Creating a Universal Design Kitchen

A kitchen drawer with cutlery and a man in a wheel chair reaching in.

Whether out of need or just to add value to your home, a universal design kitchen can be just the ticket. From a dishwasher in a drawer to multiple height countertops, your kitchen will be useful to all.

Main Layout

To start with, having a universal kitchen means your kitchen will be functional for the shortest person in the house to the tallest to use. The main layout should allow for five feet of open space at a minimum to allow for anyone in a wheelchair. It also gives room for more than one person to be in the same area.

An “L” shape or “U” shape kitchen works the best. It creates fewer footsteps from one end of the kitchen to the other. These two shapes have been a staple for kitchen layouts for many years, so it's nothing new. But the place where you put appliances within these shapes has changed, as has the type of appliance.


Instead of a freestanding range, use a separate cooktop and oven. The wall oven can be placed at any height, but to make it universal the center rack of the oven should line up with the countertop height so anyone can use it without a problem. In both cases, make sure the controls are in the front and have easy-to-read panels.

A typical dishwasher opens outward, not leaving much room for maneuverability. You can now purchase dish drawers to be installed at any height and that is great for small loads of dishes. A good height for accessibility is to mount the dish drawer about six to nine inches above the finished floor.

Forget the above-the-range microwave. No one can ever reach to clean it out, anyway. The best universal idea is to go back to the freestanding microwave either installed into the lower cabinets or placed on one of the lower countertops.

A kitchen with a close-up of a stainless steel refrigerator.

The refrigerator door on a typical refrigerator can be difficult to maneuver around, not to mention a top-mounted freezer. Think about getting a French door refrigerator. That way everyone has access to the freezer (it's on the bottom) and can also get around each door with ease.

Even though the sink is not really an appliance, I think it is worth mentioning. I personally like a deep sink, but in a universal design, you want a sink that will accommodate everyone. The sink should be stainless steel (easy maintenance) and only about six to seven inches deep with the drain toward the back. A single lever faucet with a pull-out sprayer will fit everyone’s needs. As a measure of precaution, choose faucets that have an anti-scald device in them.


Countertops can be at varying heights. A typical countertop is 36” high. In a universal kitchen, the heights of countertops can range from 34 to 38 inches high. Some countertops can be even lower or higher depending on who you are trying to accommodate. A good rule of thumb is to measure the distance between the floor and your elbow, and then subtract three inches; that is the height your countertop should be.

An empty, large kitchen.

Countertops should also have any exposed corners rounded off to prevent injuries. It is also a good idea to make the edges of the countertop a contrasting color from the top. It gives visual clarity to those who might be sight-impaired.

When laying out the countertop design, make sure to leave plenty of clear countertop space near the oven and the refrigerator. This allows for the removal of items from either appliance without worrying about knocking something else over. Find a better place for the cookie jar!


With your varying heights of the countertop, your cabinets will most likely need to be custom-made. Tell your carpenter you will need space under the sink and under the cooktop that is at least 30” wide by 27” high by 19” deep. This will give anyone in a wheelchair (or a regular chair) the ability to work in these areas without having to stand.

A drawer in a kitchen with plates.

Think about using all drawers in the lower cabinets, and make sure they have full extension glides. Having drawers instead of cabinet doors allows for easier access. Choose easy-to-grasp handles as well. A typical cabinet is 18 inches from the top of the countertop. Request that they are installed 15 inches from the top of the finished countertop. This allows for three inches of extra usable and reachable space. If all drawers aren’t your thing, how about lower shelves with pull-out baskets?

Odds and Ends

Of course, there are always things in the kitchen that can be made easier to use. All the light switches should be motion detector switches that turn on when someone enters the room and turn off when no motion is detected. If that is not doable, then think about the height at which you are placing switches. Most switches should be around 48 inches (or lower) from the finished floor.

Easy-to-maintain and slip-resistant floors are a must. Linoleum or cork is a good choice. The threshold leading into the kitchen should be either flat or be no higher than a half-inch and have beveled edges so that a wheelchair can easily move from room to room.

Last but not least, have a fire extinguisher mounted low enough and within easy reach, for anyone to use in case of an emergency.

All these things tied together will make using your kitchen easier for everyone to use from grandma to grandchild.