While poorly designed kitchens and bathrooms with narrow openings, high cabinets, and awkward countertops are inconvenient for many people, they can be unusable for the 50 million Americans with disabilities.
Accessibility is important for everyone—not just the elderly or those in wheelchairs. For example, if the average individual under 5'4” were asked whether he or she could reach the highest cabinet shelf in their kitchen, they would probably say no. Instead, they must rely on step stools or tall spouses.
Today, a number of multifamily developers follow universal design standards for their projects—incorporating zero-threshold entrances and wide, 36-inch hallways. These standards help ensure that all space—from shopping malls to apartments—is safe, comfortable, and accessible for everyone, regardless of age or physical ability.
Cabinets are central in universal design, according to Joe Weatherly, project manager for AHC (Arlington Housing Corp.), an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit developer and owner of affordable housing. The firm owns about 3,000 units and incorporates standards set forth in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which specifies architectural requirements for new and remodeled properties.
And, because most of AHC's projects are funded with tax credits awarded by the Virginia Housing Development Authority, the firm must also follow the Authority's universal design guidelines when buying and installing cabinetry. As a result, AHC buys cabinets for all of its projects from Leedo Cabinetry of East Bernard, Texas.
At AHC's newest affordable housing project, the 94-unit Shelton in the Nauck community in Arlington, Va., the cabinets have the same finish and look as traditional cabinets, but are shorter and wider and have larger openings. Likewise, countertops are lower to provide access for individuals in wheelchairs.
Universal design standards also require specific types of hardware on cabinetry, including handles that are easy to grip. While many multifamily developers may overlook pulls and handles, those that build to universal design standards understand that these are tools essential for ease of access. “For us, universal design is just the way we do thing—the way we design and build our projects,” Weatherly notes. “It can make a huge difference in someone's life.”