Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

Your average kitchen is an obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair!

I got a dramatic demonstration of that about a month ago when Dr. Rhoda Olkin, a psychologist, professor, and author, volunteered to give me a tour of the kitchen in the office building where we work. Last week, I showed her the kitchen I designed after that demonstration: my “succulent, sustainable”  kitchen. I went away from that meeting with a lump in my throat, feeling  proud and inspired.

Denim Moss from Icestone. It sparkles with chips of the post-consumer glass used to make it.

The next day, I attended a memorial service for my friend, Kari Varland. Initially, Kari was my real estate agent. Losing her has been a heartbreak for me, and for dozens of others who gathered to remember her. She gave so many of us not only homes, but also wisdom and community.

I have come away from these two experiences renewed in my desire to design beautiful, sustainable, and empowering homes for my fellow boomers and folks who are overcoming disabilities. Although this has been a tough year for me, the obstacles in my path are far less tangible than those that Rhoda encounters, and they should be more surmountable than those that Kari faced.

Encountering Kitchen Obstacles

During my initial meeting with Rhoda, the first surprise came as we left her office. Rhoda invited me to precede her, and then followed in her powered wheelchair. I had always wondered why she had a yellow dog leash hanging on the outside of her office door. Now I learned the answer.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University
Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

To reach the door hardware  – an ADA-compliant level-style door handle – Rhoda’s arm would have to be about a foot and a half longer than it is! To solve this problem, she grabs the dog leash as she wheels by and pulls the door closed behind her.

The kitchen, however, presents far more problems than the office:

  • Counter-productive counters: It’s impossible for Rhoda to reach anything placed at the back of the 24″ deep counters.
  • Out-of-reach shelves: The upper cupboards would be totally beyond her reach except for the fact that Rhoda’s wheelchair is equipped with a lift that will raise her seat about a foot.
  • Fridge door barricade: The refrigerator is placed in a corner on the narrow side of the room, so it’s impossible for her to approach it from the side. She can’t open the fridge from the front either, because the door would have swing through the space occupied by her wheelchair.
  • Cattle chute layout: Once she’s in, she has to laboriously back out of the kitchen because a trash can and recycling bins have been placed along the wall, narrowing the center aisle so much that there isn’t enough room for her to turn around.
Introducing Rhoda Rails! See the double tracks that lead from the cooktop to the sink? They are strips of metal inscribed into the countertop, and they stand about 1/8" above the counter surface. They would allow Rhoda to scoot a heavy pan of hot pasta off of the cooktop and around the corner to the sink to empty the water. It's very difficult for her to lift a pot like that; it takes two hands. If both of your hands are occupied with holding a pot of scalding water, there's no way to move or steer a wheelchair!

Rhoda gave me the kitchen tour because I had asked her if she would comment upon plans I was drawing for a demonstration kitchen. Although it wasn’t meant for a real client, I planned this kitchen to be accessible for someone who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is slowly losing her mobility. “Carla” can walk now, but she needs to plan her home in a way that will accommodate first a walker, and then later, a wheelchair. (Although I’m not working with them, I actually know two people who are in this situation.)

The process of planning this kitchen was an eye-opener for me, and my presentation to Rhoda was one of the most inspiring design experience I have had — a highlight of what has been a very tough year. (Kari is one of three friends who have died from cancer. Meanwhile, I have had numerous inquiries about my design business, but little paying work. The economy is bad and at times, the obstacles seem insurmountable. In moments of despair, I have thought about pulling the plug on this blog, my business plan, or both.) But for now, I will keep on keepin’ on.

A Tour of the Succulent,
Sustainable Kitchen

Carla’s kitchen was designed for two-cooks: Carla and her husband Sam. (See bottom of this post for an overhead view of the kitchen.) The south portion is designed for Sam, the chief chef. It features two ovens and a state-of-the-art induction cooktop. These features are laid out so that they are just steps from the refrigerator, pantry, and sink, a layout that makes for very convenient “kitchen triangle” that meets the requirements I talked about in my earlier blog, “One Rump or Two and Other Kitchen Conundrums.”

Carla's kitchen features multiple height counters: 33", 36" and 42" from the floor for the comfort of cooks who are sitting, standing and for both children and adults. A 42" coffee-bar height cupboard holds a chef's convection oven, while to the right, a 36" high counter holds a Fagor oven, which features a door that opens to the side.

The north part of the kitchen is designed for Carla, who is  Sam’s helper, a “sous chef” who prepares salads and vegetables, mixes drinks, and entertains while the haute cuisine comes together a few steps away. With its 33″ high counters and 9″ high toekicks, this area meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The south kitchen, by contrast, is meant to be “visitable”. It has regular height counters and toekicks. It’s designed for Sam, but has special features that enable a person in a wheelchair to easily use it.

In addition, I opened walls and windows to draw in plenty of sunlight, to save energy, and meet California’s new Title 24 energy codes. The succulent, sustainable kitchen uses some gorgeous, green materials, including Icestone counters, Plyboo bamboo cabinets, Hakatai glass tile, and Marmoleum linoleum floors (I have written about most of these in previous blogs).

I drew the color palette from a handsome plant called a sedum, a plant that is often used on vegetated roofs. Because I was thinking about both plants and people, I called the design “succulent sustainability.” (It turned out that Rhoda loves sedum.) My plans wound up including a host of features that were intended to be at once beautiful, beautifully invisible in function, and liberating in their use.

Rhoda’s Reaction

Storage trundle
Storage here is provided by a wheeled, trundle cart. It can be moved in another area to provide legroom to enable someone in a wheelchair to use the cooktop. In addition, it provides an easy way for everyone to get at heavy pots and pans.

I think I must have succeeded, because when I showed Rhoda the completed plans, she said, “It’s beautiful! I love the colors!”

When I started to explain the accessibility features, her voice cracked a little and she said, “You took every single thing I showed you and found a solution for it!”

“It’s rare to find a designer who really understands the barriers and is able to see creatively how to erase them,” said Rhoda. “To do it with the beauty of the design that Nicolette has created is amazing.  The Rhoda Rail impressed me as an example of really thinking from the perspective of the user in a wheelchair, and mixing design with function to achieve an elegant solution.”

Given that my demonstration project seems to have been such a success, I thought I would share some of the accessibility ideas from Carla’s kitchen with my blog readers.

Access Features in the Visitable Kitchen

The visitable, south kitchen includes:

  • Rhoda Rails – sleek silver tracks that protect the counter and enable a seated cook to safely scoot a heavy pan off of the low-profile induction cooktop and across the counter without scratching the surface (see drawing).
  • A wheeled, pot trundle cart under the cooktop that is completely removable to provide leg room for a wheelchair user (see drawing).
  • A remote-control hood over the cooktop.
  • A side-opening Fagor oven that allows an easy approach for a wheelchair user who can get in close to lift hot, heavy pans.
  • Removable shelving under the sink to allow the cabinet to be easily converted for a wheelchair user.
  • Removable, wheeled storage carts that form the front sides of the pantry, but roll out and provide access on both sides to stored items.

Features of the ADA Accessible Kitchen

The north kitchen is fully wheelchair accessible, with ADA-height toekicks and 33″ high counters throughout. Other accessibility features include:

  • Accessible dish washer drawers – it’s much easier to reach into a drawer than a recessed cave, and the drawers can be run individually to save water.
  • A Hafele insert that enables one to pull down the upper cabinets.
  • Sliding cabinet doors that are easily approached from the side by a wheelchair user; these are inset with a translucent panel of resin that encapsulates natural reeds (Varia Thatch).
  • A grab bar that is also useful as a towel rack.
  • Swinging doors into the dining room – easy to open for servers who have their hands full as well as a person in a wheelchair. An insert of translucent 3-Form Varia Thatch here enables a server or wheelchair user to know if someone is on the other side.
  • Removable storage under the sink that allows for easy conversion when Carla needs to trade the storage space on the shelves for knee space when seated in a wheelchair.
  • Taps on the sink mounted at the side for easy reach from seated position (this is also true in the south kitchen).

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In Memoriam: Kari Varland

In memory of Kari Varland, who was not only a good friend and a great real estate agent, but also a role model and an inspiration.

When my friend Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last April, I wrote about my grief in a post called “Object Lessons”. (I referred to  her as “Katie” rather than Kari, to protect her privacy.) At the time, I said:

While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast…

If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past.

Kari always lived in the present; she was chatty, energetic and, in business, she knew how to cut to the chase. She will remain vibrantly alive for many years to come in the memories of the many people who gathered to remember her yesterday. We remembered Kari as “a pushy broad” and someone who could eat, talk and drive all at the same time. We also remembered her as someone who gave parcels of food to street people, who would give back chunks of her commission to set things right for her clients, and who had a magic touch for bringing people together.

That’s why, in April, when she was diagnosed, her friends came together to create a silent auction to raise money to support her in her final months. As one vowed, “It seems that there’s no safety net for a self-employed person with a fatal disease. But if there’s no safety net, we’ll just have to weave one.”

Kari’s friends wanted to do that, because of the way she had supported them – us – through the difficult times in our lives. In both her life, and in the way she ended her life, she had the magic of bringing people together, creating friendships and community. As one friend said, “She left us with homes and with community — what a legacy!”

Kari had a magic for solving problems and creating connections — it’s something I aspire to, though I doubt that I will ever approach her energy and effervescence. I can only hope that I can be as much of a guide to my own clients, and that half as many people will show up for my memorial when the time comes. The following words come from an obituary written to Kari in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Far more than an agent who helped with a transaction, Kari’s role was that of a guide and confidante, who used her wisdom and sensitivity to help her clients navigate through one of the most important decisions of their lives. Many of her clients became lifelong friends. In February of 2009, Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kari lived with her illness over the past year just as she lived her entire life — with dignity, courage, passion, grace, warmth and an endless concern for others.”

Rest in peace, Kari. I will try to follow your example and your star, and I will miss you always.

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5 thoughts on “Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

  1. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work. There is much work to be done to get this type of kitchen to be more of the norm than the rarity.

  2. I just learned of Kari’s death – so very sad – we were friends and more so many long years age in the 80’s, and though we drifted apart I never forgot her and the times we had. Rest in peace my friend.

  3. Thank you for creating Obstacles to Overcome:
    An Accessible Kitchen Nicolette’s Comfort & Joy Blog, I actually was searching for something very similar and was delighted to acquire the tips from this particular blog post.

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