As baby boomers continue to turn 60, their influence on style continues to affect housing trends. Knowing that advancing years can come with physical limitations, they're demanding accessible housing design that is not only practical but also aesthetically pleasing.
Universal or accessible design has, for the most part, been left over from hospitals and rehab facilities. Style has been slow to break into the design of transitional living situations.
But famed architect Michael Graves, who once was only concerned with thresholds, wheelchair passage width and the ubiquitous grab bar, now finds himself personally involved. He has been passionate about bringing beauty into the world of wheelchairs, therapy rooms and medical equipment such as telescoping walkers or simple shower seats since he was left paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a viral illness contracted in 2003.
"Everything was ugly," he has said. "Nothing was designed. It seemed as though the makers of these objects never had to use them. There was no color, no style; nothing about any of the objects said that a human had made them. It was outrageous."
For the typical citizen, modifications to the average apartment or home might include building ramps, widening doorways, installing visual signal systems for telephones and doorbells, installing lever-type handles on doors or faucets, modifying thresholds, and yes, installing grab bars in the bathroom.
Today's builders are focusing on adaptable housing with design features that are easily changed at a later time to keep pace with the shifting needs of the occupants. For example, it's a good idea to tile the kitchen floor before fitting the cabinets so that if you need to remove one section in order to provide knee space under the counter later on, the floor remains intact. The adaptation requires less work and cost than creating such an arrangement from scratch.
U.S. builders might take a cue from the Italians. One of the largest cabinet companies in Europe - Scavolini - is used in more than 1 million homes around the world. They produced the cabinet system shown in the photograph here that, without any sacrifice in beauty, transforms a normal kitchen into a fully usable and accessible space.
Key to the success of an accessible kitchen is the placement of work surfaces at a height that will vary according to a person's limitations and body proportions. Special features allow for the selection of the most appropriate work-zone height in three different vertical and horizontal directions. There is a choice of three different plinth (or base) heights, and the highest plinth is fitted with a storage unit. A choice of various handle positions is available, along with handrails that are attached to the laminate tops for a more secure grasp.
The arrangement shown here allows freedom of horizontal movement. Pans and heavy items can easily be moved from the cooktop to the sink on a tilting grid. But the most important feature is the retention of sleek lines, fabulous finishes in vibrant colors and trendy cabinet fronts with aluminum edges or classical wood designs.
The basic concepts of position and adjustment can be applied to any kitchen, depending on the needs of its occupants. And it's good to know that choices are available that can allow increased independence for every segment of the population. *
Christine Brun, ASID, is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of "Big Ideas for Small Spaces." Send questions and comments to her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.