Universal design makes kitchens accessible to everyone

With aging Baby Boomers moving into their retirement years and amid more emphasis on providing better access options for disabled individuals, the concept of universal design has become more than a buzz word. At the recent Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in New Orleans, lots of booths displayed both hardware and cabinet features in keeping with universal design concepts.

Probably no display symbolized the trend more than Hafele’s booth, where award-winning designer Mary Jo Peterson held forth, leading tours around displays full of universal design concepts. Peterson has penned two books on universal design and is in regular demand beyond her design practice as a speaker, columnist and television commentator on design topics.

What is universal design?

Peterson came at universal design at first through work with clients who needed modifications of kitchens and baths to better cope with disabilities. From those successes she has learned that many of the same solutions are not just for the disabled and make good design sense for everyone.

“Universal Design incorporates concepts that improve function and access for every household member and guest with regard for varying age, size and abilities,” Peterson says.

By broadening the concept to provide better and easier access for everyone, universal design not only promotes such things as the growing trend for aging in place, but it also makes kitchen and bath spaces better for everyone. It also tends to improve aesthetics, too, since it often avoids some of the clumsier modifications that were intended solely for disabled residents.

“These are things that are invisible or so beautiful you can’t resist them, and things that are so cool that everybody wants them,” says Peterson. “That’s something that you aspire to and that also supports the way I want to live my life and do the things I want to do with minimal effort.”

Island example

At the Hafele booth at KBIS, Peterson demonstrated some of these concepts in a kitchen island. She showed how a pivoting swingout – think lasy susan that pulls out – could provide maximum access to interior cabinet space. And not only does the swingout provide better physical access, but automatic LED lighting offers maximum visual access.

“Think about corners, you know, that dark scary place where the boogey man is? Well, not anymore,” she says. “It’s a sparkly clean place. LED lighting offers so many possibilities because it takes so little space.”

Another feature of the island was a powered lift that raises up part of the countertop to expose a battery of kitchen appliances, such as the coffee maker, coffee grinder, and food processor. “I don’t have to move those to use them,” she says. “I never have to lift and carry. You know that low physical effort, that’s one of the principles of universal design, but not that any of us needs to talk about principles. It makes sense for anybody. Who wants to lift the heavy stand mixer?”

Few swinging doors

Peterson pointed out a number of examples where steps have been taken to eliminate conventional swinging doors. In many cases, drawers have become the solution because they offer better access to their contents, especially when paired with automatic LED lighting that instantly illuminates drawer interiors.

Traditional swinging doors can be an obstacle to easy traffic as you are forced to maneuver around them, in the case of lower cabinets, or worse, swinging doors on upper cabinets make for a head-banging hazard. In the Hafele show booth, Peterson demonstrated several options. An upper pantry pullout made use of pocket doors that retract out of the way. Another bank of upper cabinets used sliding door hardware. And yet a third option showed powered vertical overhead doors operated by a simple remote control. Tambour doors are also increasingly popular.

LED revolution

Advances in LED lighting have proved to be a boon to universal design. Throughout the KBIS show, lighting was shown to be taking on a bigger role in making cabinetry and hardware more functional and easier to use. Lighted drawers were displayed throughout the show, most with automatic systems that activate the lighting when drawers open and then shut off the lights when the drawer closes.

But drawers aren’t the only dark place looking for illumination. Peterson demonstrated a closet lighting system from Hafele featuring a lighted clothes hanging rod. Peterson described the common challenge of picking out navy blue or black slacks in the typical dim or poorly lit closet. “No one can do it. I don’t care what age they are,” she says. “So, now we have lighting right in the closet rack, so I can truly see the difference between the navy blue and the black.”

Varying work heights

Universal design recognizes that one work surface height is not best for all people or purposes. Someone functioning from a wheel chair will likely be more comfortable with different work surface elevations than a standing person. One solution is pullout counters that come out like drawers but lock into position for work functionality. Another is simply varying countertop heights to provide work surface options.

Access and mobility are key issues addressed by universal design. Things like under-sink areas that will accommodate a wheelchair are increasingly common. Similarly, a trend to higher toe kicks not only provides more clearance, but also it raises the bottom of the cabinet to make the contents more accessible.

“Everything should be within reach at the point of use,” says Peterson.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user willsampson
About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.