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How to make your kitchen fit your needs

If location, location, location is the mantra in real estate sales, the magic words for planning a kitchen that supports your personal needs and work style, should be measure, measure, measure.

Sure, location -- of appliances, countertops and work spaces -- is important in kitchens, but if those appliances are out of reach, your countertops too high or your work spaces not big enough to move about in safely, they might as well be located on the moon. If you use a wheelchair or have other physical challenges, location of kitchen features can mean the difference between cooking, and not. And finding the right location means doing a lot of measuring.

Forget the Americans with Disabilities Act whose standards are minimums, and meant for public spaces. "When you're desiging for folks in their own home, you don't need to pay attention to (ADA) standards," says Seattle architect Carol Sundstrom.

Sundstrom worked with Karen Braitmayer to make the latter's mid-century modern home accessible for Braitmayer and her teenage daughter, both wheelchair users, and her husband who is able-bodied.

"We experimented with the size and shape of things before going ahead," Braitmayer told the audience at the Universal Design Summit 5 in St. Louis recently. She and Sundstrom "threw the ADA stuff out the window (asking instead), 'what am I going to do for my family?'"

Measure, measure, measure

They bought a height-adjusted table and electric skillet to figure out how low they could go before her husband had to bend double and she could still see into the bottom of the skillet.

And they measured, measured, measured.

Because Braitmayer and her daughter have different reach limits, the measuring was vital. And, in many cases, minor adjustments meant the difference between being able to use an appliance or fixture and being shut out. For example, in the laundry room, she found the "faucet in the rear of the sink bowl is way too far for me to reach, (so) I had the plumber drill a hole in the side of the sink and then they just capped the rear hole."

She also found that the skillet and mixer can't be on the same height counter for her to see in, hence, the architects set four different counter heights: "a table at about 30 inches, the cooktop about 33 inches, a conventional 36-inch counter over the dishwasher, and we have the sink, which is at 32 inches. The heights are all based on the functions."

So are the knee spaces in her home. Both Braitmayer and her daughter have short knee space, so she was able to leave less space under the farmer sink, for example, than would be necessary for a taller person.

Think in work centers

"I believe that you need to sit in one place and do everything," Braitmayer says. And she and Sundstrom proved that even in a kitchen with limited space and physical limits, the various work centers can be comprehensive. For example, with the microwave and oven next to the sink, hot pots can be set on the stainless steel drainboard and don't have to be carried across the room in one's lap.

Fagor oven
 
Like the microwave, the Fagor oven, shown at right in its two oven version, opens from the side so a seated cook can get close enough to reach hot pans.

 

 

The sink on the left side of the dishwasher and the conventional-height countertop with drawer on the right offer knee space for a seated user, so that the dishwasher can be loaded from the left and unloaded from the right, and the dishes put away in the cabinet and the flatware in the drawer.

Other tips:

“Universal design is a lens through which we have to see everything we do,” says design guru Mary Jo Peterson, who cautions that diagonal corner counters may not be accessible to someone using a mobility aid.

After long experience with cupboards that pull out to allow for legroom under a counter, but that are also useful as rolling carts: "Put casters on only two legs so you can control it."