When older adults want to maintain their independence, kitchens and baths are the first spaces that should be addressed. An architect can integrate core universal design concepts into the interior architecture, helping those spaces meet the needs of all users and increasing the time you can comfortably live in your own home.
“Good design helps seniors live independently by considering the physical and psychological realities of our aging bodies,” says Sam Beall, AIA, of Duncan Wisniewski Architecture. Thinking about and improving the floor plan is more critical than any equipment or fixtures in a kitchen or a bathroom. “A toilet can always be replaced. But it is much more difficult and costly to expand the footprint of a kitchen or bathroom in the future.”
So what might a good kitchen floor plan look like? It should be open enough for wheelchairs; higher toe kicks will allow for easier access to cabinets and counters. Counters should be varied in height, if possible, and the sink and cooktop or stove should be located near each other. The option to sit or stand during food preparation is important, even for a fully mobile senior, and ideally there will be room for counter seating in a chair or wheelchair as well as an island. These details can all help an elderly person maintain their independence.
Ready to remodel? Visit AIA’s Architecture Firm Directory to find an architect near you.
“When designing kitchens for seniors, we typically use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines for reach ranges and appliance approaches,” says Beall. While the ADA isn’t a perfect guide for aging in place, Beall thinks it is a good reference to plan space for someone who doesn’t currently use a wheelchair or walker but might need to at some point.
Flexibility is critical for a design that meets the changing needs of an individual as he or she grows older. When designing new homes and apartments for older or aging residents, Beall and his team turn often to L-shaped kitchens, which offer a convenient workflow for someone in a wheelchair as well as a person standing. That L-shape also allows room for a central table that could be removed for someone with a walker. Lighting design in a kitchen or a bath is critical for safety. Older eyes need brighter light and adjust more slowly to changing light levels.
To designer Lisa Silbermayr of New York City, a good design for seniors must age in place itself. “There are a few ways design can help seniors live independently. One is to design the home or house according to ADA guidelines. It will fit the needs of seniors who might suffer from certain disabilities, thus grab bars, ramps, and corridors that are wide enough enable elderly people or people in wheelchairs to move around safely. But another way would be to design a home in such a way so it can easily adapt to different living conditions throughout a person’s life.”
“A toilet can always be replaced. But it is much more difficult and costly to expand the footprint of a kitchen or bathroom in the future.” - Sam Beall, AIA, of Duncan Wisniewski Architecture
With 90 percent of seniors aged 50 to 65 reporting that they want to age in place, and with a smartly planned remodel being cheaper than a nursing home or assisted living, the oversight of an architect is required. For aging clients who plan to adapt their homes for their golden years, a number of well-designed details can add up to a very attractive result.
Highly trained and technically competent professionals, “architects pay close attention to code and life safety issues but are also uniquely trained in aesthetics and design,” says Susan Wright, AIA, managing principal of IBI Group - Gruzen Samton. Wright says new construction and projects for seniors deserve to be attractive and shouldn’t look different from other well-designed remodels.
But kitchens and baths can be hazardous environments, Wright warns. The kitchen layout should be efficient with a simple flow between the sink, stove, and fridge. She has found that stoves with controls on the front, rather than above the heating elements, are essential for safety. As for bathrooms, she stresses the need for properly installed grab bars. New bath floors should be installed with small tile so that there are more grout lines and the floor is less slippery than the currently fashionable large-format tiles.
When aging in place is the objective, kitchen and bath designs need space for the residents to customize their living environment to support their individual needs, Beall says. Some things, like lighting, are universal for all seniors, while others, like mobility challenges, are more individual to each resident.
About the author: Elena Marcheso-Moreno writes about architecture and design from McLean, Virginia.