The architect Ron Mace, often considered to be the father of “universal design”, coined the term in the 1980s and defined it as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Mace believed in his idea so much that he launched the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University and began putting it into practice.
At first the focus was universal design for public areas. The first universal design options for the home were regarded as ugly or institutional. Today, this couldn’t be further from the truth. With interest growing in the area of universal design, manufacturers are designing useful, attractive products that meet the needs of everyone in the home. Architects, builders, and designers are embracing these exciting and beautiful options. Universal design choices can now blend seamlessly into home interiors, not calling attention to themselves, yet making designs more functional and comfortable for all.
In a kitchen, the name of the game is versatility, which is what universal design is all about. Today’s kitchens should be comfortable and convenient, safe and well-equipped for all users: both tall and short adults, children and the elderly, seated or standing. These kitchens don’t have to be large, just efficient. U-shaped or L-shaped kitchens with islands allow for wide, barrier-free and straight passageways through the kitchen and into adjoining rooms. Spacing several workstations around the kitchen means multiple users can work at the same time.
In a kitchen, the more countertop space the better. Varying countertop heights ensures that everyone can work comfortably, and rounded countertop edges with blunt corners makes them safer for children and the visually-impaired. A separate cooktop and oven divides work areas. The cooktop should have a smooth surface (for sliding pots on and off) and easily-seen front-mounted controls, and the oven can be installed lower to accommodate shorter people, wheelchairs, or people with limited mobility (it can also be hinged so the door swings out rather than down). Raised dishwashers can ease the difficulties of bending over, and a side-by-side refrigerator means a shorter door swing and easier access to both refrigerator and freezer sides.
Today’s demand for universal design has also given rise to countless cabinetry options that make the most of available space while accommodating everyone. Cabinets can be designed to open and provide wheel-up leg room for wheelchair users to wash dishes at the sink and a taller and deeper toekick gives these users more room to maneuver as well. Pull-out steps installed in the toe kick space in front of the sink or other work area are excellent for letting children participate in food preparation, cooking, and cleaning up. Base cabinets that consist of drawers rather than doors are the best choice in a universally-designed kitchen, and full-extension drawers and shelves make this space more user-friendly for people of all ages and abilities. Microwaves and other appliances are more accessible when placed in base cabinets and designing these cabinets with pull-out cutting boards and work surfaces provides dynamic, multi-functional work spaces. Wall cabinets placed lower than the standard 18 inches above the counter allow for easier access. In the past few years manufacturers have created motorized cabinets that move out and down from the wall with the push of a button, putting items in wall cabinets within reach. Easy-grip cabinet hardware such as lever, C-shape, or D-shape is more easily grasped by children or arthritic fingers than a knob or pull handle.
The goal of universal design is to remove the barriers that limit accessibility, regardless of size, age, or ability. It’s an idea that makes perfect sense but has only been recently developed. As the “Baby Boomers” continue to age and more families find themselves in the “sandwich generation” (a term referring to three generations of people living together), universal design becomes more and more necessary. Universally-designed homes are bright, open, and well-planned, making the most of available space. These user-friendly homes meet the needs of the inhabitants while allowing them and their visitors feel welcome.
For more info on universal design:
Universal Design for the Home by Wendy A. Jordan