Kitchen renovations top the list of home remodeling projects, and for good reason. The kitchen is the hub of the household, the place where families and friends come together, the place where meals are transformed into wonderful memories of tempting aromas and tasty, comforting cuisine.
Above all, though, the kitchen is a work space. As a new study shows, the first and foremost design consideration should be given to making it a livable, functional space.
As reported in the International Journal of Design, a British research team of social gerontologists from Open University and ergonomists from Loughborough University conducted an in-depth study of kitchen use among older residents. The study involved 48 subjects, male and female, all between the ages of 60 and 90, living in a variety of environments and household arrangements.
The social gerontologists interviewed the participants about their past and present experiences in the kitchen, and the ergonomists made drawings of the kitchen floor plans and took measurements of the total area, counter and cabinet heights, and lighting levels at the sink, food preparation and eating areas. The team made special note of the coping mechanisms the participants employed to overcome the design shortcomings in their kitchens.
Although the study focused on elderly residents, most of the findings apply to people of any age using the kitchen.
Many of the kitchens in the study were older, smaller spaces, not the open spaces favored by today’s homeowners, and thus presented issues of limited space or the lack of natural light often encountered in apartments or small condominiums. The amount of space itself was not a major issue, and some participants even preferred a narrower space as it reduced the amount of walking required when preparing a meal or clearing up afterward.
Most of the difficulties participants recounted were related to poor or inflexible design.
“There is a need to think in terms of kitchens that are more flexible and able to be adapted to meet people’s needs at different life stages, particularly as they grow older,” the researchers concluded. “These may be thought of as ‘democratic kitchens’ that take on board the needs and concerns of all people, giving them an equal say in future kitchen design. The kitchen that accommodates the needs of people as they get older should be a kitchen that meets the needs of all age groups.”
Major design issues identified in the study were:
Inadequate lighting and poor visibility, especially in task areas: Ambient lighting usually was concentrated over the sink area, and the there was little or no task lighting above counter areas used for food preparation or to illuminate countertop appliances. Ambient lighting caused glare or shadows that decreased visibility.
Overall, reading light was poor, and participants resorted to using flashlights or stooping below the range hood to make use of the light in order to reach food labels or dials on appliances.
Access to storage and inadequate storage: Much of the upper storage was too high for participants to reach easily without resorting to a step stool, and lower storage required a lot of bending, stooping or kneeling to get to items on shelves or in drawers.
Some residents had installed roll-out shelves or rotating platforms to compensate, but many said they would prefer storage installed at a more easily accessible height or adjustable height cabinets and cupboards. Placement of countertops appliances was often limited because of poorly placed outlets or too few outlets.
Fixed height counters, large appliances, window handles and sinks: Participants often complained that counter heights and sinks were either too low or too high to work at for prolonged periods of time needed for meal preparation or baking. Some had added a chair or stool, if space allowed, but had inadequate room for their legs.
They had difficulty reaching or operating window handles, especially as the kitchen window was usually placed behind the sink area. Putting in or taking out items from a dishwasher or oven required a lot of bending over and lifting hot and/or heavy items, without a counter or pullout work surface nearby to assist.
Experienced kitchen designers will be familiar with all of these issues. What the study brings home is the need for kitchens to be designed with more flexibility so they can more easily accommodate individuals of any age, size or level of ability and so that they will continue to support residents as they age — in short, to make them more livable.
Applying universal design principles is one solution. The researchers also offer an enhanced space planning model that expands the traditional “kitchen triangle” into a “kitchen star” configuration to accommodate different mobility needs for cooking, food preparation and laundry.
Homeowners may dream of a stylish or gourmet kitchen, with gleaming surfaces, chic appliances and trendy fixtures, but day in and day out they will most appreciate a kitchen that functions well and reduces stress and strain. As the researchers note, most of the participants had chosen to utilize coping mechanisms to address the problems they encountered rather than make changes to their kitchens.
Designers can add value by designing kitchens that change with residents and give them one less problem to cope with.
Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was provide by Multibriefs.