How to Design an ADA-Friendly Outdoor Kitchen

Food is universal, but what about cooking? For individuals with disabilities, it can feel like anything but universal. The kitchen is an area where accessibility considerations are still fairly new. For someone like Vaughn DeBarr, however, the kitchen is a sanctuary. DeBarr is a bilateral above-knee amputee and paraplegic with a deep passion for the culinary arts, as characterized by her Ability Eats initiative. 

Previously, DeBarr, a scholar of the Cordon Bleu culinary institute, had worked in commercial kitchens for nearly a decade. Following her amputation, she discovered just how ill-equipped many commercial kitchens were for individuals with disabilities. That’s where Werever stepped in. 

As a close friend of Werever founder Matt Boettger, DeBarr was in for a treat – and we’re not talking about the kind that’s a result of culinary prowess. We committed ourselves to creating her a space where she could fully engage in her love for cooking and meal preparation without the barriers that traditional kitchens can present. 

She is a founder of Ability Eats, a non-profit that provides concierge chef services and small event catering to other underserved communities, in hopes to improve quality-of-life by improving quality-of-access. As a result, she needed a dedicated space that would allow this initiative to continue thriving.

Understanding the Requirements

It begins with a blueprint. When this project first crossed designer Whitney Paden’s desk, she immediately got to work sketching out some essential features, in accordance with ADA design guidelines.

“There is Universal Design, which means designing a space that can be accessed, understood, and used by all,” shares Paden, an experienced designer and Director of Customer Experience at Werever. “There are also ADA guidelines, laws ensuring that those with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities. Then, there’s what actually works for the customer.” 

While Paden referenced ADA guidelines to gain a general understanding of the requirements for the space, acknowledging that they are exceptional for multi-use, commercial, or other public-use spaces, she knows that private individuals looking to create residential kitchens often have different needs that must be considered and accounted for.

This is where the expertise of a custom cabinet manufacturer like Werever comes in, making it easy to personalize the product and final design for each customer’s specific requirements. Our approach to the customer experience allows us to build a relationship with the end-user, so that we can create a plan that’s right for them.

Conceptualizing the Space

In this case, DeBarr’s outdoor space was most conducive to a U-shaped kitchen. In accordance with ADA 802.2.2: “In U-shaped kitchens enclosed on three contiguous sides, clearance between all opposing base cabinets, counter tops, appliances, or walls within kitchen work areas shall be 60 inches (1525 mm) minimum.” 

Therefore, a 60” space for turnaround was provided between opposing sides. And so, the process began for each sub-section of this accessible outdoor kitchen. 

Pantry & Cabinets 

Starting with our area of expertise: the cabinets. Normally, we build our ADA-accessible cabinets to 32.5”, with 34” being the recommended maximum height. However, DeBarr needed even less height than this in order to reach items toward the back of the countertop, which we accommodated.

Then, we moved on to the pantry cabinet pictured at the far left. The idea was to create additional vertical storage for pots, pans, and other cooking equipment that she would primarily use in the outdoor kitchen. We maintained a 60″ height to keep items mostly within reach. In a standard ADA kitchen, we might do 84”, but again, the lower access point was best-suited to her needs. 

By adding pull-out trays up to the mid-way point at 36″ off the ground, we were able to create easy access to the stored items. There was a planned open space at the left and right of the pantry cabinets in order to allow for the doors to open fully, so that she could navigate around to either side of the cabinet in order to use the pull-out trays.

Further up in the pantry, there is adjustable shelving that someone else could help her access when available. This is for less commonly used items, when she has an assistant in the kitchen.

Sink Area

The sink cabinet itself is accessible, with full doors at the face – and we even offer options for a toe-kick panel. When opened, there is a cut-out in the deck of the cabinet for DeBarr to pull up and under the sink while using it. To the left of the sink, there is an opening below the countertop and above a storage cabinet, which provides extra space to work when at the sink, at the same level as the countertop surface. 

Meanwhile, the area to the right of the sink is planned at standard counter height to accommodate the refrigerator (about 34”-34.5”) donated by Middleby Residential/Lynx. It also provides a standard-height working surface for when she has assistants helping her in the kitchen. 

The cabinet to the right of the refrigerator includes pull-out trays for easy access, with open space at each end for maneuverability.

Open Shelf Space 

Smack dab in the center is an open shelving area, with two floating countertops on either side. This provides an area where items can be placed on multiple levels while actively working in the outdoor kitchen. The floating countertops also provide enhanced wheelchair navigability.

Cooking Area & Appliances

The power burner cabinet was strategically placed at the far end of the run for easy access in front and on the side. DeBarr does lots of wok cooking, so this particular station was a must-have. It is lowered to a height measured to accommodate her needs so that she can easily use larger pots, like her wok, and other cooking items on this burner with ease. 

In this section, there is also a propane tank storage cabinet for the accompanying grill, with a pull-out to easily service and change out the tank. This cabinet also provides a clear countertop space between cooking appliances to set down food platters, utensils, and other tools when actively using the Lynx Professional Grill equipped with Lynx’s ADA kit. 

The Lynx ADA kit contains attachments that make the appliance more accessible for chefs with disabilities, such as handles that allow the grill hood to be open from the side, as opposed to overhead. Alongside that is a narrow spice cabinet, with drawer pull-out storage so that spices are right at her fingertips when cooking.

Bringing it to Life

In the end, an outdoor kitchen is curated for the chef who is using it. Our goal is to create an open-air space for connection, creativity, and cuisine by assessing the needs of those who request it and making those concepts come to life. 

“It’s our ability as a direct manufacturer to customize what we do,” Paden says. “Our product is not a one-size-fits-all, we can build the kitchen within exact specs, so that the client gets what they ultimately want.” 

In a world largely made to cater to those who are able-bodied, individuals with disabilities must battle with daily inconveniences and even impossibilities. By starting with the outdoor kitchen, we can expand the philosophy of accessibility to the rest of the world.