universal kitchen
Photos by David Livingston
The best new trend in kitchen design has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with function. It's called universal design, and it's about making kitchens adapt to all the people who use them, instead of the other way around. Universal design grew out of efforts over the past two decades to accommodate the disabled. But it doesn't mean lowering every counter to wheelchair height. Instead, it can mean lowering one section of counter and raising another so a grandmother and son can both help prepare dinner. The concept has worked so well, the National Kitchen and Bath Association recently revised its design guidelines mainly to incorporate universal design. To turn your kitchen into a work space everyone can use, look at the four kitchens presented in this article. In each one, the layout and features avoid wasted motion—for every user. Equally important, there is adequate lighting and counter space, storage areas are at the right height and working in these kitchens is as safe as possible. Less wasted motion. Some of the best ideas in universal design come from physical and occupational therapists, and from the disabled themselves. To them, a good kitchen is one where people spend their energy on activities and chores, not merely on overcoming obstacles. It's the kind of thinking even the able-bodied can benefit from: Create a kitchen where you'll spend less energy and time bending, walking, turning, lifting and cleaning, and you'll have more of both left for cooking and other activities. Flexibility. The key to making a kitchen suit as many people as possible—not just the primary user and certainly not some "ideal-size" person—is flexibility. For example, a knee space right under a sink or a stove makes those areas accessible to someone in a wheelchair. The same knee space, when used with a stool of the right height, allows an able-bodied person to sit while working in the kitchen, avoiding fatigue and back strain. A knee space also can provide out-of-the-way parking for a serving cart, which, in turn, offers a lowered work surface and a way to set or clear a table in one trip. The right light. Too often, poor lighting makes a kitchen hard to use. Many kitchens have plenty of ambient, or surrounding, light, but nowhere near enough task lighting, causing eye strain and fatigue. Undercabinet task lighting, either fluorescent or low-voltage incandescent or halogen, can solve that problem. Even if the lighting in your kitchen is fine, intricate patterns on countertops and flooring can make finding dropped items difficult. Subtle patterns and neutral colors are better. Also consider a contrasting, preferably darker, edge molding on a countertop and a contrasting border on the flooring to make finding your way around in low-light situations— like midnight snack runs—easier. The right height. Changing the height on just part of the countertop allows both short and tall people to use it. To determine the right height, stand or sit in your most comfortable working stance at a low surface, such as a table. Then gradually increase the height by stacking up old boards or strips of plywood. When you can rest your palms on the surface with a slight break in your elbows, the height is about right. Secure the wood with clamps and try chopping, mixing and stirring to be sure. Once you've settled on the height or heights you want, measure and record them. Then raise or lower sections of the countertop accordingly. Also consider the height of storage areas. The prime reaching zone is between the waist and the shoulders, up to an arm's length away. Unfortunately, many kitchens offer no storage in that zone, instead completely devoting the real estate between the base cabinets and the wall cabinets to work area. If possible, use pantry cabinets or even a pantry for storage. Or, because you probably never use the full depth of the countertop, add shallow shelves and stack things on them. Keeping it safe. Be sure there's a safe landing strip at the sides of the sink and all appliances—a place to set a hot roasting pan or bags of groceries. And remember that a universal kitchen's added convenience and versatility often involves some added vigilance. For example, when deciding what to put on a lowered countertop, remember that a younger child might be able to reach it.
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