Rod Tolman never has to bend down or reach above his head when he's cooking in his new kitchen.

Pots, pans and even the microwave are stored in low pull-out drawers. The wall oven is at shoulder height, and Tolman has easy access to the sink.

These universal design elements allow Tolman, a paraplegic, to do everything from his wheelchair.

"It's so sweet," he said. "It's really easy to retrieve a pot when I need it."

Tolman stores all of his cooking tools as well as dishes in easy-to-reach drawers, rather than door-style cabinets.

"It's basically a kitchen in a drawer," said Sarah Michalowski, a designer for Sawhill Custom Kitchens & Design in Minneapolis, who devised the ultra-functional and aesthetically appealing kitchen.

Even before they started on his kitchen, both Tolman and Michalowski knew quite a bit about universal design elements, which make homes accessible for people of all ages and abilities. Those guidelines are increasingly being integrated into the homes of people who want to "age in place," as well as the homes of people who have physical limitations.

Tolman, a retired estimator for Kraus-Anderson Construction, recently built a home on a wooded site near Bemidji. His updated rambler has many universal design features, such as wide hallways and door openings. But when it came to the kitchen, he sought help.

He hired Michalowski to design a kitchen that was not only wheelchair-accessible but also looked at home in his North Woods home. His one caveat: He wanted a kitchen without upper-wall cabinets.

"I've seen a lot of handicap kitchens with high cabinets," said Tolman. "I learned in my last house that they are a waste of space."

Michalowski's solution for filling the cabinet-free kitchen walls was to create an eye-catching rock hearth that surrounds a flat cooktop. The river rock is repeated around an arched window above the kitchen sink.

The kitchen is large enough for Tolman to be able to maneuver around appliances, the center island and the knotty alder cabinets. Michalowski included other accessible features, such as a small breakfast table, which is connected to the island, and a prep sink for filling pots close to the cooktop. But function wasn't the only consideration.

"Sarah gave the kitchen warmth and color, and made it interesting," Tolman said.

A growing interest

Michalowski and other remodelers and builders said they've seen increased interest in universal design elements -- such as kitchen counters at varying heights and tall "comfort height" toilets -- especially among baby boomers who wish to stay in their homes.

"Instead of moving, more people are making their homes functional for the long term rather than focusing on trends," said Michalowski, who specializes in kitchen and bath remodels.

Bjorn Freudenthal, vice president of sales and marketing for College City Design Build in Lakeville, said universal design gained momentum in 2005 when the AARP and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) started a program certifying aging-in-place specialists. So far 2,153 builders and remodelers, including 74 in Minnesota, have been certified.

In 2009, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) introduced its own universal design certification program.

"It's a way for remodelers to become educated about the special needs of aging people, a fast-growing niche market," said Freudenthal.

In Minnesota, the over-64 market is projected to double by 2035.

Manufacturers are responding as well, with more choices in styles, sizes and amenities in home-related products, especially appliances.

"Five years ago I could only find a standard left-hinge microwave," said Michalowski. "Now there are microwave drawer ovens, which are wonderful."

As for Tolman, he loves his kitchen's smart style as well as its easy-to-cook-in qualities.

"People say it looks awesome," he said. "And it goes with the rest of my home."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619


Visit the Center for Universal Design's website at