Designing an Accessible Kitchen

A section of a simple but fantastic kitchen complete with modern appliances, environmental gadgets, a stove, a sink and cabinets.

Designing an accessible kitchen means lowered cabinets, countertops and accessible features like a microwave drawer. Photo courtesy of Wellborn Cabinet, Inc.

Whether it’s called accessible, barrier-free, universal or aging-in-place design alterations or options, virtually all builders – production builders as well as custom home- builders – are open to buyer requests for special products and design adaptions that provide extra convenience and long-term functionality in order to allow their new homes to be used by buyers of all ages, both able and disabled.

When designing an accessible kitchen, most builders will alter off-the-shelf cabinets, offer an array of cabinet accessories and accept the substitution of appliances that allow for easier accessibility.

The Del Webb and Sun City brands of PulteGroup are the nation’s largest supplier of 55-plus housing. As such, they are not only aware of the increasing physical limitations, design and special product needs of this market segment, they are also keenly attuned to the mindset of aging homebuyers. The average age of a Del Webb buyer is 62.

“Baby boomers and the 55-plus market consider themselves young and active,” says Valerie Dolenga, director of Corporate Communications for PulteGroup, Inc. “So, they don’t want to be reminded that they are getting older.

“Del Webb homes blend the concepts of universal design for ageless living, most of which we incorporate in the kitchen and bath – key considerations for many when choosing their home in retirement,” Dolenga says.
Modifications offered by the firm affecting kitchen design include widened door openings and hallways, lowered countertops and cabinets, roll-out shelves in cabinets, multi-level kitchen countertops, lowered microwaves, raised dishwashers, drawer-style dishwashers and cook tops with front or side controls.

PulteGroup’s communities also include wellness centers that offer on-site health education, screenings and health care support, as well as wellness and fitness classes. 

Customer requests for other items that meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ACA) Standards for Accessible Design, adds Dolenga, are handled on a case-by-case basis. 

The 
ADA Standards provide exact criteria for accessible home design, including such kitchen design issues as cabinetry heights, sink clearances, appliance design and space allowances for wheelchairs. An accessibly-designed kitchen, for example, should allow for wheelchair access (i.e., a minimum of 48 inches between countertops, a minimum turning radius of 60 inches and a minimum 32-inch-wide doorway) with easily accessible work stations. Light switches and electrical outlets should be 48 inches or less from the floor, but at least 15 inches high.

Specialty accessibility items, such as electric devices that lower and raise upper cabinets or upper cabinet shelves, are treated by Del Webb as after-market purchases in which the home owner would need to hire a contractor. 

Designing an Accessible Kitchen

The question is, what are some of the universal-access products and systems you might request in designing your accessible kitchen?

Following are some suggestions:

1. Cabinetry

Select base cabinets with raised toe kick space (nine inches high by six inches deep) and ask to have space below the sink left open (24 inches high) to allow for present or future need for wheelchair clearance. You can add slide-back cabinet doors by the sink to hide the opening when not in use. 
Look to install some shorter base cabinets to lower countertop heights at various work stations around the room from the normal 36 inches to, ideally, 32 inches. 

Full-extend drawer cabinets allow easier access than cabinets with doors and shelves. Include some big drawers with touch-to-open hardware and heavy duty rollers for large pots, pans and stacked dishes. Add peg board dividers and plate racks to the drawers. 

Include pullout pantry/storage cabinets, roll-out baskets and trays for utensils and small items, revolving shelves or Lazy Susan accessories. Consider a roll-out cart as a movable work area. Include a pull-out work shelf or table just below the countertop.

Ask to have wall cabinets lowered (from the standard 18 inches to 15 inches or less above the countertop) or opt for powered systems that can lower and raise top cabinets or the racks inside the cabinets. Consider doors that swing up. Ask for touch-control cabinet drawers and doors, looped cabinet pulls and a levered pantry door handle.

2. Appliances and Fixtures

Request that the wall oven be installed lower than normal (31 inches from the floor), the cooktop lowered, the microwave mounted below the countertop and the dishwasher raised (six inches to eight inches off the floor). Select a shallow sink (five inches to six-and-a-half inches deep) with touch control or single-lever faucet.

Consider a side opening oven, a cooktop with staggered burners and upfront controls, a drawer-style dishwasher and crafting a slide-out electric cooktop or a sink that can be raised or lowered. Select a side-by-side refrigerator or one with the freezer on the bottom.

Roy Diez is a freelance writer and marketing professional specializing in the architectural, building and construction industry. He is a former editor-in-chief of Professional Builder magazine.

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