Independent Living Institute

CIB logo



Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities

Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB)

The Flexibility of Kitchen Fittings

Grete Bull, Norwegian Building Research Institute


The study referred to in this paper is a survey of mass-produced kitchen fittings available in Norway in 1985/6. The practical aim of the study was to produce a descriptive catalogue to guide consumers and counsellors in the choice of products suitable for disabled people. In the course of the study, we found it necessary to go deeper into the history and background of current criteria for design and standardization of the products. We wanted to relate the information obtained in the survey to results from previous field studies of old and disabled persons living in their own homes.


During the last 30-40 years almost all kitchens have been constructed from mass-produced standardized units. There are two kinds of kitchens: the normal type for people who can stand and walk, and the ’special’ kitchen for persons with disabilities. The special kitchen type has also become standardized. It is designed for wheelchair users who are expected to have strong arms, and be able to operate from the wheelchair without any assistance from anyone else. This type of person is hard to find.

In counselling individual clients, occupational therapists ask us for advice on where to find suitable products for the great number of people who have other disabilities. They tell us that there are no good products for the very tall or the very short person, or solutions to the problems of aching backs, sore feet or weak arms and hands. In planning for unknown users, especially in housing designed for old persons, architects often choose a ’special’ kitchen in the belief that it can be adapted to any ’special’ user.

In generalized planning of this kind, the likelihood of a misfit between kitchen and user is high. We have found support for this assumption in some recent studies. In many cases we have found kitchens intended for wheelchair users in homes where there is no need for it. There seems to be an automatic connection between the concepts of an apartment occupied by a disabled person and the special kitchen for wheelchair users. In many cases the disabled person does not do the cooking, or at least, not all of it. On the walking housewife or assistent the special kitchen can have a debilitating effect.

According to a Danish survey most users of adjustable kitchens do not know how to adjust heights, if it is possible at all. They also found that the constructions were not very strong. We have also seen how battered such kitchens can look after some time. In surveys of old people living at home we found that wall cupboards were mounted too high. As a consequence, users were forced to climb up on a chair to reach the shelves. In most kitchens, a work surface with seating was missing, and this caused problems for people who otherwise managed very well on their own. Most old housewives prefer the kitchen table to the standard level worktop as a work surface.

It has been pointed out that the international and Swedish standard kitchens are full of faults from an occupational health and ergonomics point of view. The reason for this may be that consumers, architects and therapists lack knowledge of what is available. It may also be an indication that the design of kitchens in general needs reconsideration.

Our general impression was that none of the kitchens on the market met the demands of all users, and especially users with the relatively minor impairment of being very tall or very short. Thus, we are not only concerned here with persons with disabilities as an exception to the norm; expressed by manufacturers as the 80%-20% rule, by which they distinguish between their standard and special ranges.

The majority of users have special needs. Currently, a lot of research is carried out on the needs of old persons. In other medical and paramedical fields, priority is given to prevention rather than cure, so it would seem to be reasonable to take time to consider the ergonomics of kitchens in general.

A More Flexible Kitchen for All Users

Our study aimed at producing suggestions for new and better design specifications for kitchen fittings. We found the sharp division between fittings for the normal and special range confusing and unnecessary. Most users need flexibility. Perhaps an integrated range of adjustable products with supplementary technical aids is the answer. This would make it easier to make choices for unknown or changing tenants, and to adapt existing homes for disability, should the situation arise in the future.

Such a concept in kitchen design must also inevitably have a positive, integrating effect. The design of a special kitchen does not appeal to consumers. We often find, for example, the knee space covered by curtains, or disabled homemakers who choose a normal kitchen for aesthetic reasons.

Study of Flexibility of Kitchen Fittings on the Norwegian Market

Products available on the Norwegian market are mainly produced within the country, or are of Swedish or Danish origin. A small percentage of the market is held by West German brands, usually in the higher price ranges. As we wanted to give a picture of the flexibility of the whole range of fittings available, we have also included the range of products and fittings designed and marketed as the special kitchen for persons with disabilities. Our sample of products consisted of 21 different product names made or marketed by 16 companies. As 4 of these companies make up 75% of the market in Norway including one company with the most widespread system of dealers and outlets, we consider that the sample is quite representative of what is available to the Norwegian consumer.

Producers/dealers were asked to answer a questionnaire about their products and the way in which they included planning advice in individual sales. We also asked them to give us examples of kitchens designed for persons with disabilities.

Our Criterion Was Flexibility

We started out by defining the dimensions of flexibility that are important in ergonomic design. Flexibility is to be understood as a wide choice of alternatives. We were interested in certain qualities which may be different from those that the dealers would include in their concept of diversity. The following list of criteria for good design can be met by a number of choices from the whole range available on the market, and from within each brand’s range.

Choice of worktop height is the most important. The height of the work surface must be adjustable or variable, if the product is to be considered at all. The ease with which the user can change the height is important to some users, especially in households where different persons use the same kitchen, and in apartments where tenants change often. Range of operation is determined by the working position, the movement pattern of the chair and the condition of the arms and hands.

Independently adjustable or variable heights of wall cupboards are an asset to wheelchair users as well as short persons and those with a limited range due to working posture or impairments in hands and arms. In extreme cases, wall cupboards must be lowered to working height or left out altogether.

Adjustment of Wall-Hung Cupboards

While most companies deliver wall cupboards with only one height, some offer different heights which makes it possible to lower some or all cupboards to the desired position. In the special kitchens, wall cupboards could not be adjusted independently of the worktop, with few exceptions.

Foot and Knee Space under the Worktop

As shown by Gavel , there is not enough space for a relaxed standing position in a standard kitchen. Handles and splints will get in the way of knees and feet, especially if the user wants to shift position to take the strain off the back while working for some length of time in one place, or to use a chair for support in a half-sitting position. Gavel recommends a shallow cupboard with handles recessed at the most important work stations. Such cupboards are not available on the market at all. Improvisation, however, is possible by using standard wall cupboards under part of the worktop.

The standard kitchen allows for sitting work stations by omitting one or more cupboards. This is not a good solution, as the worktop is then generally too high, and a slide-out board under the worktop takes up too much floor space. Most people also find the resulting gap ugly. The space tends to get filled with things that should be stored elsewhere. The width of the gap is determined by the standard worktop width which should not be less than 80 cm. While this solution may be suitable as a single work station for persons using a chair on castors or a wheelchair, it cannot be recommended for a complete kitchen where the user does all the work from a sitting position.

Kitchens for persons with disabilities are constructed to allow a continuous open space under the worktop. Some brands have worktops which are too high and too thick to allow the knees of a person using a wheelchair to fit underneath. The knee space must be adaptable to the working position, and the movement pattern of the chair.

Our conclusion is that the open workstation - a place in the kitchen where one can sit or half sit while working - is still an unsolved problem.

Choice of Dimensions for the Units

Standardization aims at reducing the number of different cupboard sizes to a minimum, in order to economize production and marketing. Most of the products in our sample offered a wide choice of dimensions, even among the medium-priced ranges, which were adequate for most planning needs.

More expensive brands, however, offered a wider choice. The most exclusive kitchens feature extra depth for worktops and special cupboards to fill the gap between worktop and wall-hung cupboards. This makes it possible to design work stations in the kitchen where most storage areas are within easy reach of the user. Shallow, tall cupboards are available in some companies’ lines.


Despite standardization of overall dimensions and certain technical specifications, the different brands of kitchen fittings are not interchangeable. Kitchens are marketed in packages. Sometimes even special brands of electrical equipment are included which seriously limits the consumer’s choice. Dealers do not encourage combinations for fear of competition. On the other hand, a number of companies have very recently introduced kitchens for persons with disabilities with the same designs as for their normal range. The products and fittings in these are interchangeable.

Shelves, Drawers, Handles and Knobs

Drawers on steel runners with ball-bearings, special pull-out shelves, extra deep drawers for storage of groceries, pans, etc. are vailable in the more expensive ranges, but not in the cheaper brands used in state subsidized housing. These features can be very important to a great number of people whose disability is weakness in hands or arms or who have difficulties in bending down.

There is a limited choice of types of doors, and closing mechanisms suitable for people with disabilities. Only two companies deliver sliding doors. Most knobs and handles are too small for a weak hand to get a good grip.

Fitting Technical Aids and Electrical Equipment

Most companies include high cabinets for ovens and refrigerators installed at the desired height which fit several brands. In most cases, people with disabilities have to make very careful choices when it comes to technical equipment. Experts recommend that dish-washers should be fitted in the same manner, but these are not made to fit cupboard spaces 60 cm wide. Only one of the kitchen companies has taken this into consideration. With all others, several cupboard spaces and single side walls have to be combined.

There was more flexibility built into the normal ranges of kitchen fittings than we expected to find. The main problem is that these possibilities are not used by planners or consumers. It is quite possible to make all kitchens more flexible, and to standardize details that make it possible to combine products. There is a lack of independent experts such as architects and occupational therapists with sufficient knowledge of available products who can advise disabled consumers on how to plan their kitchen.

Current Trends in Kitchen Design

A more flexible concept of kitchen design for all users is certainly desirable. It may be time for a thorough revision of the standard dimensions and the popular concept of what a kitchen should look like. This is in line with some current market trends, the recent debate in trade magazines, and as shown at recent exhibitions. Standardization itself is presently questioned by some who maintain that it hampers innovation. Manufacturers, for example Bulthaup of West Germany, Norema and Huseby of Norway, are increasing their research efforts. The latter has just asked the Norwegian Building Institute to initiate a research and product development program. Two interior designers, Solheim and Solheim, recently finished a research and design project financed by a building research fund. Their main concept is the "the family kitchen" with a central adjustable work station where users face each other while working. In Malmö, exhibition BO-86 displayed a similar solution for small collectives. In the same exhibition, we found a kitchen with variable heights.

We have also been told that the use of computers in production of kitchen units will allow for much more flexibility than did traditional production by eliminating the need to minimize the number of different elements and to reduce the stock. Communication with the customers over the design in a computer may mean that an individually adapted kitchen may soon be a possibility for every household.

These examples show that designers and producers are ready to make changes, but will they find consumers who prefer a functional kitchen to the well-advertized, glossy image "perfect" kitchen? According to a large survey of kitchen renovations , most buyers of new kitchen fittings had really only changed the facade. Not one functional aspect was considered, and most of the previous lay-out of the kitchen was maintained. One producer of built-in ovens tells us that the recommended high position in a tall cabinet hardly sells at all.

Kitchen design, its history and future, can be used as an example of a universal industrial product that has been researched for a number of years, but still does not come up to essential ergonomical standards. This raises the question of the validity of our testing methods. Another problem is how to translate individual users’ functional requirements into a product that is distributed by the market. Here, regulations or norms alone will not suffice. We also need to study the effects of educating the consumer to recognize and articulate their demands.


Aicher, Otl, Die Küche zum Kochen, das Ende einer Arkitektur-doktrin., Callway,München, 1983.

Englund, M., Hallberg, G., Funktionsmatt vid separat ugn, BFL rapport 6:1977, KTH sektionen for arkitektur och byggnadsfunktionlära, Stockholm, 1977.

Englund, M., Hallberg, G., Funktionsmatt för diskmaskin, BFL rapport 2:1978, KTH sektionen for arkitektur och byggnadsfunktionlära, Stockholm, 1978.

Grandjean, Etienne, Ergonomics of the Home, Taylor and Francis, London, 1973.

Jörgensen, Ivar, Fremtidens kjokken: Ny teknikk, husholdnings-utvikling og boligplanlegging.

Müller-Wellborn, Helmut, Die Zwei - Zentren-Kuche, Gedanken zur Küche von Morgen , HK 1/83.

Nord, Erik, Behovsskapning gjennom modellendringer - Eksemplet kjokkeninnredninger, mimeographed research report, 1980.

Solheim, E. and Solheim, N., Familiekjokkenet 3, Tre og Mobler, 1984.

Prague CIB Report Contents | About CIB