Kitchens are often the heart of a home – where families gather, meals are prepared, and memories are made. As our population ages, universal design (UD) principles are becoming increasingly important in kitchen planning and design to create spaces that are usable and accessible for everyone regardless of age or ability. Proper space planning is crucial to ensure a kitchen provides ample room to maneuver and carry out tasks comfortably and safely. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore optimal space planning strategies to create a universally designed kitchen that works for all users.

Define Goals and Requirements

When embarking on a new or remodeled universally designed kitchen, begin by clearly defining your goals, needs and requirements. Consider the following:

  • Who will be using the kitchen? Determine all the demographics that will utilize the space – multi-generational families, wheelchair/mobility aid users, etc.
  • What activities happen in the kitchen? Cooking, cleaning, homework, bill paying, laundry, socializing. Defining how the kitchen will be used ensures it accommodates required tasks.
  • Are there any accessibility needs? Address any mobility, reach or dexterity limitations that impact kitchen use.
  • What is the available space? Carefully measure the kitchen footprint and all doorway clearances. This informs what design options can be accommodated.
  • What is the budget? Realistic spending parameters help guide design choices on cabinetry, finishes, appliances and amenities.
  • What is the design style? Articulate overall aesthetic preferences to harmonize form and function.

Defining these factors upfront establishes clear design criteria to optimize kitchen layout and flow.

Create an Open, Wheelchair Accessible Floor Plan

The floor plan sets the foundation for an effectively planned, accessible kitchen. Consider the following universal design strategies:

Incorporate Wide Passageways

  • Minimum clearance of 42-48 inches for wheelchair users to easily maneuver.
  • Passageways should be wide and open with no narrow halls or doorways.
  • At least 60 inches for two wheelchairs to pass each other.

Allow Ample Turning Radius

  • Wheelchair users need 60 x 60 inches of clear floor space for a comfortable turning radius.
  • T-shaped turn spaces also work well, with two adjoining 48-inch paths.

Eliminate Unneeded Barriers

  • Omit arbitrary partitions or peninsulas that impede movement.
  • Use minimal walls to maintain an open, accessible flow.

Accommodate Various Heights

  • Include 34-36 inch tall counter space for seating or standup tasks.
  • Provide 28-32 inch high counters for wheelchair users.
  • Incorporate 42-48 inch high surfaces for standing tasks.

Thoughtful floor planning creates a flexible, multi-height kitchen optimized for all.

Zone Kitchen Areas Wisely

Strategically zone key kitchen areas based on logical workflow between tasks.

Food Preparation Zone

The food preparation zone contains the main work surfaces and storage for meal creation tasks. Locate near the sink, refrigeration and primary cooking appliances. Allow abundant countertop space, 48 inches minimum, for food prep. Position at a comfortable 34-36 inches in height for standing tasks, with open legroom below.

Cleaning Zone

Place the cleaning zone near the food preparation area for efficient workflow after cooking. Include the sink basin, cleaning supplies, dish storage, compost/waste bins. Allow open legroom space under the sink for wheeled access. Install pull-out trash/recycling bins for easy access.

Refrigerator Zone

Position the refrigerator close to food prep and cooking areas, but allow sufficient surrounding space for multiple users. Plan for at least 42 inches clear in front for wheeled access. Install pull-out fridge drawers for accessible storage from a seated position.

Cooking Zone

Situate cooking appliances like the stove, oven and microwave near the food prep zone for convenient cooking. Provide open space above and surrounding appliances for safe access. Place controls on the front or side of appliances in reachable areas. Include 34-36 inch high prep space adjacent to cooking appliances.

Storage Zone

Incorporate storage cabinets and pantries within easy reach of where items will be used. Install storage so the:

  • Lower shelves are 28-34 inches high
  • Mid shelves are 34-48 inches
  • Upper shelves are 48-54 inches

Place commonly-used items at mid-height for accessible seated or standing access.

Dining Zone

Include space for a table and chairs adjacent to food preparation and cooking areas to allow socializing during meal preparation. Provide a 34-36 inch high table with ample legroom below to accommodate wheeled chairs.

Strategic kitchen zoning creates efficient sequential workflows.

Design Accessible Aisles and Clearances

Carefully planning aisles and clearances prevents tight spaces and collisions. Consider:

Allow Passing Space Between Aisles

  • Design back-to-back workspace aisles with 42-48 inches between for passing.
  • Island aisles should have 60-inch diameter clearance or T-turn spacing.

Clearances at Appliances

  • Leave 30 x 48 inch clearances at dishwasher and refrigerators for operation.
  • Allow 15 inches clearance to one side of kitchen ranges.

Clearances at Sink

  • Provide 30 x 48 inches forward clearance for wheeled access.
  • Include 27 inches knee space beneath.

Clearances at Trash/Recycling

  • Position bins with 27 inches knee space below.
  • Allow 30 x 48 inches forward clearance for wheeled access.

Clearances at Storage

  • Leave 30 x 48 inches space in front of floor cabinets for access.
  • Provide 18 inches clearance between overhead cabinets.

Ample clearances provide safe, comfortable spaces to move and perform tasks.

Select Universal Design Features and Finishes

Universal design kitchen features provide optimal accessibility, safety and ease of use for all:

Easy-Grasp Handles and Pulls

  • Choose D-shaped pulls that are easy to grip.
  • Select handles that operate by pushing down or pressing rather than twisting.
  • Place pulls in accessible areas at least 34-48 inches high.

Adjustable Shelving

  • Install adjustable shelves allowing flexible storage heights.
  • Position frequently used items on mid-level shelves for access.

Drawers with Full Extension

  • Use soft-closing full extension drawers for full visibility and access.
  • Place often used items in front of deep drawers.

Pull-Out Pantries

  • Opt for pull-out pantries that bring items within reach.
  • Install roll-out tray dividers for organizing items.

Front-Control Ranges

  • Choose ranges and cooktops with front or side-mounted controls.
  • Select easy to read and understand controls.

Front-Mounted Refrigerators

  • Front-opening refrigerator/freezers allow wheeled access.
  • Through-the-door water dispensers provide easy access.

Lever-Style Faucet Handles

  • Lever-style faucets are easier to operate than cross or butterfly handles.
  • Select a pull-down spray faucet for expanded reach.

Touch-Free Soap/Towel Dispensers

  • Motion-activated dispensers allow hands-free operation.
  • Help keep high touch surfaces and cross-contamination minimized.

Matte Finish Surfaces

  • Choose matte finishes on surfaces to reduce glare.
  • Avoid glossy finishes that can appear slippery.

Adjustable Toe Kicks

  • Adjustable toe kicks allow wheelchairs to fit underneath.
  • Help maximize accessibility at varied counter heights.

Thoughtfully designed universal kitchens optimize safety and ease of use.

Maximize Storage Convenience

Accessible, easy to use storage is essential for usable kitchens. Consider these universal design storage principles:

  • Store frequently used items at mid-range heights between 34-48 inches.
  • Place lesser used items at higher or lower storage levels.
  • Install storage with adjustable or removable shelves.
  • Use open storage like racks, shelves and glass doors to view contents.
  • Incorporate pull-out drawers and rollout shelves for full access.
  • Include a variety of storage options like drawers, cabinets, pantries and open shelving.
  • Opt for easy to grasp D-shaped handles and pulls.
  • Store cooking equipment near its use, like pans near the stove.
  • Situate waste/recycling bins for convenient access while cooking or prepping.
  • Maintain at least 18 inches of clearance between upper cabinets.
  • Minimize storage more than 48 inches overhead.
  • Provide lighting in all storage areas for clear visibility.

Maximizing convenience through smart universal storage makes kitchens accessible and user-friendly.

Design an Accessible, Comfortable Kitchen Layout

An efficient universally designed kitchen layout optimizes function and accessibility:

  • Create organized workflow zones that minimize distances between related tasks.
  • Include clear floor spaces for turning radius and passing at key areas.
  • Ensure main workstations have adequate clearance and accessibility.
  • Position cabinets and counters with varying heights to serve diverse users.
  • Locate appliances like the range, fridge and oven conveniently while allowing sufficient surrounding space.
  • Situate the sink, dishwasher and prep area together in the workflow.
  • Provide legroom underneath counters to accommodate wheeled mobility.
  • Allow open concept space by minimizing upper cabinetry overhead.
  • Incorporate electrical outlets at several heights in reachable areas.
  • Specify undercabinet lighting for visibility during tasks.
  • Select easy-to-clean surfaces and flooring materials.
  • Accentuate important work areas with task lighting.
  • Install adjustable shelving and drawers to maximize storage access.

A thoughtfully laid out kitchen enhances safety and promotes independent use by varied users.

Provide Ample Task Lighting

Proper lighting helps create a comfortably illuminated kitchen:

  • Install recessed ceiling lights to wash the full kitchen with uniform ambient light.
  • Include under cabinet lighting to directly illuminate countertop workstations.
  • Use rail lighting above cabinets to add focused accent lighting.
  • Incorporate pendant lights over islands or dining areas to define separate zones.
  • Add task lighting like strip LEDs under upper cabinets to illuminate specific work areas as needed.
  • Place lighting controls in accessible areas no higher than 48 inches for all users.
  • Select dimmable lighting to adjust brightness as needed.
  • Choose cool light temperatures of 3000-4000K to reduce glare and eye strain.

Proper kitchen lighting enhances visibility, safety and accessibility for all.

Accommodate Seating Areas

Providing accessible seated spaces makes the kitchen more comfortable for varied tasks:

Lowered Section of Counter

Install a 28-32 inch high section of counter to create an accessible seated prep space if desired. Box in pipes below to allow legroom.

Adjustable Height Stove

Some ranges can be adjusted 30-36 inches in height to accommodate cooks standing or sitting.

Open Legroom Below

Maintain ample legroom below counters and islands to pull up in a wheelchair.

Pullout Surfaces

Pullout surfaces like cutting boards allow task space to be moved into seated areas.

Wheeled Stools

Rolling stools allow shifting between seated and standing tasks fluidly.

Adjustable Table

An adjustable height dining table allows comfortable use from a seated position.

Building in accessible spaces to sit while prepping or visiting promotes inclusion.

Select Easy Clean, Durable Materials

Choosing appropriate resilient and non-slip materials enhances safety and reduces maintenance:

Matte or Satin Finish Flooring

  • Easy to clean options like seamless vinyl, quartz composite or poured floors.
  • Textured matte finishes help reduce slips when wet.

Water-Resistant Cabinets

  • PVC or thermoplastic cabinet doors and surfaces resist moisture damage.
  • Bacteria-resistant materials add safety in wet areas.

One-Piece Countertops

  • Quartz, solid surface or poured concrete offer seamless installation.
  • Help reduce cracks and traps where bacteria reside.

Backsplash and Wall Treatments

  • Glass tile, stainless steel or FRP panels provide water-resistant protection.
  • Washable surfaces facilitate cleaning.

Stainless Steel Sinks

  • Stainless sinks are durable choices that are easy to disinfect.
  • Undermount installation provides smooth transition to countertop.

Choosing durable, low-maintenance materials enhances usability and hygiene.

Answer Common Questions About Universal Kitchen Design

Universal kitchen design might bring up some common questions. Here are helpful answers:

Does a universal kitchen have to look clinical or boring?

No, not at all! A universal kitchen can be stylishly designed with attractive finishes and materials just like any kitchen. There are many options to create a space expressing personal style.

How much more does a universal kitchen cost compared to a conventional design?

If incorporated from the beginning, a thoughtfully planned universal kitchen does not have to cost significantly more than a standard kitchen. Strategic material selections and efficient use of space help keep costs reasonable.

We don’t need full wheelchair access. What universal design principles make sense for our minor mobility limitations?

Many universal design strategies can help users of all abilities. Providing ample clearances, accessible storage, easy to operate features and good lighting enhances usability for anyone. Focus on flexible designs accommodating your specific needs.

Does universal design mean appliances need to look utilitarian versus integrated?

Not at all – there are many appliances with universal design features that integrate beautifully into today’s kitchens. Front control ranges, counter depth fridges and pullout cabinetry help maximize function without sacrificing form.

How can we create an open concept universal kitchen but still allow adequate storage?

Careful planning is key – be strategic about frequently used item placement while maximizing vertical storage options. Open shelving, glass cabinet doors and slim pullout cabinets help avoid a cluttered look.


Creating a beautifully designed kitchen welcoming to all requires thoughtful space planning and universal design elements. Focus first on establishing open, accessible clearances and layouts supporting ease of movement and use. Strategically incorporate storage, surfaces and amenities tailored to serve users of varied mobilities and heights. Select durable, low-maintenance finishes that are safe, hygienic and easy to clean. Though universal design kitchens focus on accessibility, they can still exude great style, function and aesthetic appeal. With strategic planning guided by universal design principles, it is possible to create gorgeous, comfortable kitchen spaces that seamlessly serve every member of a household.