When it comes to designing and building kitchens for people
with special needs, accessibility codes based on the Americans
With Disabilities Act are helpful — and sometimes
mandated. But your most important resource, in my view, is the
client. Whereas codes are generic, people have specific needs,
strengths, physical abilities, habits, and tastes.
Moreover, your clients have probably been thinking about what
they want in their kitchen for years. Along with family members
and caregivers, they know a tremendous amount about what will
and won't work for them. Sometimes they can tell you exactly
what's wrong with their existing space and how they want it
fixed. In other cases, you may have to ask many questions to
identify problems and solutions.
Though the codes will always inform the design process, I've
found that many solutions don't come from the code playbook.
Indeed, one of the first things I do when meeting new clients
is let them know they are not limited to standard ADA
dimensions or to stock ADA cabinets.
I like to start the design process by spending as much time as
I can with my client and his or her family in their current
kitchen. This is the same approach I use with everyone, whether
disability is an issue or not. It gives me a chance to ask
people what they like and dislike about their kitchen, and what
they cook and how they cook it. I want to know not only what
kinds of kitchen equipment they have, but also what they
actually use. For instance, a microwave could be the primary
means of cooking, or it could be an obstruction blocking the
I'm looking for specific data. How high and low can my client
comfortably reach? How far forward can he extend his reach
— for example, can he comfortably reach to the back of
the counter? What is the best counter height for food
preparation? Best height at the sink? Are there strength
issues? Not everyone can haul a cast-iron pot out of a bottom
drawer, or comfortably grasp a small knob.
I make notes about the client's movement patterns. A lot of
people who don't think of themselves as disabled have an awful
time reaching high shelves, or getting down on their knees to
find a pot at the back of a base cabinet. Visibility can also
be a concern, especially as folks age.
It helps to watch people operate in their current kitchens. I
don't ask clients to make me dinner, but I've learned a great
deal watching them make me a cup of coffee. Getting a
conversation going with the entire family present can be
helpful, too. The interaction — including disagreements
— among the members who will share the kitchen often
yields clues to both problems and solutions.
People have good ideas. Sometimes a seemingly off-the-wall
notion can turn out to be key. In short, listen
Mockups and Drawings
At the same time I'm having these conversations with the
client, I'm usually measuring up the space. I've found that
owner's drawings, though useful, are rarely accurate.
Architect's drawings may be off, as well. Sometimes I take a
small drawing board to the site and actually make a floor plan,
in 1/2-inch scale. Other times, I use large graph paper and
make a freehand version, also in scale.
Countertop heights for food prep and the sink are crucial, so
to help mock up a counter height, I've developed a simple
folding screen that supports an adjustable counter and some
adjustable shelves (see Figure 1). Once the client rolls or
walks up to it, I can determine several critical dimensions
fairly quickly, including counter height, high reach, and the
amount of knee space needed below a counter. Since a sink
obstructs this space, I drop a simple plastic dishpan through a
hole in the adjustable counter to find the optimum sink-counter
Figure 1. A folding screen fitted with an
adjustable countertop helps the author and his clients
determine critical countertop dimensions. The plastic dishpan
drops into the cutout to approximate knee-space clearance below
As with any kitchen project, I then take all this information
home and make careful drawings. I still do this with a pencil,
but a computer works, too. I use 1/2 inch = 1 foot as my scale,
since I can put in plenty of detail.
If there are lots of layout options, I do only the layout at
this point, scaled but sketchy. But if the layout is fairly
definite, I go ahead and make preliminary elevations in my
1/2-inch scale. I ask the client to live with these drawings
for a while and mark his thoughts right on copies of the
When there is a basic scheme, I ask the client to label the
elevations to show where he wants everything to go, along with
the sizes of the key items to be stored. That way, I can
dimension drawers and shelves to match, and cram as much
storage as possible into the space available.
At the end of the process, the drawings may be pretty
Details That Work
While every kitchen is unique, there are several design
concepts I return to on nearly every project. In addition to
basic ADA guidelines for maneuvering room, knee space, and
controls (see sidebar), I rely on the following
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair
Housing Act (FHA) establish minimum guidelines that
form the basis for most accessible housing codes. Key
features that affect the design of accessible kitchens
include the following:
Maneuvering room. A
wheelchair requires a 60-inch-diameter clear space to
make a 180-degree turn, as shown in the illustration at
right of a U-shaped kitchen. In narrower, galley-style
kitchens, clearances between opposing cabinets,
fixtures, or walls must be at least 40 inches.
Reaching. Fixed-height work surfaces
should not exceed 34 inches tall (see illustration,
below left). When placed above a standard countertop,
the lowest shelves of upper cabinets should be no
higher than 44 inches above the floor. Low storage
should be a minimum of 15 inches above the floor.
Knee space. Fixed-height sinks and
cooktops that aren't cabinet-mounted should have a
30-inch-wide by 27-inch-high clear knee space
underneath (see illustration, below).
The ORZ, or optimum reach zone.
Coined by gerontologist Margaret Wylde, this term refers to the
area 20 inches to 48 inches above the floor. Almost everybody
— kids, short people, wheelchair users, people with
arthritis — can reach items stored in the ORZ. For that
reason, the top two drawers of base cabinets, the counter, the
space at the back of the counter, and the lowest shelves of
upper cabinets should be contained within its spread (Figure
Figure 2. Countertops and as much storage
as possible should be located within the "optimum reach zone,"
20 to 48 inches above the floor. The open shelves in this
kitchen are shallower and lower than traditional upper
cabinets, making them ideal for frequently used items. Slots
cut into the wooden work surface keep knives at hand
Lots of drawers. As far as I'm
concerned, the drawer is the single most important accessible
feature, particularly if fitted with good full-extension
hardware. A drawer puts lots of things where they can be seen
and retrieved without kneeling or stooping. It makes the stuff
at the back of the cabinet easily reachable. Most base cabinets
should be drawer bases (Figure 3).
Figure 3.Cabinet doors can be
an obstacle to someone in a wheelchair. Drawers mounted on
full-extension slides are a better solution for base cabinetry
and can be used for storage, trash and recycling, and
Open shelves. Not only do open
shelves make things more visible, but they can be shallower
than standard overhead cabinets and can be positioned lower,
right in the ORZ. Six-inch or 7-inch shelves hold nearly as
much as a standard overhead cabinet and can be located just
above the counter, as low as 8 or 10 inches up.
The margin. I always make use of the
margin between the counter and the uppers. It's in the middle
of the ORZ, and can be a great place for a spice rack, a little
shelf, a grid storage system, or simply some hooks.
Varied counter heights. Though the 36-inch-high
counter works well for many, it's not comfortable for everyone.
Work with your client to find the optimum height for primary
tasks. I often provide more than one counter height, to suit
different people and different tasks (Figure 4).
Figure 4. A lower countertop height
combined with a raised floor creates an accessible work area
for Maria McClellan, who has Morquio syndrome, a disease that
affects the bones and ligaments. The setup allows her to work
alongside her parents and friends while preparing meals. A
raised stop prevents her wheeled chair from rolling off the
Sometimes these ideas will lead to a kitchen that is only
subtly different from the standard setup. But other times, they
can lead to a fairly unique space, as was the case with a
kitchen I recently designed and built for a woman with multiple
The client, who uses both a motorized and a conventional
wheelchair to get around, doesn't have a lot of arm strength,
and her reach is limited. When I first visited her, she already
had an ADA kitchen with many typical features — knee
space beneath the sink, for example, and a 34-inch-high
countertop — that in theory should have provided her with
a functional workspace.
Problems. In fact, however, the
existing space was basically nonfunctional. The 34-inch counter
height was much too high for her, making the entire room almost
useless. The upper cabinets, though large, were very far up,
way beyond her reach.
Another problem was the drop-in stove; its burners were too
high and its oven too low for safe, comfortable use. And
although the sink and nearby food-prep area did incorporate
knee space, they were separated by a lower cabinet that
required a lot of maneuvering to get around.
Solutions. In the new design, the
basic work area is compact, making it easier for the client to
get things done without a lot of rolling back and forth. We
made the knee space continuous throughout, so that she can move
laterally between different kitchen tasks; plywood brackets
bolted to the studs support the counters.
There are just a few base cabinets in the new kitchen, but they
all have drawers on full-extension hardware, for easy access
Figure 5.Instead of
hard-to-reach upper cabinets, this accessible kitchen is
equipped with lots of open shelving at countertop level (top),
plus a separate wall-mounted unit for bulk storage
The food-prep area is now convenient to both the stove and the
sink. Since my client couldn't quite reach to the back of the
counter, we moved the backsplash forward 8 inches and put some
shelves right above it, within her grasp. The outlets are in
To prevent the sink bowl from obstructing knee space, we placed
the sink countertop 30 inches above the floor; at 28 inches,
the prep counter is a little lower (Figure 6). Getting these
dimensions right would have been impossible without my mockup
Figure 6. Conveniently located between the
sink and the cooktop, the food-prep area features continuous
knee space and ample storage in the "margin," the area just
above the countertop.
We replaced the drop-in stove with a cooktop mounted flush with
the counter. In addition to preserving knee space, this
arrangement allows the client to slide pots on and off the
range without any lifting. Instead of knobs, the unit has an
easy-to-operate touchpad embedded in the glass surface, right
up front (Figure 7).
Figure 7.With a recessed glass
cooktop, the cook can slide — rather than lift —
pots on and off the burners. A combination microwave/convection
oven sits at eye level, the perfect height for someone in a
For the oven, we chose a combination microwave/convection unit
that sits on the counter, where it's at the ideal height for
the cook. A pullout board underneath serves as a landing
The completed kitchen may look a bit unconventional, but it's a
direct reflection of how its primary user actually moves and
does things. And that's basically what any good kitchen design
Sam Clark is a designer and builder in