Kitchen adaptations

The kitchen is an area that creates many problems for architects and designers. As a consequence of having to work with buildings that have been built with traditional construction methods and processes, trying to salvage a kitchen layout compatible with the needs of a disabled user from the conventional standards for space, heating, plumbing, electric, etc., is not easy.

The golden rule in kitchens, regardless of their size, is one of ergonomics, i.e. how easy it is to work in them. Quick and easy movement between the intensive work areas is key, with equipment stored in easily accessible places close to where they will be used.

This page provides general design guidance and should not be used as a checklist for a Disabled Facilities Grant application.

Types of layout

While 'U' shape arrangements make the best use of space available, an 'L' shape kitchen layout is generally the most practical for all types of user. One or two-sided (galley type) layouts should be avoided, as they force the less able user to make more movements than necessary.

In accommodation designed for 1-2 less able people, there should be at least a 4.8 m run of 600 mm deep units, including a hob, oven at worktop height and cupboard storage. When 3-6 people are considered, this may increase to a 6.6 m run. Provision should also be made for an eating area where there is not a separate dining area.

Ambulant disabled users

For ambulant disabled users, additional circulation space is needed giving at least 1200 mm between units and work surfaces on opposing walls.

The optimum worktop height is approximately 150 mm below the user's elbow. This will minimise any strain on the back or shoulders when working in the kitchen. This usually gives an optimum work surface height of around 850 mm for a disabled user.

A place to sit down and work in the kitchen should be allowed for. This could be a table, free-hanging worktop or a pull-out shelf. To allow the best use of wall cupboards, these should be placed at 1300 mm from floor level with the top shelf being no higher than 1650 mm. Refrigerators should ideally be placed in a housing with the top shelf no higher than 1500 mm and the bottom shelf no lower than 500 mm.

Wheelchair users

A kitchen designed to be used solely, or in the main, by a wheelchair user differs from both the conventional and those for the ambulant disabled. The following features are very important:

- Large areas of free space

- Separate hob and oven

- Free space underneath work areas

- Greater concentration of work areas

In order to provide a turning circle for wheelchairs, at least 1300 by 1300 mm of free space will be required, with up to 1500 by 1500 mm necessary for larger chairs. Ergonomically, base units of around 530 mm high will increase turning space by allowing footrests to pass underneath - an essential feature for small kitchens. This size of base unit also provides the optimum comfortable reach.

Worktop height should be set 250 mm higher than the wheelchair seat, usually giving a height of 750-800 mm from floor level. Post-formed worktops are recommended, edged on all four sides and sealed underneath, giving a perfectly smooth finish. This ensures that clothing and cuffs do not get caught on the work surface, knocking the user off balance.

Pull-out worktops can can be useful, with some manufacturers supplying worktops with cut-outs for mixing bowls if required.

The sink, hob and a preparation area should have no units underneath so as to facilitate access. These areas should also be in close proximity to each other and be continuous so as to avoid excess manoeuvring.

Wall units should be fitted to provide the optimum use of storage space. In most situations, they will only be accessible by chair users if they are placed over areas of free-hanging worktop. The lower shelf of the wall unit should be around 1220 mm from the floor and the top shelf no higher than 1420 mm.

Trolley units are one of the most useful extras in a kitchen. They compensate for lost storage under the sink and preparation area, while providing additional work areas at lower level. This type of unit also enables anyone with limited strength in their arms or hands to move full saucepans from the sink to the hob, for instance, with a minimum of effort. Braked castors are an additional safety feature worth consideration.

Refrigerators should be placed in housings with the top shelf no higher than 1300 mm and the bottom of the refrigerator no lower than 400 mm from the floor.

Sinks

Sinks should have a shallow depth of between 125 and 140 mm to make it easier for the wheelchair user, or someone sitting down, to reach things in the bottom. This also makes it easier for anyone with limited strength in the hands to lift a saucepan full of water, for instance, out of the sink and onto the worktop. Heat insulation should be provided to the underside of the bowl to eliminate the possibility of the user's legs being scalded. Square sinks are better than round ones for fitting saucepans into.

Waste disposal units have obvious advantages, but when access is required underneath the bowl by seated users, they may be an obstruction. It is important however, to have easy access to a dustbin near the sink. If there is no space available in cupboards underneath the worktop, then a mobile trolley with a built-in dustbin may be considered. This can then be placed in any convenient position.

Taps should be quarter or half turn so that they are easy for arthritic hands to turn and preferably ones which offer handle extensions as an optional extra. The tap itself needs to be positioned, so that if a saucepan is placed in the sink, it is easy to swing the tap over and to position it accurately over the pan. Many older people are not able to hold a saucepan full of water under a tap.

Electrical sockets

Sockets should be positioned at 1100 mm from floor level to the top of the socket. Ideally, in wheelchair kitchens, there will be no base units underneath the worktop at this point to restrict the user's reach. If this is inevitable, or the user has limited reach, consideration may be given to mounting the socket into the fascia below the worktop or into a false drawer panel in a base unit.

In general as many sockets as possible should be installed, especially if the user has severe mobility or reach problems. Sockets for built-in appliances should include easily accessible remote switching in case of emergency.

Provision for multiple users

Another way to accommodate multiple users in a domestic kitchen is with units that are able to wind up or down. Such frames allow sinks, hobs, ovens, storage cupboards and worktops to be infinitely adjustable.

These units can be adjusted in height manually with a simple winding handle, or by means of an electric motor. Whilst adding to the cost of the kitchen, these units do reduce the need to make provision for different types of user, which in itself is expensive in terms of cost and available space. 

Such an arrangement also overcomes the psychological aspect of segregating users whose only real difference is their ability to overcome the obstacles a designer has left for them.

Decoration

Perhaps one of the most important points when designing a kitchen for someone with a disability is not to let the appearance of the equipment make the room look too clinical. If special units are required, look for a range which is as attractive as conventional units and which offers a choice of finishes.

When designing for people with visual problems, a good contrast between dark and light, such as between door and handle, can make it easier to see.

Large chunky handles are important, to offer a comfortable grip to open doors and drawers. D-shaped handles are the best, and should be fixed down on both sides so that cuffs do not get caught in the middle.

Ovens and hobs

It is generally accepted that a separate oven and hob arrangement will suit most users. In fact, for wheelchair users it is considered dangerous to use a free standing cooker. Important features to look for are non-tilt shelves and easy-to-use controls. Where the designer has knowledge of the specific needs of the user, adapted controls may be included.

Side opening ovens must be used whenever possible to allow complete access to the oven contents. A pull-out worktop underneath or to the side of the oven complements this arrangement. The argument that pull-down oven doors protect the user from the heat of the oven is not valid, as the user is more likely to burn themselves on the back of the door when reaching in.

The oven should be placed, where possible, in a housing which has a variable height shelf. This allows the oven to be set at the optimum level for the user, while providing flexibility for a worsening condition or other users.

When specifying a hob, the emphasis has to be on safety and ease of use. Inset hobs with controls set close to the front of the hot-plates / burners are to be preferred. Remote control panels can be used for those with severe reach limitations but are are not recommended for the majority of users, as they can double the cost of the installation.

Halogen hobs have the advantage that the burners will cool down almost as soon as they are turned off. This is a good safety consideration. The burners heat up quickly too, which means that they can be more economical to run.

It is generally considered that on a safety aspect alone, electric hobs should be preferred to gas. There are different views on which fuel actually cooks better, but the designer has to weigh up the risk of burns from radiant rings or elements against open flames and the possibility of leaking gas.

Whichever hob or fuel is used, there must always be space left for the setting down of pans on both sides of the hob, which means fitting well away from walls or making full use of pull-out worktops and / or mobile trolleys. Where possible, worktop savers should be used in this area to protect the work surface.

Microwaves can be useful in small kitchens where space does not allow for a separate oven and hob arrangement. Combination microwaves will enable the user to prepare most types of meal and as with almost all microwaves, the side opening door is an advantage.

Extractors

In poorly ventilated kitchens or open-plan arrangements where cooking smells and steam can easily escape into the living / dining area, air extraction is essential. Having the cooker against an outside wall will be useful when fitting the extractor.

The recommended height for an extractor unit is normally 600 mm above the hob for electric and 700 mm for gas. Where the hob or wall units are adjustable, the height of the extractor should also be variable. Flexible vents can be covered with adjustable cover boxes which match the rest of the kitchen range.

Where a wheelchair user may not be able to reach the extractor controls, a heat activation should be considered. Another more expensive arrangement would be to spur the switch so that it can be operated from the worktop fascia, but only in the most severe cases.

Washing machines and dryers

Except in the case of compact washers, these appliances invariably result in an overall working height of 900 mm when built under the worktop, above that recommended for wheelchair users. This makes it logical to group such appliances together where the remainder of the work surfaces have been set to a lower level.

Often the kitchen will be used by able-bodied as well as wheelchair users anyway, so necessitating a separate work area at between 850 and 900 mm high.

It should be noted that most washers have left-hand hinges doors and if placed on the extreme right hand of a closed elevation can create access problems, particularly for wheelchair users. The positioning of tumble dryers is not so important as most have reversible doors.

Ideally, if space allows, a utility area should be used to locate the washer and dryer, thus keeping the kitchen free for cooking, preparation, etc.

Dishwashers

The dishwasher is a useful labour-saving device, particularly for disabled users. The appliance is best placed close to the sink, and care has to be taken if a built under arrangement is chosen, so as not to interfere with the flexibility of the kitchen units.