As the winner of the Living in Place Kitchen Category for the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s Western Canada Design Excellence Awards 2021, I was thrilled to have this design philosophy honored.

Living in Place or Universal Design, is a type of design I specialize in and try to bring to every project I work on.

In this blog article I would like to share with you strategies on how to incorporate Living in Place concepts into your Kitchen designs.

Because I believe:

Universal Design will be at its best when not labeled or defined, but truly incorporated as an essential part of all good design.

My winning submission for the Living in Place category was installed in a development of high end townhomes.

It was an honor to win the design award, but I was thrilled that this design philosophy was embraced by the developer.

Let’s look at how you can incorporate this design concept in your next Kitchen design project!


Living in Place is a term being used in the home design industry and is interchangeable with Universal Design.

Universal Design is defined as:

  • A space planning and construction practice that promotes accessibility for all without sacrificing visual appeal, function and style
  • Designing rooms that suit the needs of all users throughout their lifecycle
  • Design that adapts to people, not people adapting to the design
  • Design for the client’s lifetime, not just their prime time!

Design Elements

When designing a Living in Place Kitchen, the designer needs to think about how the room will function for the client now and in the future.

To achieve this, a Living in Place Kitchen should include:

  • Adequate clearances
  • Multiple work surface heights
  • Functional and accessible storage
  • Intuitive and accessible appliances
  • Lever styled faucets with pullout spray
  • Easy grip cabinet and appliance hardware
  • Layered lighting on dimmers
  • Non-glare surfaces

Let’s look at some of these design elements in detail.

Adequate Clearances

The Kitchen is the hub of the home often used by many, so wider work aisles will benefit everyone.

The minimum work aisle clearance of 42″ should be increased to 48″ for Universal Design.

Including a 60″ wheelchair turning diameter somewhere in the space will also allow more individuals to use the Kitchen.

The example above is a White Kitchen I designed more than 15 years ago when the homeowners were newlyweds, and included wide work aisles throughout.

Thinking Living in Place, the Kitchen is still extremely functional for this growing family that now numbers seven!

Multiple Counter Heights

There are two things in Kitchen design that should dictate counter heights.

They are specific Kitchen tasks and different user’s heights.

Baking tasks such as rolling out dough, kneading bread or mixing are best performed at a counter lower than the standard 36″ height.

To determine this ideal counter height, measure from the floor to your client’s bent elbow and substract 6″.

3″ below the elbow is the best height for chopping and general prep work.

Including multiple counter heights in a Kitchen design will accommodate multiple cooks preforming different tasks and is perfect for a Living in Place design.

European designers have been embracing multiple countertop heights for years and are a great inspiration for design ideas.

The three counter heights included in this island allows almost anyone to comfortably use this Kitchen island.

I love this third image since it really breaks stereotypes. It is the older woman who is working at the standard counter height while the younger woman who uses a wheelchair, and a child, are prepping on the lower height island.


Storage needs for Kitchens have more than doubled since the turn of the century, and this chart will help you evaluate the storage planned into your designs.

The Universal Design guideline is that 50% of the storage in a Kitchen should be accessible from a seated position.

This means 50% of the storage in the above chart needs to be between 18″ and 48″ from the floor.

Above are some examples of how the Kitchen Designer can increase the accessibility of the storage in a Kitchen design.

Upper cabinets brought down to the counter, electronic or manual pull down upper cabinet shelves, and backsplash storage solutions are great ideas to include.

There are multiple cabinet accessories available to make your Kitchen designs more functional for your clients.

Including a way to store dishware in a drawer instead of an upper cabinet would allow children to to set the table or unload the dishwasher.

A drawer insert with specific slots for small tools and knives would be the perfect accessory to include for organization, but also to assist anyone with cognitive issues.

Shallow pantries are perfect for Universal Design since items do not get lost in the back of deep shelves, and there are accessories available to store everything from dishware, to cooking utensils, to food stuffs in these pantries.


There are many different types of appliances available today, with how they are installed increasing the design possibilities.

Drawer appliances such as microwaves, dishwashers and refrigerators are wonderful Universal Design options, offering great accessibility.

Looking at unique installations such as a raised dishwasher, can make a big difference in accessibility for all users of the Kitchen.

When specifying refrigeration, side by side column styled systems are ideal since everyone in the home would have access to refrigerated and frozen items stored at that 18″ to 48″ above the floor area.

Appliances in the cooking zone can be the most dangerous, so really thinking through choices for your client is important.

Chimney hoods or custom hoods with no cabinetry above will ensure the cook is not reaching over a hot cooktop to access items.

Including a remote control for hood controls will give access to all cooks to turn on the exhaust fan or the lights above the cooking service without getting on a stool.

Side swing wall ovens allow cooks to get closer to the oven contents without having to reach over a swing-down door.

When specifying a cooktop for your client, consider induction for the safest form of cooking.

Induction heats the contents of the pot not the cooktop surface, so it is less likely someone will accidently get burned from a hot cooktop.

Also check that the location of the controls on the cooktop are intuitive.

There is nothing more frustrating than constantly turning on the wrong burner because the knob placement on the cooktop doesn’t make sense!

Plumbing Fixtures

There are many types of plumbing fixtures available that are ideal for Universal Design.

The apron front sink is a good example.

What makes it ideal for Living in Place Design is that the design of the sink allows the user to get close to the sink bottom without having to reach over a deep counter.

A trough sink can offer some unique installation solutions.

The example above has one running down the middle of an island, making it accessible for people on both sides of the island.

A pot filler at the cooktop is a great convenience for filling up a pot with water for soups, and it avoids the heavy lifting of a full pot of water out of a sink and carrying it to the cooktop.

Single lever faucets are easier to operate and hands free faucets are becoming more and more available.

Both are good choices for Universal Design especially if the homeowner suffers from arthritis.

Decorative Hardware

Options for kitchen cabinet and interior door hardware
Living in Place decorative hardware

There are infinite choices in decorative hardware for your Kitchen designs making it easy to specify items that meet Universal Design standards.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Handle depth deep enough to accommodate all user’s hand sizes
  • Hardware that feels good in the hand
  • Rounded corners on handles that do not catch clothing
  • Deep shanks on knobs for easier gripping
  • Hardware placement on the cabinetry that doesn’t diminish accessibility

Many Kitchens will also include interior doors with the hardware choice an important one.

The best choice is lever style hardware since it allows users to grip it in multiple ways and even use their elbow to open a door.

The polished chrome levers in the example above is the perfect example of a Living in Place door hardware design.

It is a lever I designed for ADA requirements (and received a design patent for) that updated the traditional commercial “hockey stick” lever.

The lever feels good in the hand, the curve won’t catch clothing, and the overall look is modern and updated.

Living In Place Kitchens

When employing Universal Design or Living in Place concepts, your designs can be creative.

This type of Kitchen should never look clinical.

The inspirational images presented above are great examples of Kitchens that employ the Universal Design and Living in Place Design concepts.

Combining functional spaces that can work for clients forever, and are aesthetically pleasing, is the perfect design solution!

I’d love to hear you thoughts on designing Kitchens using Aging in Place and Universal Design concepts. Is it something you use in your practice?

Leave me a comment below.

Jan Rutgers B.Sc. H.Ec.

Jan Rutgers has been designing kitchens and products for over 25 years and is a recipient of Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Top Innovators in 2020 for the Kitchen & Bath Industry. She has designed more than 1000 kitchens learning valuable skills with each one! Her experience in Kitchen Design, Millwork Manufacturing and Product Development has led her to create VESTABUL SCHOOL OF DESIGN where she educates and mentors people passionate about the Kitchen Design Industry.

5 Comments on “How to Design a Living in Place Kitchen

  1. Jan this is a great article. With the demand growing for this type of accessible kitchen we see the growing need outside of just the appliances.

    • Thanks for the comment Peter. If we all work together, (appliance manufactures, cabinet manufactures, and designers) maybe it can get easier to specify and design Kitchens like this. Looking forward to my trip to KBIS next week to see if there are more possibilities!

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