Embedding accessibility

As the population ages and the number of people living with disabilities increases, it is crucial that developers incorporate accessibility into properties now to prepare for the future. The kitchen, says Stuart Reynolds of AKW, is the ideal place to start.

There are challenging times for the UK housebuilding sector. Not only are developers trying to operate in England’s struggling housing market, facing mounting pressure to build more properties to accommodate for the growing UK population, but they are also trying to meet the increasingly diverse requirements of a demographic that is both ageing and changing.

People aged 65 years or older made up 17.8 per cent of the UK’s population in 2015, and by 2045 that figure is expected to have grown to nearly a quarter. Old age can also trigger a number of debilitating conditions, meaning the number of older disabled people is likely to increase by about 40 per cent between 2002 and 2022, placing even greater strains on housing.

Additionally, it is not just the number of older people living with impairments that is forecast to rise. The proportion of children and young people who are disabled is anticipated to grow to more than 1.25 million by 2029, and disability among those in their 50s is estimated to increase from 43 per cent in 2004 to 58 per cent in 2020.

Most worrying, however, is the fact that despite the projected increase in disability, only 12 per cent of properties are likely to be truly accessible by 2020, the vast majority of homes predicted to fall short of the Lifetime Homes Standard and BS 9266:2013. There is also a shortage of homes that are specifically designed with disabled people’s varying needs in mind. In fact, 15 per cent of households with one or more disabled residents currently feel their home is not suitable.

Appropriately designed homes can enhance wellbeing and independence, as well as reduce the demand on health and care services. As a result, it is vital that the housebuilding sector meets the changing demand for properties, both by ensuring new developments are accessible, and adapting existing housing stock.

With regards to the latter, even small changes to one room at a time can dramatically increase its accessibility. The kitchen is often considered to be the heart of a home, and adaptations to make kitchens more welcoming and understandable can substantially improve the ease with which day-to-day tasks can be performed by the disabled and elderly.

When creating an accessible kitchen, it is important to understand that the end result can look very different from one user’s home to another, in line with their unique needs. There are, however, a few key design principles that apply regardless of individual requirements. The room must be inclusive to ensure comfort for multiple users with various abilities, it needs to be convenient, responsive and flexible to changing needs over time and, above all, it needs to be safe, protecting all residents within a home.

The process of achieving these goals begins with assessing each user’s needs and this can be done by asking questions during the design stage. It is critical to determine the physical and cognitive strengths and weaknesses of the users so that these can be supported for maximum benefit. For example, if the homeowner or tenant is a wheelchair user, the most appropriate layout may disregard the traditional ‘working triangle’ to give plenty of room for safe manoeuvring.

Once the most suitable layout has been established, the specific requirements of critical appliances and accessories within the kitchen need to be examined. Raised height recessed plinths, for instance, are typically a pre-requisite in all accessible kitchens as they allow the height to be adjusted and set for the resident, whether they are ambulant or a wheelchair user.

Units and cupboards will also need to be designed at the right height for the user. Base units should ideally have a reduced height of approximately 588 mm, while wall units should be fixed at 350 mm rather than the standard 450 mm above the worktop. They must be robust enough to withstand frequent contact with mobility aids, and all doors must be fitted with 170° hinges for ease of access. Sinks are also better if they are shallower in depth than standard, with 125 mm to 130 mm being ideal. Equally, drawers should be fitted with metal sides and runners for greater durability if the user leans on them for support and the choice of handles must accommodate for the dexterity of the resident.

In terms of flexibility, adjustable devices provide the optimum solution. Rise and fall units and worktops allow a kitchen to be altered at any time with the touch of a button. They come in a range of configurations and sizes to suit any room, and can be used to create flexible sinks, cupboards, hobs and preparation surfaces. With the option for multiple heights, this type of technology can make a room accessible for every user, truly future-proofing a home.

The design of appliances can also have a huge impact on the accessibility of a kitchen. Consider installing tall oven housing units, where the centre shelf is set at the same height as the work surface, to allow for safe transfer. Models with slide-away doors are particularly useful for improved access. The choice of hob also requires thought, with induction options being especially safe as they can feature shut offs, shatterproof glass and residual heat indicators.

Finally, colour and lighting are critical factors when designing an accessible kitchen, especially for the visually impaired. Contrast is extremely important, and using colours that have a light reflective value of greater than 30 will help to differentiate an object from its surroundings. Moreover, task-specific lighting, such as installing bright lights underneath cupboards to illuminate worktops where food is prepared, can boost visual acuity (clarity) tremendously.

Accessibility needs to be built into kitchens now to overcome the housing challenges ahead for the elderly and disabled. By designing a room around the needs of the user rather than the space available, it is possible to create a kitchen that will improve independence and wellbeing, as well as make the property comfortable and inclusive for all users in the years to come.

Stuart Reynolds is product manager at AKW