Kitchens are the heart and soul of the home. This is where the whole family congregates. Food nurtures the body, soul and the mind. Without food we cannot survive. We invest a lot into kitchens because it becomes the most important room in your home. Kitchens not only provide us with meals but give us a complete experience. Instead of having the kitchen of the year, we prefer functional, flexible and usable that will work for everyone in the family. Incorporate universal design features into your kitchen, including flooring, lighting, cabinets and appliances.

Design Considerations

A universal kitchen is safe and comfortable for everyone. But it is the hardest space to make universal. Benchtops have to be at different heights where an individual sitting in a wheelchair can reach the benchtop while another standing tall is able to too. Adjustable cabinets are an answer but are costly. Overhead cabinets are great for storage but not everyone can reach them. Install shelves that can be pulled out and down, this allows individuals in wheelchairs to be able to access items that are otherwise out of reach. Cooktops should be open underneath to allow for a seated person to be able to access it, whilst the oven should be in a stack so that it is a height that is accessible to all users. A kitchen that is flexible, needs to ensure that everyone can use it. From the cooktop to the worktop. The biggest challenge in designing a universal kitchen is in its performance. The easiest way to get a kitchen designed right for you is to get it designed by an architect/ architectural designer or a kitchen designer. Consider the following factors to help you identify and design your kitchen requirements.
  •  Kitchen layout
  • Kitchen size
  • Minimal effort
  • Adaptability
  • Cleaning
  • Safety

Kitchen Layout

An effective kitchen design is one that takes everyone into account. The layout should provide the right balance between the countertops, space to manoeuvre and storage. When planning the layout limit distances around the kitchen and avoid compromising the working areas with cross routes. The traditional triangle formed by the sink, stove and refrigerator is not enough in the modern-day kitchen. We need to consider the dishwasher, separate cooktop and the wall oven. If you have limited mobility, carrying things around the kitchen can get even harder. Therefore, it is more important to consider all these extra elements when working with this triangle. A kitchen that exercises independence and is convenient is an efficient kitchen. An efficient kitchen design involves keeping the traditional work triangle compact. Routines define the kitchen layout. For example, when there are only 2 people working in a kitchen, a U-shaped kitchen becomes very convenient. Remember to also have a work area that can be accessible from outside of the ‘U’. Another type of kitchen is the galley kitchen. This has more than 1 point of entry. But this kitchen can limit a person using a wheel chair. The individual would have to use the kitchen sideways and would also be limited with the amount of turning space required. An L- shaped kitchen with or without an island gives us plenty of work surfaces. Some can be outside of the kitchen too (e.g. meals table). This means the users can use the kitchen without bumping into each other. Remember
  • Every kitchen has different routes. Some that are occasionally used, others that are always used.
  • An island creates more work areas.
  • An electric outlet and a sink in the island maximise convenience for the whole family. Locating garbage and recycling bins in the kitchen helps making the clean-up more efficient.
  • For individuals with limited mobility a trolley with wheels is useful to carry food from the kitchen to the meals/ dining area.
  • Consider the height and locations of the windows. We should be able to look out of the windows from a sitting position. Consider access of the window controls

Kitchen Size

A kitchen design should accommodate for a walker or wheelchair manoeuvring space. We should have a minimum of 1,200mm in front of the controls and appliances. A minimum of 1,500mm diameter in the work triangle. A scooter or power wheelchair would need a turning circle of 1,800mm minimum.

Minimal effort

One of the most important principles of universal design is designing for minimal effort. Planning for maximum efficiency should consider the relationship between major elements in the kitchen.
  • Store dishes and glasses next to the dishwasher
  • Bakeware next to the worksurface next to the wall oven
  • Meals table closer to the sink for easier clean-up
  • Sink close to dishwasher
  • Microwave oven not too high
  • Storage at different heights
Other design components that increase the efficiency of effort and usability include
  • A tap next to the cooktop (for filling up pots)
  • Wall ovens instead of under the bench
  • Open shelves instead of closed cupboards
  • Resilient flooring
  • Hands free faucet


Anyone can use kitchens. An individual who has no mobility issues, or an individual in a wheelchair. Finding the right countertop height can be difficult. The most cost-effective way to design a kitchen to be adaptable is to install rolling base cabinets that can be removed when needed. They can be used as a wheel trolley for people with disabilities if they need to serve food in the meals area. There is also technology out there that can lower countertops mechanically. Remember that the splashback should be designed for this. Where there is limited space, incorporate your meals into your kitchen.


When looking for appliances, countertops and even flooring remember to look for low maintenance items. For example, glass splashbacks are easier to clean, whereas tiled splashbacks start discolouring, especially the grout. Store kitchen cleaning products in an easy to reach location. Store them in slide out baskets or even drawers if possible. Give careful thought to where you store these products because every circumstance is different. Ensure they are away from the reach of children.


Give the highest consideration to Safety in the kitchen. Do not lay mats and rugs on the floor. They are a tripping hazard and an obstacle. Install override switches. For someone with dementia or even Alzheimer’s this is perfect. These switches need to be activated before using the appliance. Install the override switch in an inaccessible spot to avoid injuries. Have a noticeboard in the kitchen for those who are losing their memories. Post safety notes on the board. Have a fire extinguisher nearby, install a gas shut off valve in case of emergency.

Design Elements

The major elements in the design of a kitchen are
  • Benchtops
  • Cupboards
  • Drawers
  • Pantries
  • Sinks
  • Food preparation areas
  • Switches and controls
  • Surfaces
  • Lighting
  • Audibility


Traditional benchtops are at about 943high to match with brick heights. A benchtop height of 860mm is suitable for children, individuals who are short or even individuals who are in wheelchairs.730mm high benchtop is suited for individuals who are short and, in a wheelchair, or even for children who are in a wheelchair. A universal kitchen would have benchtops at varying heights meeting the needs of different individuals. Adaptability can also be achieved by installing benchtops with electrically adjustable heights. These are available from innovative kitchen designers. Have a kickboard of about 150mm under the cabinets. A clear and empty benchtop space should be available next to all major appliances. This is to be able to rest any food taken out of the appliance. Have multiple work surfaces one with a minimum size of 800mm width and 60mm deep. Avoid a benchtop with a busy pattern for anyone with dementia or even vision loss. Have a solid colour with contrasting appliances and dishes. Sometimes having a contrasting edge makes a difference too. The splashback should be in a contrasting colour too, to help individuals with low vision in identifying the end of the benchtop. Rounded and bull nosed edges increase in the safety of eliminating the danger of sharp corners.

Cupboards and Drawer Systems

Don’t keep moving items in the cupboards around. Store them in the same place always. This is important for individuals with mobility issues, dementia and also visual loss. A larger pantry with large drawers allows for food to be stored where it can be easily reached. Fit mechanical systems to overhead cupboards so that they can be raised and lowered electrically. Install pull out systems or replace with drawers in the under-bench cupboards so that they can be pulled out for easy retrieval of its contents. Use a series of large and small drawers in lieu of cupboards for accessible storage. Install handles that are easy to grip and use on the cupboards and drawers. Have them contrasting to the cupboard. Touch and release cupboards and drawers can be universally accessible to everyone. We can even have a contrasting colour inside the cupboards and drawers too to increase the visibility for individuals with limited vision. Label the contents inside the drawers and cupboards for loss of memory. Install a pull-out shelf underneath the wall oven and microwave. This shelf provides a place for items that have been removed from the hot oven to rest and cool down before moving them again. These shelves can also be used as an additional work surface in smaller kitchens. Add lights to your pantry cupboard and 180-degree hinges to the doors increase the visibility in the cupboard. If an individual is allergic to or sensitive to certain foods, then there should be a dedicated food prep idea for their foods. Install open shelf storage maybe even with glass doors, this helps individuals with memory loss. The ability to see the contents of a cupboard makes the kitchen easier to use.

Cleaning up and Sinks

Consider 2 sink areas in a busy kitchen. Especially one where there are individuals with limited mobility issues. An accessible sink shouldn’t be located in the corner. This is because it limits access to the rest of the benchtop. If a sink has to be designed to be used from a seated position, use a shallow sink with a rear drain offset. This allows for leg room/ knee space. It also allows for the drainage pipes to be out of the way and eliminates hazards such as burning your legs on hot pipes. Alternatively insulate the pipes in lieu of offsetting them. Provide a clearance of 750mm height, 800mm width and 600mm depth to allow for a wheelchair underneath. Flexible plumbing for adjustable sink heights. Pull out spray taps are easy to use by most people. Taps should also permit easy control of water direction, temperature and flow. Have the tap at the side of the sink for easy access. A mixer tap or motion detector tap is very convenient. Whilst separate hot and cold water taps help avoid confusion for individuals with memory loss.

Food Preparation

An accessible benchtop integrated into the kitchen design is a very big advantage for individuals who need to work from a seated position. An area where the individual can prepare food and have access to the utensils is convenient. Children who love to help their parents prepare appreciates such benchtops too. The accessible area should have at least a benchtop (at a lower height) can be a pull-out shelf, accessible storage and an electrical outlet.


All controls and switches should be easy to operate. Locate them so that they are easily within the reach of an individual who is in a seated position. Cooktop and rangehood operation switches should be located below the counter for ease of accessibility. Note, lower outlets are a risk to children and this can be easily fixed by installing and override switch. Locate other switches and controls at a maximum height of 1,200mm from the floor level. They should also be in a contrasting colour for visual assistance for individuals with low vision.

Interior Design

Contrasting textures and colours around the kitchen helps all users, especially those with low vision. Level, none slip flooring is safe in a kitchen. Test the slip resistance on the flooring when it’s wet and dry. The flooring should have no patterns and non-glare to accommodate individuals with dementia. Contrasting colours around switches, outlets, front edge of the benchtops accommodates individuals with visual limitations. Choose resilient flooring material like cushioned vinyl or even cork for individuals who are prone to dropping things or even falling. Whatever type of flooring is chosen, install the flooring so that it is level to the flooring around to avoid having a lip where the different materials meet.


To design the lighting in the residence we first need to address the needs of the individuals staying there. Older people need 3 times the amount of light for reading compared to someone in their 20’s. Three things to consider for aging eyes is glare, intensity and balanced lighting. Position fixtures and lighting so that islands of brightness and shadows are not created. Adjustable or task lighting are suitable in the areas that will be mainly used for prepping food. Dimmers or even a motion detecting light that gradually adjusts the illuminations are good for midnight visits to the kitchen. Balanced lighting is very important because aging eyes do not adjust to changing light conditions very easily. Balance lighting around the kitchen and compensate for bright areas and add extra lighting in the darker corners of the kitchen. If possible, maximise natural lighting and avoid glare. Use glare free surfaces or soft matte paint. These finishes will reduce glare, complement illumination and creates a relaxing atmosphere. Control glare through the right selection of fixtures and also by locating the lighting sources so the bulbs are not exposed. Add ambient lighting to maintain and even level of illumination around the kitchen.


How would a person hard of hearing be alerted to buzzers and smoke alarms? Install appliances that can provide information in visual and audio signals are widely available. This also helps individuals with blind and low vison. Also ensure the noise is not bouncing off surfaces, especially when the individual using the kitchen is hard of hearing. Soft and absorbent surfaces like cork can reduce noise in the kitchen.


How would a person hard of hearing be alerted to buzzers and smoke alarms? Install appliances that can provide information in visual and audio signals are widely available. This also helps individuals with blind and low vison. Also ensure the noise is not bouncing off surfaces, especially when the individual using the kitchen is hard of hearing. Soft and absorbent surfaces like cork can reduce noise in the kitchen.
It is always good practice to consult with a professional architect or interior designer who is familiar with designing accessible homes.

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