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Friday, May 13, 2011

Full Access

Designing for people with limited mobility has always been a challenge. The needs are real and often unmet. Yet no one wants to live with a placard on the front door. Designer sensitivity is essential to creating accessible living spaces that reflect the distinctive tastes and personalities of their amazing owners.

Wheelchair users need countertops lowered to a maximum 32 inches with a minimum 29 inches of open knee space below, to be able to reach the work surface without straining. However, our eyes are very accustomed to a 36 inch high countertop. Anything else catches our attention immediately. Removing some or all of the base cabinets to create knee space may make the counters accessible, but lack of storage may render the kitchen useless, especially when more base storage is sacrificed to allow for a 9” high toekick. Unless there is unlimited space or it is planned very carefully, the kitchen becomes non-functional. While wheelchair users need access, nobody wants to live in a watered-down, pablum world.

The kitchen shown here is an example of exactly this situation. The owners had a very limited envelope which they wanted to maximize without looking “handicapped.”  The floor space was 60-1/2 inches - 5 feet - between cabinet door faces. The refrigerator projected 8 inches into the open floor and sat a mere 24 inches from the front of the range. There was no place for a wheelchair and no way for the owner to open the refrigerator door. There were a mere 8 feet of base cabinet, including the sink base. The corner base cabinets were simple boxes with 9 inch wide openings. Storage was dismal.

The first order of business was to relocate the refrigerator to open up the workspace. Recessing the refrigerator into a small pantry on the other side of the dining room entry door opened the space for a wheelchair. Although the adjacent dining room door was widened 3 inches, moving the refrigerator allowed for an additional 36 inches of cabinet and counter space. Providing each base cabinet with roll-out trays and all full-extension drawer slides provides access to the contents. A lazy-susan corner, corner-access pull-outs and a door at the end of the cabinet run help as well. Super-sturdy pull-outs in the base cabinets provide lower-height working surfaces with open knee space below. Holding the wall cabinets to 15” above the countertops makes the contents of the bottom wall shelf accessible without further assistance.

The owners had purchased new appliances shortly before deciding to remodel and didn’t want to replace them. However, they decided to replace their top-mount freezer with a side-by-side that provides access to both refrigerator and freezer. A free-standing counter-top microwave is also part of the plan.

There are various physical conditions that need to be addressed through good design. Further, the requirements to accommodate one circumstance may be the opposite of those needed by others. Next time, we’ll cover design for tall users and people who have back problems. That includes a lot of us. Stay tuned.

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