Universal Design Kitchen Remodel Renews Foodie's Joy of Cooking

Oseye Boyd
Written by Oseye Boyd
Updated June 2, 2016
universal design kitchen remodel
Richmond, Ind. resident Amy Sekhar's remodeled kitchen includes a lowered countertop and sink for easy access. (Photo by Mike Fender)

Universal design offers accessibility regardless of age or physical ability.

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Imagine using a stool to climb onto your kitchen counter every time you need ingredients from the cabinet. Then, you realize you need another ingredient in the refrigerator. Now you have to climb down the stool, walk to the refrigerator, climb onto another stool, grab the ingredient and repeat the process.

Richmond, Indiana, resident Amy Sekhar didn’t need to imagine. That was her reality. Sekhar has dwarfism and severe degenerative arthritis. She’s also undergone several joint replacement surgeries.

Sekhar often burned herself reaching into the oven, and once suffered second-degree burns melting chocolate on the stove. Washing dishes without a stool was nearly impossible. Her medical issues and age made hopping up on stools and chairs not only challenging, but also extremely dangerous.

“It was always, what’s convenient for me isn’t convenient for everyone else,” says Sekhar, who began cooking with her mother and brother as a child. “I love cooking, and it was getting really hard for me to do. I was getting really depressed about it.”

Sekhar’s kitchen became an obstacle course, with each day more challenging than the last — until recently.

Time for a change

Enter Melinda Wilson, of MW Design in Richmond. Sekhar approached Wilson to design a kitchen that both she and husband, Jeevan, who is of average height, could use.

“She showed me her arms. She burned her arms a lot just baking in the oven,” Wilson says. “Just in that conversation, you make these notations, ‘OK, I’m going to find an oven that won’t burn your arms.’”

After extensive conversations with Sekhar about how she uses her kitchen (Wilson even measured Sekhar’s and Jeevan’s arm reach to know where to place cabinet knobs), Wilson designed a functional kitchen, incorporating elements of universal design.

The new range top sits on an adjustable lift. The lowest position works for Amy, the highest for Jeevan. Sekhar’s mother-in-law prefers it in the middle.

universal design kitchen remodel
In addition to climbing onto the counter, Sekhar used a grabbing tool to retrieve items from cabinets. (Photo by Mike Fender)

“I think most people who aren’t disabled don’t think of it as an accessibility thing,” Sekhar says. “I have a KitchenAid mixer — those are super heavy. They put it on a lift. It goes to my height or it goes to the level of the countertop. I love that. That’s amazing. I even have my own sink that’s at my height!”

While her custom kitchen remodel focused on functionality and accessibility, Sekhar also considered resale value should she ever decide to move (she doesn’t plan to, by the way).

“When we met with the engineer, he was able to say we can do things that will not impact other people, and I thought, ‘that’s amazing,’” Sekhar says. “The only part that’s different is my counter is shorter, but even then a person in a wheelchair or a kid can use it.”

Universal design and aging in place

A fairly modern concept with roots in the Americans with Disabilities Act, universal design considers the functionality and usability of different parts of the home by those of varying age and ability.

“I think that was the stepping-off point to make it more universally aware to the general public that not everybody is alike,” says Michael Menn, a Chicago-based architect and chairman of the board of governors for Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) through the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

universal design kitchen remodel
Before her kitchen remodel, Amy Sekhar used stools and a platform to make her kitchen functional. (Photo by Mike Fender)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines Aging in Place as "the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level.”

Universal design and aging in place are becoming increasingly popular due to the rise in multi-generational households, and as more Baby Boomers remodel their existing homes to make them more accommodating, instead of moving to a retirement home.

Customizing the kitchen

As awareness for aging in place and universal design continues to grow, more homeowners realize they don’t have to sacrifice beauty for functionality.

Sekhar chose custom-made walnut cabinets with hydraulic shelves; cork flooring, which provides some cushion while standing; Corian countertops; a wall oven with doors that open from the side and shelves on ball bearings; a garbage disposal switch under the sink, and new appliances, including a top-load microwave under the range.

universal design kitchen remodel
Pull-out shelves, a component of universal design, mean Sekhar no longer has to climb onto the counter to reach spices in the cabinet. (Photo by Mike Fender)

In all, the project cost $100,000.

“We bought a house that we knew we could afford to do stuff to,” Sekhar says. “So having to finance the kitchen isn’t going to break the bank because we bought a house that is cheaper than we can afford.”

Adding universal design and aging in place

Kent McCool, a certified aging-in-place specialist and owner of Home Safe Homes of Carmel, Indiana, says it’s possible to add elements of universal design without doing a full-scale remodel.

Universal design features could include adding a faucet with a lever instead of a knob, installing pull-out or pull-down shelves in cabinets, incorporating differing countertop heights, installing countertops with rounded instead of squared corners and raising the dishwasher mount.

universal design kitchen remodel
Sekhar no longer uses stools to help her reach the counter or inside the refrigerator. (Photo by Mike Fender)

“I think it’s important to incorporate some of these universal design features in the home,” McCool says. “It doesn’t have to be considered handicapped. It’s something that would work for everyone.”

Universal design not only benefits those with a disability or the elderly, but works well for someone with a broken limb or even children learning to cook.

McCool and Menn say the demand could increase for not just home remodeling, but custom or semi-custom builds as well.

Cooking again

After the kitchen remodel, Sekhar underwent ankle replacement surgery that left her unable to walk. She used a mobility scooter for several weeks, and found it didn’t inhibit her ability to use the kitchen. Instead of depending on others, she was able to do simple things like make breakfast and get a glass of water.

universal design kitchen remodel
Burning her arms while reaching into the oven is no longer a concern for Sekhar. (Photo by Mike Fender)

“I started to love cooking again,” Sekhar says. “I think I kind of lost that for a while. I think the first time I made bread my husband kind of remarked, ‘Wow! Look at you!’ I had stopped enjoying making bread.”

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