19 Universal Design Principles to Consider When Remodeling Your Kitchen

simple modern blue kitchen stove island
Photo: Dustin Halleck

Get a kitchen that is convenient for everyone by embracing these universal design tips from the pros.

01 of 19

What Is Universal Design?

kitchen universal design exposed beams island
Michael Partenio

Universal design aims to ensure everyone—regardless of age, size, or ability—can safely and effectively use a space. For your kitchen, that means thoughtfully designing the layout and function to be inclusive of a range of physical and cognitive abilities so that it works for as many people as possible. We asked accredited designers with the National Kitchen and Bath Association what homeowners need to know to embrace the principles of universal design in their own kitchens.

02 of 19

Create Contrast

blue kitchen marble counters and walls
Dylan Chandler

According to Erin L. Serventi, owner of E.L. Designs and a Universal Design Certified Professional (UDCP), contrast helps people understand the boundaries of a space. "Ideally, there would be contrast between the flooring and cabinets and between the cabinets and the countertops so that anyone with vision impairments can safely identify where surfaces change from horizontal (the floor) to vertical (cabinetry)," says Serventi. The designer also says contrast doesn't have to be as stark as black and white; white oak hardwood floors and walnut cabinetry offer enough differentiation to make an impact.

03 of 19

Layer Lighting

kitchen with black subway tile and marble countertop
David Greer

Natural light is ideal, so embrace it when you can. However, additional kitchen lighting is still necessary. Task lighting above certain areas, like the island and cooktop, supports safety during food preparation and cooking. "We recommend dimmable lighting for overhead lights as well as under-cabinet lighting at prep surfaces," says Aimee Inouye of Home Base Designs, LLC, a Certified Kitchen and Bath Designer (CKBD) and Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP).

Inouye also notes emerging lighting trends that aid universal design, including lighting drawer interiors and incorporating lighting along the bottom of cabinets to emphasize the layout and depth of the space.

04 of 19

Use Pull-Out Storage

gray kitchen cabinets pull-out shelves pots pans
Andreas Trauttmansdorff

"Storage options like trash pull-outs, roll-out shelves, swing-up mixer shelves, and pull-down shelves offer much more flexible use," says Serventi. These pullouts not only make it easy to see what's in your cabinets, but they can also generally be maneuvered by people of all abilities.

Similar benefits can come from incorporating more drawers into the kitchen cabinetry, according to Inouye. For example, upper cabinets might traditionally hold dishware and glassware, but drawers with storage inserts securely store these staples below the countertop, making them easier to access for more users.

05 of 19

Convert Cabinets to Open Shelving

white subway tile gray kitchen cabinets open shelves
Greg Scheidemann

Open shelving not only makes it easy to spot the items you're looking for, but it also makes those items easier to access, according to Victoria Highfill, designer at Builder Supply Source LLC and an Associate Kitchen Bath Designer (AKBD) and Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP). Replacing closed base cabinets with open shelves also removes barriers for those who have difficulty opening doors or drawers, and eliminates the clearance necessary for opening doors. Highfill notes this is especially helpful for those using mobility devices.

06 of 19

Select a Single-Lever Faucet

statement blue kitchen tour display shelves sink faucet
Anthony Masterson 

Opt for a single-lever faucet to ensure people of all abilities can turn the water on and off. Single-lever models can be managed with either an open hand or a closed fist, making them perfect for homes with people who suffer from arthritis. Touch- and voice-activated faucets are also great for universal design and are more common than ever in the kitchen. No matter the type of faucet, it should be easy for the user to identify which direction the lever moves for hot or cold.

07 of 19

Install Cabinet Hardware

silver cabinet handles
FPS Inc dba Emily Followill Photography

Cabinet doors and drawers without hardware are difficult to grasp. For better accessibility, install D-shape door and drawer pulls, which are easier to use than knobs for people with arthritis or other mobility issues. Choose a large pull that's at least 3 inches wide and avoid styles that are narrow or have a low profile. Ample space between the hardware and the cabinet makes it easier for everyone to grab.

D-shape pulls also allow you to easily lock cabinets that contain hazardous items, which helps keep them out of reach of children and those with cognitive impairments, says Highfill.

08 of 19

Choose Simple Countertops

white kitchen with marble counters
John Granen

Countertops are a major kitchen surface that should be easy on the eyes and body. Inouye recommends light, neutral colors and simple patterns for countertops because they make it easier to see what's on the surface. "For those that have vision impairments, I recommend matte finish for lower reflective qualities," says Inouye. Inouye also suggests easy-to-clean, durable countertop materials, such as porcelain and quartz, because they require less care and maintenance from the homeowner.

09 of 19

Plan for Landing Areas

simple modern blue kitchen stove island
Dustin Halleck

"A drop zone by all appliances is recommended," says Highfill. Also known as landing areas, they increase the safety of various kitchen activities, including removing hot dishes from the microwave or heavy pots from the stovetop, by providing an adjacent or close-by countertop for items. Drop zones also prevent unnecessarily carrying things through a busy or cluttered area until the time is right.

Incorporating landing space can be especially important to consider in older homes when appliances have been positioned wherever an electrical outlet, gas, or water source was available—sometimes far from the main kitchen workspace and countertops.

10 of 19

Eliminate Flooring Hazards

kitchen with large island and wood floors
Werner Straube

Kitchens are high-traffic areas, so take care when choosing your flooring. "Avoid rugs and other trip hazards, like transition pieces between types of flooring," says Highfill. Level, non-polished surfaces allow everyone to traverse safely, especially those with mobility devices. Tile can also be a great choice if grout lines are minimalized. Highfill recommends porcelain tile with a high slip-resistance but cautions that the tile has to be installed flush so there is no projecting trip hazard.

If you really want the color, protection, or comfort of a kitchen rug, Inouye advises against high-pile styles and loose rugs. "If you're integrating 'soft' landing areas in the kitchen, it's recommended that they have an anti-slip backing or they're tacked down to avoid being a tripping hazard," says Inouye.

11 of 19

Vary Countertop Heights

bar stools at island in renovated kitchen
Helen Norman

Varying the height of your kitchen's countertops ensures people of all sizes and abilities have a place to work. "A countertop that is approximately 30-inches high would be equivalent to the height of a dining table, so children, individuals with limited mobility, and your average adult can all use the space comfortably and for different tasks, whether it's used as a workstation for a laptop or to sit and help prepare food in the kitchen," says Serventi. Alternatively, a standard 36-inch countertop is better for most adults standing while cooking and prepping meals. Serventi recommends at least one countertop between 28 and 30 inches, and one between 34 and 36 inches.

12 of 19

Give Appliances Space

white kitchen island
Edmund Barr

Be conscious of appliance placement within the kitchen layout. Universal design avoids tucking appliances into corners and against walls because it can inhibit an appliance from fully opening or limit a user's access to it. "Making sure there's space on either side of an appliance gives someone with limited mobility the ability to access the appliance without needing to be in front of it to do so," says Serventi. For example, someone who is pregnant or using a walker can access the full dishwasher rack with less straining when approaching from the side.

13 of 19

Replace the Range

kitchen double wall oven white cabinets baskets
Megan Chaffin

Ranges are limited to where they fit in a floor plan; if space allows, a wall oven and cooktop will give you the same cooking capabilities with a more flexible and accessible installation. Wall ovens can be installed at any level along the wall, allowing the positioning to be set by universal design standards or to be customized according to the homeowner. "By having a separate wall oven, you're able to install it a bit higher, making it easier to take things in and out of the oven without having to bend down," says Inouye.

When looking at cooktops, choose one that meets accessible design recommendations. Controls should be located at the front and clearly labeled to indicate which burners they control. Inouye says these are not only easier to see but safer for many people to use.

14 of 19

Upgrade to Induction

induction kitchen stove top with gray cabinets
Michael Partenio

Consider trading out a gas or electric cooktop or range for an induction model. "Induction cooktops are the most user-friendly for everyone," says Serventi. "You can turn the cooktop on, but unless a pot or pan makes contact, there's no heat coming from the cooking surface, and this is great for homes where there's young children and aging adults struggling with memory loss."

15 of 19

Reconsider the Refrigerator

kitchen rack near fridge subway tile
James R. Salomon

Opt for a side-by-side refrigerator model so that someone at any height or mobility can reach both the refrigerator and the freezer. Refrigerator and freezer drawers are another smart solution. Stacked or side-by-side, these appliances fit below the countertop for better accessibility for all people. Plus, because they pull out, it is easy to see what's inside.

16 of 19

Provide Clearance for Mobility Devices

large white kitchen island sink storage
Greg Scheidemann

Islands, peninsulas, and breakfast bars add a lot of storage and functionality to a kitchen. But they can also congest a layout, making it difficult for multiple people or someone with a mobility device to get through the space. The NKBA recommends 42-48 inches width for a work aisle (and it may be greater depending on the layout of the kitchen). Up to 60 inches of open space is suggested for a dining spot in the kitchen, allowing anyone to comfortably pass behind those seated.

17 of 19

Recess Areas for Seated Users

recessed lower kitchen cabinets detail accessibility
Greg Scheidemann

Include recesses in lower cabinets—especially at the cooktop, sink, and prep area—to allow people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices to nudge right up to the work zones. Chairs can also more easily be pulled up to recessed lower cabinets. To avoid losing storage, Serventi recommends cabinet components on casters that can slide out to create the recessed space when needed. "These mobile cabinetry options offer storage, flexible use, and can look great too!"

18 of 19

Lower the Microwave

kitchen island built-in microwave turquoise stools
Greg Scheidemann

Installing a microwave in lower cabinets makes it more accessible for everyone. Plus, it frees up counter space and eliminates potential hazards from pulling things out of an over-the-range microwave. "Some factors to take into consideration are where the control panel is located and the opening style of the microwave door (drawer vs. drop-down door vs. traditional swinging door)," says Inouye. Inouye recommends looking for a unit with a control panel at the top that tilts up, which has better visibility for taller users.

19 of 19

Find the Right Dishwasher

sunny kitchen with blue cabinets, stainless steel appliances, and window above sink
Jean Allsopp

Loading and unloading the dishwasher requires a lot of bending and reaching, which is hard on many people, including taller individuals, those in wheelchairs, and users with shoulder injuries. Raise the dishwasher for better accessibility. Serventi suggests dishwasher drawers, which are smaller and have flexibility for a higher placement.

Raising the dishwasher a few inches off the ground is another common option. However, an elevated dishwasher may require raising a portion of the countertop, too, which can have other accessibility impacts—especially when located next to a sink.

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