When considering the most comfortable spot in the home, the kitchen probably isn't the first room that comes to mind. But the heart of the home has come a long way in the realm of comfort, with designers making kitchen work easier than ever on the mind and body, thanks to a focus on universal design.
A concept traditionally linked to accessibility for the elderly and people with disabilities, universal design in kitchens has gone mainstream. More and more, people are opting for features that enhance the kitchen experience at any age -- whether it's for a daughter who wants to make a snack after school, a working adult short on time or an expectant mother.
People also are thinking ahead, says Patrick Hurst, vice president of Hurst Remodel, a design/build firm in Cleveland.
"People are staying in their homes longer," he said. "You never know what's going to happen down the road."
Hurst often integrates universal design in the kitchens he plans. "You've got to look for creative ways to make the environment as safe as possible for the individual," he said. "A lot of the time it's subtle differences. It may not be the entire kitchen."
On 'my' level
Varying the height of countertops is one way to benefit people of different ages and abilities. For instance, Hurst's company catered to a tall client with a bad back by raising the dishwasher on a platform to eliminate the need to lean over.
A countertop height of 34 inches or lower enables people to work while sitting, while a countertop 42 inches high is more conducive to standing. The standard countertop height is 36 inches.
Going one step further, a homeowner could install adjustable countertops that move at the push of a button.
Another often-overlooked place that can cause strain is the windows, Hurst says. Many homes have double-hung windows, which slide up and down, over the kitchen sink. Opening the window can be difficult, because it requires reaching over and upward pushing.
Hurst recommends installing a different type of window, such as an awning window that is hinged at the top and opens outward.
"We will design kitchens for people who are in their early 30s, and it applies to everybody," he says. "Who wants to tweak their back because they opened a window?"
Drawers also make a difference. Instead of storing dishes, pots and pans in wall cabinets, many people are moving them to deep, pullout drawers. "A lot of cabinet manufacturers are making cabinets where you open doors and shelves slide out," says Danise Levine, architect and assistant director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo in New York. "If you have a corner cabinet, you can put in a Lazy Susan. You can bring the storage to you."
That means no more reaching too high or too low, Levine adds, and no more difficult searches for the rarely used item that's been pushed to the back of the cabinet.
"I think appliances are becoming more efficient and usable," Levine said. Appliance drawers (such as dishwasher and refrigerator drawers) have become more common.
Levine points to new, high-tech programmable ovens, which can refrigerate a roast during the day and turn into an oven and start cooking when the timer dictates. She's also seen cordless remote controls that can turn on a hard-to-reach vent.
Another growing trend is induction cooktops. On this type of cooktop, the pot or pan becomes heated without the use of gas or electrical coils. It is considered a more energy-efficient and safer form of cooking that reduces the risk of burns.
The technology doesn't stop there. Smartphones, tablets and gadgets of all kinds have found a place in the kitchen, bringing a need for convenient outlets.
Edward Steinfeld, an architect, professor and director working at IDEA with Levine, says options include outlets that pop up from the counter or a power strip installed underneath the cabinets.
Manufacturers have added touch screens and wireless Internet connections to appliances, allowing people to pull up and easily view recipes. And there's no telling how much smarter kitchens will get in years to come.
"I think we're going to see the development of virtual coaches," Steinfeld says. "In the kitchen you'll have speakers everywhere, you'll be able to plug in your tablet or your phone, pull up a recipe and it'll talk you through it. It's in laboratories right now."
Steinfeld, who co-authored the book "Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments" (Wiley, 2012), says universal design is not just about function. "It's (about) safety and security for children, independence for young adults, stress reduction for working adults and independence and maintenance of social engagement for the older person," he said. "It really brings benefits to the whole population."