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Tailor-Fit Kitchens

Some universal ways to make your kitchen suit you and the way you live.

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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.
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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Most of the features in these four kitchens are easily incorporated into your kitchen when you remodel; others can be added anytime without creating a speck of sawdust. Some of the easy ways to make your kitchen work better for everyone include:
  • Replacing cabinet knobs with wide pulls, and stationary shelves with pullouts;
  • Installing full-extension slides on drawers and pullout shelves, and a lazy Susan in corner cabinets;
  • Opening/removing cabinet doors and using a stool to sit and work;
  • Adding open shelves under wall cabinets or hanging small pots and pans from hooks there;
  • Securing a cutting board over an open drawer to create a lowered work surface, and securing a butcher block on top of a counter for a raised work surface;
  • Replacing two-knob faucets with a more convenient single-lever faucet and pullout spray.
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    features of the universal kitchen--lower cabinets; wide pulls; contrasting countertops
    Photo by Nancy Hill (courtesy of NKBA)
    Nearly everything in this Blue Heron Hills, New York, home—including the kitchen—is totally accessible to the disabled. Yet no one in the family who bought it has any disabilities. It just goes to show that a home can be accessible and attractive at the same time. For their 1995 "Homearama" show home, Nothnagle Realtors and builders Whitney East decided to construct a barrier-free home. They consulted with the Rochester Rehabilitation Center and Accessibility Designs and Management Inc., which brought in Rochester-based Jean Shanker to do the kitchen design. "In two weeks, 35,000 people went through the home," notes Shanker, "and I would say that about 98 percent of them did not pick up on the fact that there was something special about the kitchen." 1. Both sink and cooktop are near each other and at the same level, making it easy to move pots back and forth between the them. The solid-surface countertop withstands hot pots better than plastic laminate does, while its 45-degree bend gives added space for two to work. The single-lever, pullout faucet also makes filling and cleaning pots easier. 2. A standard, 36-in. high countertop to the right of the sink is comfortable for tasks like chopping. The lower, 34-in. counter makes it easier for shorter family members to reach into the sink and over pots on the stove. 3. Flooring extends under the sink and the cabinet doors swing open and slide into pockets, making the sink easier to use for a person in a wheelchair or someone sitting on a stool. 4. The base cabinet at the cooktop has removable doors and shelves for creating knee space if needed. Deep drawers to the right provide easy-access storage for pots, pans and cooking utensils. 5. All wall cabinets are hung lower than usual so that, for most people, one more shelf is reachable in each. Varied depths and heights keep the cabinets from looming over the counter. 6. Wide pulls with plenty of finger space are used on all drawers; they are much easier to grab than knobs for someone with limited strength or dexterity. 7. Contrasting countertop edge molding boosts safety by making the countertop easier to see, especially in the dark. The rounded corners of the molding are safe to grab or lean on.
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    Everything at Hand

     

    Everything at Hand

    wheelchair accessible kitchen; universal kitchen
    Photo by David Livingston/courtesy of NKBA
    Donna Riddell, a certified kitchen designer based in Victoria, British Columbia, reworked this condominium kitchen for a homeowner who uses a wheelchair. Riddell, a registered nurse before she became a designer, managed to add a pantry cabinet (not shown) and keep everything at hand while providing enough room for wheelchair maneuvering (a 60-in.-dia. circle usually is adequate). And she did it all without relocating the sink, the stove vent or any walls. A week after it was done, Riddell says, the homeowner triumphantly cooked for 24 people. 1. The sink and range have knee space below and a short, continuous run of countertop in between. The countertop here is lowered about 3 in. 2. Most of the upper cabinets are lowered about 8 in. While that shrinks space between them and the countertop, some wall cabinets, such as the ones at the range, are required by code to be standard height, giving the kitchen an attractive stepped effect. 3. The shallow sink has drains in back, leaving plenty of room for open knee space below. A removable panel covers the pipes, while a single-lever faucet, pullout spray and handy built-in soap dispenser make filling pots and cleaning up easier. 4. Electrical outlets located in front of the cooktop are easier to reach than the ones on the wall behind the counter. If children were living in this house, the outlets would have to be childproofed for safety. Staggered burners and front controls on the cooktop eliminate having to reach over hot pots. 5. Large Drawers in the base cabinets make pots and pans easy to get. What looks like a second bank of drawers back in the corner is really a set of open-sided pullout shelves with drawer fronts. All drawers have full-extension slides. Some cabinets are new, others are from the original kitchen. 6. New flooring was patched in under the knee spaces. Wood is easier to blend than most flooring materials. When matching isn't practical, floors can be extended using a contrasting color or pattern. Just be sure the knee-space flooring is seamless and level with the rest of the floor.
    7. This fold-down eating bar doubles as a desktop for doing paperwork. The locking hinges on the bar don't require a lot of arm strength to secure the tabletop in the up position. You can install this kind of surface at any height on a wall, island or peninsula. 8. A side-by-side refrigerator is usually better for accessibility, but in a corner like this, the left-hand door would be hard to get around. The top-freezer unit used here is small enough for the freezer to be low and reachable. Both the freezer and refrigerator have pullout shelves for easy access.
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    A Universal Option

     

    A Universal Option

    flip down countertop doubles as a desk for paperwork
    Photo by David Livingston/courtesy of NKBA
    When a design feature can be found in homes offered by huge builders, it's safe to say it has become part of the mainstream. Within a community of retirement homes in Jamesburg, New Jersey, Houston-based U.S. Homes offered a package of kitchen options (seen here) that incorporate several important universal-design features using stock cabinetry from Merillat. The most striking aspect of these functional features is that they don't sacrifice style for comfort. In fact, they give the kitchen a customized appearance. 1. Homeowners can pull up a stool and sit while working at this kitchen island, thanks to the knee space created by leaving out a cabinet. This design requires a finished surface on all sides of the cabinet, as well as flooring under the island or at least in the knee space. 2. The 42-in.-high wall cabinets are easier to reach because they're installed 2 1/2 in. lower than standard. Countertop appliances fit easily under the corner cabinet - a 30-in.-tall unit that has a shelf below.
    3. This raised dishwasher can be loaded and unloaded with much less bending. It's installed within a cabinet made of standard parts. The assembly also provides users a high work surface. When raising a dishwasher, be sure that it rests on a base that can handle the weight. Candidates for the base include a special cabinet or a simple platform of plywood over 2x8s or 2x10s. 4. A hot-water dispenser can help anyone who can't use the stove prepare soup and hot beverages. The sink's gooseneck faucet, single-lever control and pullout spray are all handy features, too.
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    Many Sizes Fit All

     

    Many Sizes Fit All

    universal kitchen; functional features
    Photo by Melabee M. Miller/Courtesy of Merillat
    In the past, creating a universal-design kitchen typically required expensive custom-made cabinets. But today's "semicustom" stock cabinets are available to consumers with myriad options, many of which make a kitchen easier to use. Among the first manufacturers to develop stock cabinet designs specifically for accessibility is KraftMaid Cabinetry, of Middlefield, Ohio. Its Passport series is notable because it's not a line of specialized cabinets. Instead, it's a series of many options, sizes and accessories available throughout the company's regular cabinetry lines. In this show kitchen, KraftMaid exhibits some ideas that highlight the Passport series and others that are simply good design ideas. 1. This island has surfaces at two heights to allow people of different stature - a tall and short adult, or a standing and seated adult, or an adult and child, for example - to work together more comfortably. 2. Glass doors, clear-plastic shelving and low-voltage lighting reveal the contents of the cabinets on the corner wall and in the island.
    3. The raised dishwasher requires little bending to load and unload. Above it, an open plate rack is a nice decorative feature and a real convenience. 4. Knee space makes the cooktop usable by someone in a wheelchair or on a stool. The wall oven is installed lower than usual, making it reachable for more people. 5. An extra-high toekick on all cabinets allows added turning space for those in a wheelchair. It also raises the bottom shelves and drawers. The result is less space, but less bending, too. 6. These full-extension drawer slides telescope so even the back of the drawer comes out. Extra heavy-duty slides were used so the drawer can function as an extra work surface at a lower height than the countertop. Regular full-extension slides used for standard drawers and shelves make contents obvious and require less bending. 7. A tambour door encloses a shelf under the counter between the cooktop and oven. In tight spots like this, a simple shelf can be more convenient than a swinging cabinet door or drawer. You'll also find tambour doors used on top of a counter, where they're called "appliance garages."
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    stock cabinets designed specifically for accessibility; universal kitchen
    Courtesy of KraftMaid Cabinetry
    Where To Find It
    Here's a start on where to find information and products for universal-design kitchens. American Association of Retired Persons
    Fulfillment Office, 601 E St. NW,
    Washington, DC 20049
    203/434-2277
    www.aarp.org/universalhome National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA)
    687 Willow Grove St.
    Hackettstown, NJ
    800/843-6522 Universal Kitchen Planning
    by Mary Jo Peterson
    Call NKBA at 800/843-6522 The Center for Universal Design
    North Carolina State University, Box 8613
    Raleigh, NC 27695-8613
    800/647-6777
    E-mail at: [email protected]
    www2.ncsu.edu:8010/design/cud/ Residential Remodeling and Universal Design: Making Homes More Comfortable and Accessible
    by U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, the National Assn. of Home Builders Research Center ($10)
    HUD USER, Box 6091, Rockville, MD 20850
    800/245-2691 GE Appliances
    Real Life Design, a free, 32-page publication.
    Appliance Park
    Louisville, KY 40225
    800/626-2000 Maytag Co.
    The Accommodating Kitchen,
    a free, 28-page brochure
    1 Dependability Sq.
    Newton, IA 50208
    515/792-7000 Rev-A-Shelf (cabinetry)
    Box 99585,
    Jeffersontown, KY 40299
    800/626-1126 KraftMaid Cabinetry, Inc.
    16052 Industrial Pkwy., Box 1055,
    Middlefield, OH 44062
    216/696-1343 Merillat Cabinetry Inc.
    5353 W. IS 223,
    Adrian, MI 49221
    517/263-0771 Pedal Valves (pedal-operated faucets)
    13625 River Rd., Box 1045
    Luling, LA 70070
    800/431-3668
     
     

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