FOCUS | Multigenerational living

Make your designs designs

UNIVERSAL not just accessible

Accessible kitchen expert Adam Thomas talks to Vicki Evans about why he believes it’s time to start thinking about ‘universal’ designs that are suitable for users of all ages and abilities


ociety has changed over the past few years. There are a growing number of households that comprise of multiple generations and abilities under the same roof.

‘Accessible’ kitchens tend to cater for specific disabilities. But accessible design expert Adam Thomas believes we need to put aside old thinking and design kitchens that are practical and safe for users of all ages and all levels of ability – kitchens that are ‘universal’. A multi generational kitchen or bathroom has, by its very nature, to be usable by multiple people – from children to older people with various levels of ability. It has to be accessible to everyone.

It is not just about wheelchair access, but also looking at a range of disabilities from the physical to conditions like dementia. “You cannot have multigenerational design without being universal. If you design something that is accessible, then by its very nature, it is multigenerational,” says Thomas. “I don’t care what we call this market – multigenerational, accessible or


universal – as long as we have an industry that can design for everyone. If we have an industry that understands and designs for everyone, then that is the important thing, and it doesn’t marginalise any particular group.” In his 30 years consulting on accessible designs , Thomas has found that often a kitchen is designed around one person’s disability. He explains: “You can design a kitchen that works for a wheelchair user, but no one else can use it. That is not a good universal design. “What makes it good is a kitchen that a wheelchair user can use, but that a non-disabled person can use just as easily.”

Designing for all

So how does this work in practice this for a kitchen? Take, for example, worktop height – a wheelchair may require a worktop at a lower level. But if the worktop is mounted too low, then able-bodied people or someone who has difficulty bending down will not be able to use it. A universal solution would be an electric rise-and-fall worktop as featured in the Symphony

Freedom range. “You don’t have to make a design look accessible or have to retrofit things if we the design right from the outset,” says Thomas. “If we design universally, then, by its very nature, it is multi generational and accessible.” Thomas was initially asked to write a report on the standard Symphony range to see what could be done to make it accessible. Symphony took his suggestions and together they designed the Free- dom kitchen. Now, Thomas advises Symphony and works with their retailers on

best practice when designing accessible kitchens.

Symphony says it is the first major kitchen brand to release an accessible design. Despite this huge step, Thomas believes there is a massive knowledge gap within the industry as a whole. He says: “I always come back

to this – the problems are always about training, knowledge and understanding. If you don’t know the right questions to ask, then how are you going to get the right answers and design the right kitchens?”

I don’t care what we call this market as long as we have an industry that understands and designs for everyone and doesn’t marginalise any particular group

Though the growing socio- economic trend for multigenerational – or 4G – living has been talked about by the industry for several years, Thomas believes that despite a few leaders, like Symphony, the sector still needs to do more to bridge the gap. On average, one in every five people in the UK has some dis -

ability. Thomas encourages retailers to get on board with this or else risk losing sales.

He says: “Do you want to lose 20% of your market and see them go to a retailer down the road that does offer a service that makes them feel comfortable and understood?”

· August 2021

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