Aging in Place Design

The Inclusive Kitchen

Universal design improves quality of life through spaces designed for all

By Sarah Barnard

Universal design intends to improve the quality of life for all users, regardless of age or ability. These principles should ensure safety, efficiency and comfort when applied to the kitchen. The term was first coined in the 1970s by architect and disability rights advocate, Ronald Mace. Since then, universal home design practices have been rising steadily due to their inclusion in formal design education and support from professional associations like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), who provide research and case studies for universal design and aging in place.

Planning for the future can be intimidating for clients, but doing so ensures they will be happy spending a lifetime in their homes.  

On a past home remodel for a retiree, the client wanted the kitchen to function well when cooking for one. However, she often hosted friends and family, so it also had to be designed with entertaining in mind.  

Knowing the kitchen would be widely used, we considered universal home design principles to increase its functionality. The aesthetic was inspired by the home’s coastal locale and the utility and simplicity of Scandinavian design.  

With this project, the homeowner was conscious of her potential future needs and entrusted us with creating a healthy, natural and minimalist space that would suit her well in the long term.”

The U-shape layout provides unobstructed traffic flow and ample counter space. The kitchen is open to the dining area, and there are no barriers, such as steps or a doorway, to separate them. It’s a confined space, which reduces the amount of back and forth travel.  

I used both upper and lower cabinets to give the homeowner plenty of storage. Keeping countertops clear, in turn, mitigates safety risks. The slide-out drawers are gentler on the back — she doesn’t have to bend over or reach up high to access what she needs. 

A large window provides views of the outdoors and welcomes natural light. Connecting with nature, even through a window, positively impacts our wellbeing by reducing blood pressure, slowing down our heart rate and alleviating stress. Natural light, combined with the recessed lighting and oversized pendants, relieves eye strain and helps the homeowner safely perform tasks like chopping or peeling.  

For the hardware, I chose large, integrated pulls instead of knobs because they’re easier for stiff or shaky fingers to grasp. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 54.4 million Americans are affected by arthritis. While a knob requires the user to bend their fingers to latch onto it, a cabinet with a pull can be opened with limited dexterity using only one or two fingers. 

The French door refrigerator can be opened without much exertion thanks to its oversized pulls, and the efficient design means everyday ingredients are displayed for easy access. It has a well-lit interior to aid those with vision loss.

The kitchen countertop is white engineered quartz with subtle gray veining. This human-made material is durable and stain-resistant, requiring less maintenance on behalf of the homeowner. People with impaired vision will be better able to identify the kitchen tools and ingredients in front of them, as the brilliant white creates high contrast. I sourced a cream-colored matte glass tile backsplash to prevent surface glare.  

Natural French oak flooring was used throughout the open-concept space, eliminating any unsafe transitions. The material has a matte finish and was designed to be slip-resistant — an absolute must in the kitchen where spills are common. It also feels comfortable underfoot and has more spring to it than other flooring types, which is easier on the joints. 

Open shelving on the back of the peninsula adds a pop of color to the space. This bookshelf created an opportunity to display some of her most treasured collectibles, which spark joy every time she sees them.

The antique rosewood dining table is located within close reach of the kitchen, so heavy platters of food needn’t be carried far. The open floor plan makes it easy to converse with guests seated at the table while she’s whipping up hors d’ oeuvres in the kitchen. 

Universal home design can and should be both stylish and seamless. Reexamine the products, materials and finishes you already use, and consider how they might be implemented in a way that supports people of all abilities. With this project, the homeowner was conscious of her potential future needs and entrusted us with creating a healthy, natural and minimalist space that would suit her well in the long term.

Sarah Barnard, WELL AP + LEED AP, is Lead Designer at Sarah Barnard Designs and can be reached at