.

3. Faucets in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Single-lever faucets make it possible for people of all abilities to turn the water on and off. They can be operated with either an open hand or a closed fist, making them perfect for people with arthritis.

Touch-on and touchless faucets are great for universal design purposes. Delta offers Touch20® Technology that lets you turn water on and off with your elbow. The Moen touchless faucet turns water on and off with the wave of your hand.

Faucets that change color when the water is hot benefits children as well as seniors with impaired vision. Thermostatic valves keep water temperature consistent and prevent scalding. An anti-scald valve should be set at 120 degrees.

Since Universal design encompasses the way a product looks as well as the way it functions, here’s a perfect example. A gorgeous, touchless faucet from Kohler with an ombre finish, a combination of rose gold and polished nickel.

4. Storage in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Pull-out Storage makes it easy to see what you want inside your cabinets and can be operated by people of all abilities. Pull-out storage makes cabinet contents more accessible to everyone. The more you can bring what you need to you, rather than straining your back or knees to reach it, the better.

Dish Storage. Utilizing the drawers in a base cabinet for dish storage will make dishes more accessible to people in wheelchairs, shorter people, elderly and children. In other words, accessible for everyone.

Islands. Every homeowner has an idea of how they want their island to be configured. Storage, seating, work space, appliances, sinks, display space – all can be part of an island. A microwave or a microwave drawer and other pull-out storage in the island provides easy, arms-reach access.

5. Countertops in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Vary counter heights for seating at an island or peninsula. A 30” table height counter provides ideal seating for everyone, regardless of age or mobility. Children can get onto a regular chair and seniors don’t have to climb up onto a bar stool. Table height is also handy for someone who needs to sit while doing tasks.

Countertops with a curved or contoured shape make it possible to move around safely, use every inch of the surface and keep everything within reach. The rounded shape with no sharp edges is safe for everyone and adapts to all room types.

6. Cabinetry in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Include Recessed Areas beneath the stove top and sink so wheelchairs can roll up to the work zones. Shallow cabinets in the recessed areas let you keep storage space. Knee space should be a minimum of 30” wide.

Glass-front doors and open shelves make it easy to find items and add a decorative element.

With a Pull-out shelf under the oven, you can slide hot and/or heavy dishes straight out of the oven.

7. Functional Hardware in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Functional hardware provides smooth opening and closing of cabinet doors and drawers and provides full access to cabinet contents.

Hettich’s Push to open Silent opens drawers mechanically in response to a light press on the front panel.

Grass America’s Tipmatic Soft close for opening and closing of handle free drawers is done with a tap on the front panel, which causes the drawers to open automatically and close easily.

Cabinet Hardware. The larger the handle, with plenty of room for fingers, the easier it is for people with arthritis or other mobility issues to grasp. D-shape door and drawer pulls are the most convenient.

The touch-latch option also works for both doors and drawers.  

8. Lighting in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Layers of Light. Proper lighting is essential for work areas. Pendants, recessed bulbs and under-cabinet and floor-level toe kick LED lighting safely light the kitchen for prep and cooking tasks, as well as create ambience.

Lights inside cabinets and drawers that light up when opened are excellent choices for universal design.

Light Switches with large flat panels rather than small toggle switches work best.

Add Windows for Lighting. Natural light is always best. Ensuring that the kitchen has at least one large window to welcome sunlight is an asset.

9. Room Layout in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

No-Threshold Entry means no stairs or raised threshold in doors to make it easy for a wheelchair to get through. They also eliminate a possible tripping hazard.  Any doors should be at least 36” wide. 

Kitchen Floor Plan60” of space between the cabinets and the island provides plenty of space for multiple cooks to work together and for wheelchairs, walkers and strollers to pass through.

Allow 30” to 40” of clearance space in front of the refrigerator, stove, cooktop and oven. Kitchen aisles that are 42” to 48” wide accommodate everyone.

10. Smart Technology in a Kitchen Using Universal Design

Appliances controlled by WIFI and phone apps, i.e., “smart” appliances, in the kitchen mean homeowners don’t even have to be in the kitchen to monitor activity, a significant benefit for someone with poor mobility. Smart home systems control lighting, appliances, air conditioning and heating, security systems, etc., all from a smart phone, a central control panel or via voice activation.


Why should you choose universal design for your kitchen remodel project?

Universal design goes beyond simply building a kitchen that is usable for aging individuals or people with disabilities. Rather, it’s about considering a broader range of needs to build the most functional, comfortable and beautiful kitchen possible. In other words, everyone can benefit from universal design.

Resources for Further Reading

Kitchen Design Partner exists to offer insight and advice about all things related to kitchen remodeling. Our goal is to connect homeowners with talented, experienced kitchen designers who live and work in their communities. We are a serious resource for anyone preparing to remodel their kitchen so they can make the best possible choices about designers, contractors and products.