On the Surface of It...Counter Selection for a Universally Designed Home

Post date: May 24, 2017 9:58:41 PM

There are many considerations when making the selection of your kitchen counter-top beyond aesthetics and price. These considerations get expanded, or more important, if being considered with Universal Design in mind. Universal design principles require counters be easy to care for, fairly resilient, often heat-resistant and flexible to allow for visual or tactile contrast. Before looking at these requirements in more depth, lets step back and define the concepts of “Universal Design”.

Universal design requires an understanding and consideration of the broad range of human abilities throughout the lifespan. It features items that most people can use, regardless of their level of ability or disability, whether from aging or physical disability from injury or disease, thus they are considered universally usable. For an example, round doorknobs are not usable by people with limited use of their hands, but lever-style handles are usable by almost everyone, even those people with no hands.

Some items are made more universally usable by their placement, such as placing light switches at a lower level and electrical outlets at a higher level. This way people have to do less bending or stretching.

Accessible design is generally considered to mean that a home or building is designed to limit accessibility issues – it meets prescribed requirements for accessible housing. The features in an accessible home may include wider than standard doorways, sufficient clear space for wheelchair maneuverability, lowered cabinets and countertops, lever and loop type hardware, knee space under sinks, etc. Accessible features are permanent features of a building, generally.

Adaptable design features items that can be easily added or removed to a home to “adapt” it to the individual needs of the occupant. In an adaptable home, the wide halls and doorways, no steps, knee spaces and light switch locations, and grab bar reinforcement features must be built in, but the grab bar can be left off if not needed and added at a later date, because the backing is already in place. Knee space can be concealed by placing a removable lower cabinet or rolling cart to removed when the space is needed later. Adaptable design means readily adjusted.


OK, with that out of the way, what do we need to know about counter-tops in a Universally Designed home? Let’s start with the list of typical and most commonly chosen counter materials and their associated benefits:

  • Butcher Block
    • It is resilient, a good cutting surface and has excellent flexibility in the fabrication process. If somethings is dropped on the counter, chances are better than average that it won’t be damaged. Being able to cut right on the counter eliminates the need to access an additional cutting board. The edges, corners, curbs and contrast can be cut into the surface during the fabricating, cutting down on maintenance needs. Butcher block scores high on resilience, flexible fabrication and durability, but misses on heat resistance and easy care.
  • Tile
    • Top notch heat resistance surface. If machine cut tiles with smooth edges are chosen, then grout lines can be minimized which cuts down on maintenance. Tile opens up many color, pattern, and texture opportunities which are great for visual and tactile contrast and some spill protection. Tile scores well on heat resistance, flexible fabrication, durability and easy care (to some degree). It is not inherently resilient.
  • Laminate
    • Easy-care, economical, and with common fabrication techniques allowing for a variety of treatments to create eased or clipped edges and corners. Colors and patterns are virtually limitless to provide plenty of contrast for the visually impaired.
  • Laminate is cost-effective, has flexible fabrication, easy care and can be somewhat resilient. It does not score well on heat resistance and durability. Solid Surface
    • Solid surface is the king of easy maintenance and offers tremendous flexibility in design and fabrication. There is no limit to the contrasting patterns and edging treatments that can be created. Integrated sinks add even greater ease of maintenance. The material is extremely durable and is resistant to cutting and heating. And while it shouldn’t be used as a direct cutting surface, if cuts or nicks occur, they can often be repaired. Top marks for flexible fabrication, easy care, and durability and some resilience.
  • Stone
    • Stone counters are very heat resistant and make great transfer counters from ovens and stoves. With careful fabrication, edges and curb treatments can be created.

Notice the beautifully trimmed off edges on these wooden counters.

    • Darker stones with more dense colors are the most durable. Scores high for heat resistance and durability. So-so marks for easy care (in dark colors) and flexibility. This product is not resilient.
  • Stainless Steel
    • Great heat resistance and remarkably durable. Fabrication of stainless steel allows for a variety of edge treatments and in the right environment can add some excellent contrast. Heat resistance, easy care and durability are its core strengths.


Just a couple of quick items to think about the fabrication of counter-tops in a Universally Designed kitchen, while we’re on the subject:

  • Whenever possible, counter surfaces near the oven and stove should be heat resistant to allow for food transfer with the least amount of grasping and lifting.
  • Color contrast at or near the counter edge will help a person with visual impairment see the edge.
  • A change of texture, such as a lip or curb, will provide a further tactile indication of the edge.
  • Contrasting colors in the counter surface will assist the visually impaired in working with light and dark foods – flour on a dark counter, coffee on a light counter.
  • Edge treatments should include clipped or rounded corners and eased edges so there are no points or sharp edges.

A lot of these last fabrication points mention the visually impaired, but this does not just mean those with eye diseases or injuries. One of the things nearly all people face as they go into their senior years is a decrease in their visual acuity. Things start to go fuzzy and colors are less sharp. So this is where aging in place really melds into the “Universal Design”. These are considerations we can all take when making updates to our kitchens if we plan on remaining in our homes into our twilight years.

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