Iowa State University
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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

10-23-06

maryyearns

Mary Yearns with her Kwik-change Kabinets. Photo by Bob Elbert

Contacts:

Mary Yearns, Human Development and Family Studies, (515) 294-8520, yearns@iastate.edu

Mike Ferlazzo, News Service, (515) 294-8986, ferlazzo@iastate.edu

ISU team develops kitchen cabinets that assist persons with disabilities, aging adults

AMES, Iowa -- October is National Disability Awareness Month, and one of the great challenges for persons with disabilities and aging adults is independent living. Performing routine tasks around the home, such as preparing meals, can be difficult when standard kitchen cabinets and countertops are too high or inaccessible for those with special needs.

But a research team from Iowa State University hopes to change that with the development of "Kwik-change Kabinets" -- modular cabinet units with adjustable cabinet and kitchen countertop components. The universal-design of the units -- which also create sit down work areas, adjustable sinks, and interchangeable drawer sizes -- allows adjustments to be made to fit any person's height in as little as 10 minutes with a simple screwdriver.

Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Mary Yearns -- an ISU Extension housing specialist -- developed the cabinets with former Iowa State industrial and manufacturing systems engineering professor Pat Patterson, as well as Andy Bice, who was an electrical engineer with the product design and testing group at the Center for Industrial Research and Service at the time. The units were developed with funding from the U.S. Administration on Aging and are currently housed in on-campus display trailers.

Now the task is finding a way to make the cabinets readily available to the general public.

Opportunity for practical applications

Yearns reports that the Iowa Finance Authority (IFA) -- a major funder of low-income housing in Iowa -- is willing to accept the quick change, modular cabinets as an alternative to the method for complying with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility requirements. A senior housing pilot project within the state is also proposed to test the usability, adaptability and durability of the cabinets in a real-life housing situation where both persons with and without disabilities live. The researchers say at least one major cabinet manufacturer is interested in producing the units.

"The quick change, modular approach to cabinet design has the potential to revolutionize ADA accessibility requirements in multi-family housing," said Yearns. "Instead of installing accessible cabinets in the units that must be set aside for disabled users and standard cabinets in the rest, the same modular cabinets could be installed in all units and easily changed, as needed, when new residents of various sizes and abilities come and go. This would reduce vacancy rates, since it would no longer be necessary to keep accessible units available or offer accessible units to non-disabled users who do not want to live in them. Tenants with disabilities could avoid expensive remodeling costs. Maintenance staff would need to use only a few simple tools to adapt the cabinets to accommodate tenants with special needs."

The researchers detailed how they created the modular approach in a journal article titled "Developing Cabinet Prototypes for a Universal Design Kitchen," published in the November 2005 edition of the "Journal of the Housing Education and Research Association" -- a special issue on trends in kitchen and bath design research.

"Problem areas in the kitchen that limit the performance of older adults include workspaces that do not accommodate seated users, cabinet shelves that cannot be changed, and appliance controls that are difficult to see and operate, to name a few," said Yearns. "When older persons are no longer able to conveniently and safely prepare nutritious meals, their independence and well-being are compromised. By improving or changing their kitchen work environment, they may be able to continue preparing their own meals and thus postpone or avoid costly nursing home care."

Universal design adapts for all heights

The Kwik-change Kabinets' design adapts for both seated and standing users -- including those who use wheelchairs -- as well as persons of widely differing heights and abilities. Modular components of various sizes can be added to a cabinet unit to change the counter heights. A modular rail system can also be inserted at four-inch intervals so drawer sizes -- from four to 12 inches -- can be interchanged.

"These cabinets allow all people -- including persons with disabilities and aging adults -- to raise and lower their counter heights pretty easily to try and reduce incidents of stress," Yearns said. "There's convincing evidence that rearranging an individual's kitchen space to improve the height of the counter to better fit their needs really does reduce uncomfortable bending and stretching when preparing meals."

Yearns is hopeful that a company will decide to manufacture their cabinets sometime soon. She reports that a key challenge is to redesign the cabinet prototypes for manufacturability on an assembly line at an affordable price.

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Quick look

A research team from Iowa State developed "Kwik-change Kabinets" -- modular cabinet units with adjustable cabinet and kitchen countertop components. The universal-design of the units -- which also create sit down work areas, adjustable sinks, and interchangeable drawer sizes -- allows adjustments to be made to fit any person's height in as little as 10 minutes with a simple screwdriver.

Quote

"The quick change, modular approach to cabinet design has the potential to revolutionize ADA accessibility requirements in multi-family housing. Instead of installing accessible cabinets in the units that must be set aside for disabled users and standard cabinets in the rest, the same modular cabinets could be installed in all units and easily changed, as needed, when new residents of various sizes and abilities come and go."

Mary Yearns