Universal Design

Universal Design

You dream of a gorgeous kitchen that makes meal prep and entertaining a cinch. Chances are, you've put a lot of thought into how this space will look — but have you paid enough attention to functionality?

This goes beyond mere organization, although, of course, the right design can certainly promote a tidy space. Beyond this, however, simply moving about the kitchen must feel effortless.

This is where universal design comes into play. Meant to help a variety of people utilize spaces comfortably and conveniently, universal design plays an increasingly prominent role in today's kitchen design process.

If you, loved ones, or guests struggle to make the most of your kitchen or access dishware or ingredients, it's time for a change. By applying the tenets of universal design within your own home, you can make this environment feel truly livable. Keep reading to learn how.

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What is Universal Design?

Universal design aims to make spaces as accessible, comfortable, and welcoming as possible. Within the household, this means creating layouts that allow many types of people to easily navigate critical spaces, regardless of cognitive or physical impairments.

Experts at the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) define this as "a way of thinking about needs with design as the solution," adding that universal design should "thoughtfully relate to the user of the space."

NKBA makes a clear distinction between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines and the principles of universal design. The ADA sets minimum standards but doesn't necessarily go above and beyond to make everyone feel confident or comfortable.

The goal with ADA guidelines is to make spaces more accessible for a wider audience, and, while this is important, it may still leave some private settings lacking from a personal perspective.

Universal design takes an extra step up with customized solutions. These center around the unique needs of the homeowner or resident in question. Yes, large-scale accessibility remains a priority, but further adjustments can align spaces with individual needs.

Benefits of universal design in the kitchen environment include:

  • Provide a welcoming oasis. If you or loved ones deal with mobility issues, you may struggle to navigate even the most seemingly accessible spaces. This can start to feel exhausting, but you can find quick relief if you have access to at least one room that is entirely catered to you and your needs. Why not turn your kitchen into a personal and highly accessible oasis? No matter which challenges you face as you go about your day, you will always remember that you can rest and relax when you return to your inviting home.
  • Accommodate guests. When you host guests, you hope that they will be impressed by the appearance of your kitchen. Their comfort should also be top of mind, however, and chances are, some people will find it difficult to move about a poorly-designed kitchen. This is especially important for overnight guests, who, ideally, would be able to prepare their own snacks or enjoy a morning coffee on their own terms. If they struggle with your cabinets and other kitchen features, however, they might not feel entirely welcome or appreciated.
  • Create a forever home. If you love your home and hope to remain there for years (even decades) to come, you will eventually want to make strategic adjustments to ensure that your kitchen serves your needs far into the future. Features that seem tolerable at the moment may cause more frustration with age. Why not get started early, so you can continue to enjoy the benefits of an accessible kitchen as you grow with your home?
  • Convenient meal prep. Universal design is not strictly meant to accommodate the needs of people with mobility impairments. In reality, everyone — regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities — can benefit from the application of universal design principles. This will quickly become evident as you go about your day in your upgraded kitchen; suddenly, it will be easier to store and retrieve all the essentials, not to mention, more enjoyable to whip up a meal or to simply relax in your welcoming kitchen.

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Hardware in Universal Design

Every element of every kitchen should be designed to promote accessibility. Often, however, homeowners and designers sacrifice this for the sake of aesthetics. There is no need for compromise; universal design is possible within the trendiest, most visually impactful spaces.

While there are many design concerns worth addressing, hardware changes are often the easiest to understand and implement. In some situations, this is as simple as providing hardware in the first place. Without it, cabinet drawers and doors may be incredibly difficult (and frustrating) to grasp.

This is a major concern given the popularity of clean styles these days. Contemporary cabinets may eliminate handles or pulls in pursuit of a cleaner look. Meanwhile, traditional kitchen cabinets typically feature knobs, which bring their own unique obstacles — especially for those with arthritis.

Thankfully, many hardware options are both functional and stylish. These can add flair to your kitchen while also making it easier to open and close cabinets or simply navigate this important space.

Strategies for Universal Design

Different homes may call for different universal design strategies — and no one solution is going to work for every person or every setting.

Many factors need to be considered: budget, aesthetic preferences, space limitations, and so on. With these concerns in mind, you'll want to examine several options. Top universal design strategies worth implementing include:

  • Try D-shaped handles. Knobs can be beautiful, but they are often difficult to grasp. Instead, consider D-shaped handles, which are often easier to use. These may also be desirable from an aesthetic perspective: D-shaped handles bring a sleek, contemporary look to the kitchen, not to mention, a simple way to make cabinets pop.
  • Build contrast into kitchen features. Contrast makes kitchens more aesthetically appealing, but this can also serve a functional purpose: helping those with visual impairments find and use door handles or drawer pulls. Many of the most appealing hardware solutions emphasize contrast: brass, for example, is an appealing option for today's trendy mixed material kitchens, where the right hardware can be both stylish and practical.
  • Make the most of personalized drawers and accessories. A variety of clever drawer systems promise enhanced accessibility and functionality. These can be a game-changer for kitchen organization, but they also make it easier to access essential items in the first place. From spice rack pullouts to roll-out drawers for dry ingredients — and even Magic Corners or docking drawers for mobile devices — there are many unique solutions worth considering.
  • Add an electronic cabinet door opener. Hands-free solutions are increasingly popular in modern kitchens, and for good reason: these allow for effortless operation and may limit the need to use specific types of handles or pulls. The practicality of this solution depends somewhat on the specific mobility concerns at play, but many people favor electronic solutions simply because they allow for seamless and efficient navigation of the kitchen environment — even when their hands are occupied.
  • Provide clearance to accommodate wheelchairs. People with wheelchairs often struggle to complete basic tasks within cramped kitchens, where high counters and minimal clearance, in particular, represent common challenges. Obstructions beneath counters must be eliminated so that those with wheelchairs can easily approach critical work surfaces. This does not need to come at the cost of cabinet storage or hardware selection; pull-down shelves and lazy Susans can be added in other areas to maximize storage.

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Balancing Accessibility & Aesthetics

There is no one way to make a kitchen accessible or aesthetically pleasing, nor should compromise be a necessity. This process is best pursued alongside a skilled designer, as professionals can pinpoint potential accessibility concerns that ordinary homeowners might struggle to notice or understand.

Often, designers begin by looking at the big picture of the kitchen, along with the homeowner's priorities. This process will vary a bit depending on how much of an overhaul the space requires. In some kitchens, a few simple additions such as pull-outs and new handles will make all the difference, while others may call for major changes to the layout, not to mention, placing cabinets and counters lower.

The good news? These changes still allow for a variety of cabinet door designs, finishes, and other stylistic details.Impactful elements such as decorative backsplash can amplify the effect, and, in some universal kitchen designs, may actually be more visible.

Achieve an Accessible and Attractive Kitchen With Plain & Fancy

As you seek the perfect balance between form and function, look to the experts at Plain & Fancy for insight. We know what it takes to create beautiful, yet practical spaces that are welcoming to all — but also, personalized to fit your lifestyle.

The sooner you start making adjustments that align with the principles of universal design, the better. Why waste another moment in a kitchen that is difficult to navigate? Reach out today to learn more about our accessible options, or feel free to see how they work as you browse our showrooms.


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