Design Your Kitchen to Fit You

by Barbara Twardowski and Jim Twardowski, R.N. on September 1, 2003 - 3:08pm

The kitchen is the heart of the home. Whether preparing elaborate holiday meals, huddling over homework, reading the morning paper or chatting with friends, people usually make the kitchen the busiest room in the house.

Kitchens for everyone are universal

Historically, kitchens were designed for average-sized adults who performed tasks while standing. Universal design — the all-ages, all-abilities approach to space planning — was conceived in the mid-1970s. Kitchen designers and the cooking industry have begun to realize that universal design isn't just for those with physical limitations.

AD-AS offers the Approach to the Sink, which not only allows leg room for wheelchair users but can lower the sink to a 28-inch height.

"From small children to grandparents, the kitchen should be safe and comfortable for all the members of a household. Products should fit the needs of people throughout their lives," said Sally Haile, director of Outreach at the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Universal design is creative thinking outside the box. It is appealing to everyone. Universal design is simply good design."

Kitchen designers, builders and manufacturers have begun to appreciate that "one size does not fit all," and they're embracing universal design.

"Every kitchen can be beautifully designed and functional. Universal design creates a space that is unique to you," according to Mary Jo Peterson, a certified kitchen designer and author of Universal Kitchen and Bathroom Planning.

"If you use the kitchen from a seated position and your husband is a 6-foot-6-inch-tall basketball player, a good design will be flexible and meet all of your needs."

Whether you're building a new home or remodeling a kitchen, Peterson recommends hiring a certified kitchen designer. "A designer's greatest skill is listening. If they don't listen, get rid of them," Peterson said. To locate a certified kitchen designer contact the National Kitchen & Bath Association (see "Kitchen and Cooking Resources").

Universal design is growing in popularity because Americans are aging. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Remodelors' Council conducted its first CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists) training in May 2002. The new professional certification is the direct result of their response to the American Association of Retired Persons' landmark study "Fixing to Stay," which found that Americans prefer to remain in their homes as they mature and they want a reliable means of identifying professionals they can trust.

Baby boomers are becoming aware that their homes won't fit all of their needs as they age. "More manufacturers are realizing there is a market for products people can use for a lifetime," said Charlotte Wade, senior research analyst with NAHB.

"Universal design's goal is to work for everyone, but it isn't perfect," Peterson said. For example, an oven with the controls located on the front is ideal for someone with limited reach, but it isn't the best choice for a household that includes children.

Design tips

Designing a kitchen that meets all of a family's needs takes research, patience and the advice of experts. Here are some tips and resources to help you create a kitchen with universal appeal:

General guidelines

  • Use nonskid flooring, which offers better traction.
  • Plan wide work aisles — 42 to 48 inches is recommended. Peterson said, "One of the most common mistakes in a kitchen is using an island when there isn't room for it." If an island is included in your plan, make sure the kitchen is large enough so you can move around it.
  • Include some sit-down work areas, such as a baking center or computer work station.
  • Use a rolling server cart that coordinates with the cabinets to take food to the table, dirty dishes to the sink or groceries to the pantry.


  • An adjustable-height mechanical sink can be raised or lowered with the push of a button.
  • A long hose with a spray attachment at the sink will allow you to fill pots while they're on the stove and avoid heavy lifting.
  • A single-lever faucet makes it easy to adjust water temperature and volume. These faucets can be operated with one hand or even an elbow.
AD-AS's Approach system uses switches to raise and lower cooktops and even cabinets.


  • Design spans of continuous counter for dragging or sliding items instead of carrying them from one work center to another.
  • Vary the height of countertops to accommodate people who are seated and those who stand.
  • Create extra workspace and allow for a landing area for hot dishes with pull-out drawers under the microwave and oven.
  • Include a decorative, raised countertop edge to prevent spills from dripping down the sides of cabinets and onto the floor and to stop dishes and utensils from falling.


  • Lower above-the-counter cabinets so they're easier to reach. Peterson said an often-overlooked space is the backsplash cabinets for handier access.
  • Don't rely on upper wall cabinets to store frequently used or essential items. For upper cabinets, try using motorized shelves.
  • Use hardware that doesn't require grasping, twisting or finger dexterity. U-shaped pulls or magnetic latches are good alternatives.
  • Leave open the spaces under the sink, a countertop work area and the cooktop to allow knee clearance for those who tire easily and for wheelchair users. If you don't want the spaces open, Peterson recommends using retractable doors that coordinate with cabinets.
  • Make stored items easier to reach by installing lazy Susans or drawers in your lower cabinets.


  • Provide a generous amount of clear floor space (minimum 30-by-48 inches) next to each appliance and work station.
  • Purchase appliances with the controls located on the front to avoid reaching. Easy-to-read numbers and touch-pad controls, rather than knobs, are easier to see and use.
  • Raise dishwashers 6 to 16 inches so no one has to stoop.
  • Gain easier access with side-by-side refrigerators or bottom freezer models.
  • Provide optional knee space below the burners of a separate cooktop. Wall ovens with swing-out doors are stand-alone units and can make wheelchair access easier.
  • Install the microwave on the countertop or in a cabinet slightly higher than countertop height.

by Barbara Twardowski

Barbara Twardowski in the kitchen
The author conquers kitchen challenges with special techniques and gadgets.

I don't like to cook, but my family likes to eat. Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease has atrophied my hands, which are weak, and I use a wheelchair.

Cooking is a real chore for me. But we can't eat out every night, so I rely on simple recipes and customized kitchen tools.

A break-resistant mirror mounted over the stovetop lets me see into the pots. Wearing an apron with pockets allows carrying several items at once. When removing hot dishes from the oven, wearing oven mitts gives me greater protection from burns than do pot holders.

Small appliances can replace traditional cooking methods and are easier to use, especially if your kitchen isn't wheelchair-friendly. The slow cooker, commonly known as the crockpot, is my appliance of choice. By placing the crockpot on a table instead of a counter, I can see the contents.

An electric skillet also can be used on a tabletop. A traditional food processor is too heavy for me to lift, but a mini-food processor is lightweight and works well for small chopping jobs.

Kitchen gadgets are fun and readily available. I use a 6-inch strainer to scoop boiling pasta from the pan into the colander that sits in my sink. Another option is to place a cooking basket inside a standard pan, which avoids my having to lift the pan.

Poultry shears aren't just for chicken. I use mine to cut the tips off green beans and open frozen vegetable packages. One-handed cutting can be achieved with a rocker knife.

Fine motor tasks such as peeling and crushing garlic are easily accomplished with my Pampered Chef garlic press. (Attending a Pampered Chef party is a great way to try out products before you buy.)

Peeling potatoes is easier since I discovered Good Grips' ergonomically designed swivel peeler. The same company makes a wine cork pull that requires minimal hand strength and dexterity.

Kitchen products are available from local retailers, senior publications and medical distributors. If you take the time to browse the catalog or the Internet, you may find products that you hadn't imagined.

For example, the Uni Grip is a device that can be used to turn small knobs and faucets; it's available from Dynamic Living.

While it's fun to watch Emeril on the Food Network, I look for "real world" recipes. See "Kitchen and Cooking Resources," below, for some of my favorite sources of recipes and easy-to-use gadgets.


The Accessible Home: Updating Your Home for Changing Physical Needs, Creative Publishers International, 2003
(It's out of print, but used copies can be found online.)

(800) 208-2020

All Recipes

American Association of Retired Persons

Center for Universal Design
(800) 647-6777

Dynamic Living
(888) 940-0605

General Electric

Good Grips product catalogue
(800) 545-4411

Maddak Ableware
(973) 628-7600

Mary Jo Peterson Inc.
(203) 775-4763

National Association of Home Builders Research Center
(800) 638-8556

National Kitchen & Bath Association
(800) 843-6522

Pampered Chef
(800) 266-5562

Southern Living magazine

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