Universal Design for Living

By Grace Tatigian

When it comes to kitchen design, the sweet spot is at the intersection between aesthetics and functionality. Aesthetics change depending on personal tastes and trends, but functionality can change as well, and not just in terms of hardware wearing out or an appliance falling out of date. The functionality of a tool depends entirely on the user, so if something changes in the user’s abilities, the functionality will change accordingly.

This was the topic of the Canadian Kitchen Cabinet Association’s National roundtable: “Aging in Place – Are you ready for the next wave?” Lucy Traetto, marketing representative at Blum, Certified Aging in Place Specialist, and Certified Living in Place Professional, gave a presentation on kitchen design related to functionality for people who choose to age in their homes.

She highlighted that Baby Boomers, the largest generation ever, will soon have to decide if they want to age in place — meaning stay at home for as long as possible — or move into an assisted living facility. If they choose to remain in their homes long-term, they need to consider that some aspects of their houses may no longer be functional as they once were.

What Traetto was discussing was the basic principles of Universal Design, but the applicability of this concept goes far beyond accommodating people as they age. The seven principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University. The purpose of the principles is to guide the design of environments, products, and communications. 

The seven principles are: 

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

According to the Center for Universal Design in NCSU, the Principles “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process, and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.”  

The concept of Universal Design applies to seniors who have to deal with common issues such as arthritis, loss of balance, reduced muscle mass, and failing eyesight, but it goes far beyond that. Traetto pointed out in her presentation that the average family will live in a home for ten years, meaning 26 individuals will live in that house over the course of 100 years. If you add just one visitor per week (not unusual in the pre-pandemic days), it gets increased to 5000 individuals spending time in that home. 

It’s improbable that all these individuals, from young to old with varying abilities, will find that the kitchen ——or any room for that matter — has the same level of functionality. And while we can’t design our homes based on the idea that anyone may walk through our door, we can plan to make them accessible to a broad range of people. This range should also consider our future selves and our prospective families.

Blum has been researching what they call the “dynamic space” of the kitchen for years, focusing on space optimization, quality of motion, and flow in terms of convenience. A critical factor in this are the five standard zones of the kitchen:

  1. Consumables — Refrigerator for perishable food and cabinetry for non-perishable food 
  2. Non-Consumables — Area for storage containers, dinnerware, glasses, etc.
  3. Cleaning — Area for waste, recycling items, and cleaning products
  4. Preparation — Area for food preparation and the tools required
  5. Cooking — Area for cooking (stove and oven) and the tools required

Kitchens are typically renovated once every 20 years, so it’s essential to keep all this in mind when working with a customer or designing a kitchen.


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