The Simplest Guide to Universal-Design Kitchen Remodels

by | Dec 22, 2021 | Kitchen Design

The Simplest Guide to Universal Design Kitchen Remodels

Universal design (also referred to as aging-in-place design) has recently become a common consideration in kitchen remodeling – and for good reason. The needs of people who are differently-abled are finally being given the attention they deserve in home design. Aging-in-place features no longer consist of just boring grab bars or sterile environments. 

Instead, remodelers and designers are embracing the challenge of building functional, safe, and beautiful universal-design kitchens that are just as stunning as regular remodels.

As universal design and aging-in-place remodel specialists, we at L. Evans Design wanted to create a comprehensive resource to explain the most important considerations when planning a universal-design kitchen remodel. In this post, we’ll cover the following topics:

  • Why should I opt for a universal-design kitchen?
  • What are the principles of universal design (and how do I incorporate them into a kitchen)?
  • What are some common must-haves for a universal-design kitchen?
  • How do I choose a universal-design remodeler or contractor?

Why should I opt for a universal-design kitchen?

Kitchen Desk Design

It’s more than just a design for aging folks or those with disabilities.

A kitchen remodel that truly incorporates universal design goes far beyond just being usable for aging individuals or people with disabilities. Rather, it’s about taking into account a broader array of needs to build the most functional, comfortable, and beautiful kitchen possible. In other words, everyone can benefit from better and more inclusive designs.

Just like any other kitchen remodel, a universal-design kitchen renovation should include beautiful updated features and finishes, including countertops, cabinetry, and flooring. An aging-in-place kitchen can also be built in any design style. Some of the most popular styles for kitchens include:

It’s a better long-term investment.

Planning for the future isn’t always easy or enjoyable, especially if that means predicting your eventual motor capabilities or physical health. But if you’re considering a remodel, you’ll end up tossing a grand sum of money away if you fail to consider how you may need to use your kitchen in the future. 

If you don’t consider future aging-in-place needs now, you may end up having to remodel your kitchen again in the future. Rather than spending more money on important structural upgrades down the road, consider getting them done now.

It increases your home’s value.

Proper universal design serves everyone. Not only will a universal-design kitchen enhance the style of your home and serve you better in the coming years, but it will also boost your property’s resale value, since universal-design features are desirable to potential homebuyers. 

It’s no secret that kitchens sell homes. The kitchen is one of the most important spaces to present well to potential buyers when it comes time to sell. It’s one of the main reasons why homeowners choose to remodel their kitchens. If the space is designed well, you’ll get an excellent return on your investment.

What are the principles of universal design (and how do I incorporate them into a kitchen)?

Kitchen with universal design principles implemented

When planning a universal-design kitchen remodel, it’s helpful to think in terms of the 7 Principles of Universal Design. Let’s define each principle individually and demonstrate how each can influence the design of your new kitchen in positive ways:

1. Equitable Use

“The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.”

A kitchen designed for equitable use should be functional for all. For example, drawers and cabinets should be within reach and easy to operate. Consider using no-slam hinges and drawers that you can close with just a bump of the elbow for universal-design kitchen cabinets. 

Also think about incorporating a variety of countertop heights to suit individuals of varying statures and abilities. For example, if you have high counters and a high kitchen island, try to balance them out with a few lower surfaces that could be accessed by folks in wheelchairs. Also consider a refrigerator with a low-set water/ice dispenser.

2. Flexibility in Use

“The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.”

A great way to make your kitchen more flexible for all is to find ways to use the various areas in your kitchen for multiple purposes. For example, if you have lower countertops in your kitchen, but they aren’t frequently used for food preparation, you might consider transforming them into eat-in seating areas. In addition, making sure your appliances can be used by both left-handed and right-handed people can make a big difference. 

Choosing a flexible kitchen layout is extremely important when it comes to universal design. Try to include different routes to enter or exit, and ensure there’s enough room to navigate with a wheelchair, crutches, or a cane.

3. Simple & Intuitive Use

“Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.”

Universal design isn’t just about accommodating physical differences. A universal-design kitchen should also be usable for folks with different cognitive needs. Make sure that handles are easily reachable and that they correctly indicate whether pushing or pulling is necessary. 

Ideally, kitchen features should be simple to use without the need for extensive reading, analysis, or effort. In some cases, universal-design kitchen cabinets may also be transparent, allowing users to easily see where everything is without having to open endless doors.

4. Perceptible Information

“The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.”

When it comes to kitchens, this principle is very useful for appliances such as stoves and faucets. For example, indicators such as the words “hot” and “cold” being clearly visible and in bright colors (such as red and blue) help to clearly indicate the appliance’s use. Stovetop burners that glow red when hot can also encourage safety and clarity.

Symbols can be especially useful in transcending language barriers, as can the use of braille and voice-controlled features to accommodate people who are blind.

5. Tolerance for Error

“The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.”

Especially in a kitchen, not everything can be perfectly safe, even with an abundance of care and consideration in design. That’s why it’s crucial to consider fail-safe measures and design features that encourage caution in cases where extra focus is needed for safety. 

For example, knives can be placed in a separate container (away from other silverware and utensils) that needs to be manually opened. Smoke detectors should also be placed close to stovetops and ovens in order to detect fires or smoldering quickly and immediately alert residents.

6. Low Physical Effort

“The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.”

An important tenet of universal design is limiting the amount of effort required to use a given space. In a universal-design kitchen, look for ways to minimize the physical effort required of users. For example, select drawer, cabinet, and appliance hardware solutions that are simple and comfortable to use, regardless of physical strength. For entry and pantry doors, you might consider opting for lever handles, or even swinging doors that do not latch. 

For kitchen lighting, dimmer switches with larger sliding controls that don’t require fine motor controls can increase ease of use, while also enabling users to more easily achieve the atmospheric lighting they desire.

7. Size & Space for Approach & Use

“Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.”

A universal-design kitchen should be easy to pass through and move around in for non-disabled people as well as those in wheelchairs or others who need extra room. The layout of your kitchen is especially important when it comes to universal design. Wherever possible, limit tight corners in favor of smooth pathways around appliances and islands. A wheeled kitchen island that you can easily shift when necessary is a fantastic solution to consider.

What are some common must-haves for a universal-design kitchen?

Considering the principles of universal design (discussed individually above), here are some helpful ideas to make all areas of your kitchen easy to use for people of different abilities and needs:

  • Countertops and islands with varying counter heights to accommodate users of all heights and levels of mobility
  • Sufficient lighting that assists navigation but is also not bright enough to hurt eyes (e.g. floor-level toe-kick lighting for low-light navigation)
  • See-through shelving that allows users to scan contents without opening cabinet doors
  • Pull-out sliding shelves that are accessible from below countertops (also ensure they have stops that prevent them from sliding completely out of the rails)
  • Appliances with easy-to-use knobs and handles, such as thick or extra-long bars
  • Grab bars near sinks (or wherever necessary) to assist with everyday tasks
  • Cork flooring that is impact-absorbent and less rigid on feet
  • A drawer-style dishwasher that can open horizontally rather than vertically

How do I choose a universal-design remodeler or interior designer?


Unfortunately, not all remodeling contractors and designers understand universal design. In order to find someone who can create a kitchen that is both functional and beautiful, make sure they are CAPS certified (Certified-Aging-in-Place Specialist) and CMKBD certified (Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer). 

In addition, never hesitate to ask for examples of previous work. Your kitchen is a significant financial investment and an important part of your home that you will use on a daily basis. Especially if your mobility needs are unique, you need to get it done right the first time.

We at L. Evans Design are specialists in universal-design kitchen remodels. If you’re in the Portland, OR area, be sure to contact us for a consultation or if you have any more questions about universal design kitchen remodels!

Schedule a Consultation

At L. Evans Design, we believe that your kitchen should be more than just a room in your home – it should be the heart of your living space. Our team is dedicated to creating exceptional kitchen designs that meet your unique needs and preferences, ensuring that your space is both beautiful and functional.

Contact us today to schedule a consultation and see how we can transform your kitchen into a stunning, functional space that you’ll love to spend time in.

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Let us help you with your next full home, kitchen, bathroom, custom addition, or aging-in-place redesign project today! 

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