The kitchen is usually the most used room in the home or apartment, and probably the one with the most barriers to independence! Having designed and built numerous living and commercial environments through the years (many with accessibility features), I have had the opportunity to use, test, and evaluate many materials, products, and technologies that “work”…and many that do not.

Kitchen Layout

Kitchen Triangle

The correct functional layout of the kitchen is necessary for it to help maximize efficient, safe, and enjoyable use. Let’s look at the basic kitchen’s functional design as a “work triangle, ”which can be broken down into three distinct areas representing the points of the triangle:

  • Refrigerator = cold storage area
  • Sink = cleaning and preparation
  • Cooktop and separate oven, or oven = food cooking area

Placing them too far from each other results in wasted effort and time in meal preparation, and placing them too close together results in an in efficient and cramped place to work. Supporting the work triangle are the storage areas for food, pots, pans, dishes, utensils, small appliances, etc. Four of the basic work-triangle shapes are: corridor or galley, peninsula, L-shaped, and U-shaped designs. The last one often incorporates an island. The corridor/galley, peninsula, and island designs, with the cooktop located across from the sink, create a potentially dangerous situation. In order to transfer hot liquid and food-filled containers from the cooktop to the sink, the pot can be accidentally dropped and severe burn injuries sustained. Remember to provide a 5-foot-diameter, clear, open turnaround in the kitchen no matter which design you select.


Select only cabinets that are constructed using durable materials and produce very little or no harmful chemical fumes that can “off-gas” and make you sick—or worse. One of the better brands is Merillat, which offers a great variety of cabinet styles and finishes and are reasonably priced. Lower cabinets should have pull-out drawers with full extension heavy-duty slides, instead of cabinets with doors and hard-to-reach fixed shelves. Select knob sand pulls that are easy to grasp. Mount an energy-efficient dishwasher, platform mounted 6 inches above the finished floor. The sink and cooktop cabinets should have a minimum 30-inch-wide x 29-inch-high x 19-inch-deep clear, open space underneath. Use 170° hinges on these doors to allow them to swing out of the way. The fully accessible and finished open space under the sink and cooktop will be concealed when the doors are closed.

Install an easily removable decorative panel in front of the sink plumbing lines to conceal them and allow access for servicing, or insulated covers on the hot water and waste pipe or line. It is essential to install an anti-scald hot-water valve in the main hot-water line from the water heater, set at 120° maximum. When space allows, it is best to select a separate cooktop unit and a single wall oven, rather than a combination unit, to allow wheelchair users full access to the cooktop and oven. Install the wall oven at a height so the middle inner shelf is about the same height as the adjacent countertop for easy and safe hot-food transfer. The oven should have an easy-to-see and use control panel set at 48 inches maximum height from the floor to the center of the panel. Select energy-efficient appliances.  Choose an easy-to-clean and use cooktop (separate from the wall oven unit) with large, easy-to-see and use controls in front. Install an energy-efficient, quiet, cooktop exhaust fan unit venting to the outdoors, with the control switch mounted in an easy-to-reach location. Be careful not to “oversize” the exhaust fan unit, as doing so will draw excessive heating or cooling from the house and waste energy.

It is also important to consider installing an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to bring in outside fresh make-up air. I just installed the exhaust fan unit for my kitchen using an S&P exterior mounted fan unit, which is extremely quiet and energy-efficient. Mount upper cabinets 13–15 inches above countertops, instead of the normal 18-inch height for better access. Instead of a built-in microwave, a countertop unit often works better, is easy to use, and is far less costly. Countertops should be a 34–36-inch height from the finished floor. Consider varying the counter heights for ease of use by all family members. Often, if space allows, a separate additional kitchen table will provide a great accessible place for wheelchair users.


A wide selection of countertop materials is currently available. The most popular materials, starting with the least costly, are laminate, quartz, and granite. If you want a very durable, beautiful, sustainable, easy to maintain, and fairly priced material, I would suggest quartz such as Dupont™ Zodiac, which comes in a broad range of aesthetic choices. Tile is a poor choice as the grout is hard to clean, porous, and collects mold. It is important to radius exposed countertop end corners for safety. Provide sufficient countertop work spaces adjacent to all built-in appliances, allowing at least 18 inches width next to the refrigerator and wall oven, and 24 inches on both sides of the sink and cooktop.

Sinks & Faucets

A double basin, approximately 6-inch deep, heavy gauge, stainless-steel sink with drains offset to the rear (as made by Moen, Part #22129) works great, as it provides good knee clearance for wheelchair users. Select a “low-flow,” easy-to-operate, single-lever-type faucet that has a high arc spout with a flexible pull-out hose, for use with large pots and tall pitchers. The Moen™ Medora model faucet works great!


Select high energy-efficient (Energy -Star) appliances. Of the three types of refrigerators, the side-by-side unit is the most accessible to use and has minimum wasted interior space. For good size families or those who just want a high storage capacity and very energy efficient refrigerator, Whirlpool™ just came out with a great very energy-efficient, 27-cubic-foot, side-by-side unit that is really a beauty and has lots of interior storage space.


So many flooring options are currently available, such as tile, laminate, sheet vinyl, and hardwood. Whatever your choice may be, it is important to select flooring that is easy to clean and maintain, durable, sustainable, slip-resistant, and reasonably comfortable to walk, roll, and stand on. If you opt for tile, large porcelain ones with a smooth surface and a very thin grout line work best. But remember, tile is very uncomfortable to stand on, while high-quality laminate or wood is just the opposite.


This is one of the most important design and functional elements in any kitchen! Select only energy-efficient, high quality, electronic ballast fluorescent ambient and task lighting fixtures, which are essential for function and safety. High quality, shadow-free lighting of all task areas is essential. Progress Lighting manufactures a great selection of well-made, beautiful, energy-efficient linear and compact fluorescent light fixtures. I suggest waiting a while before considering LED light fixtures, as there are still numerous technology difficulties yet to be resolved in this relatively new lighting technology.

As it advances and becomes more widely accepted, current design problems should be resolved, and high costs for this form of lighting should substantially comedown. Consider adding a skylight with a light-diffusing lens to produce diffused day lighting. These are just a few ideas to consider. The big question that governs the correct design of the kitchen is, who will use it and what is his/her level of ability to walk, reach, grasp, lift, hold, see, hear, and fuction?

The correct design of the kitchen should accommodate the specific physical and psychological challenges of the user(s), resulting in maximum barrier free independent use and enjoyment. Next month I will report on new and innovative materials, products, and technologies that help you maximize the performance of daily-living tasks and activities in the home.