Smart renovation reaches goals of its 4-foot-6 owner

This article originally appeared in the Commercial Appeal on Oct. 10, 2008

Judy Bookman comes from a long line of cooks — “my grandmother, mother and aunt regarded cooking as a competitive sport,” she said — so it’s not surprising that she, too, loves to cook.

Bookman, however, stands only 4-foot-6, and she has always found conventional kitchens difficult to manage, though she has coped and accommodated for most of her life.

In conventional kitchens, countertops are too high for her; wall-mounted cabinets are out of reach; using the back burners on the stove requires a stretch; moving heavy pots around can be awkward.

So Bookman, 61, called in designer Leslie Shankman-Cohn to redo the kitchen of her 45-year-old house in East Memphis. Shankman-Cohn specializes in environmental and universal design, a concept whose goal is accessibility and usability for everyone.

Shankman-Cohn produced a kitchen for her client that, while it uses the same footprint as the previous

kitchen, through eliminating a pantry and a back entry, is very different. The new kitchen is open and airy, well-lit, crisply architectural and attractive. With its ash-blond wood cabinetry (made of Baltic birch), celadon tile backsplashes and collection of colorful contemporary glass vessels placed high in special compartments, “it doesn’t look like a kitchen made for a specific user,” Shankman-Cohn said.

The kitchen conceals a number of devices intended to make Bookman more comfortable and more efficient when she works at her hobbies of cooking and baking.

“When Judy called me, I asked her what her wish list would be,” said Shankman-Cohn. “From that point, we worked as a team. Judy had a lot of input, though sometimes I had to exercise veto power.”

“The biggest issue was reaching things,” said Bookman.

To solve that problem, Shankman-Cohn had counters made that are 34 inches high, 2 inches lower than the standard counter. Then she lowered the wall cabinet height by 2 inches and installed Rev-A-Shelf pull-down units that come down 10 inches and out 143/4 inches, bringing items stored on shelves to within Bookman’s grasp.

To get Bookman right up to the sink and the stove, built-in platforms slide out from underneath. The platforms lock in place and can hold up to 300 pounds.

“I could use two more of these,” Bookman said, demonstrating their function.

Sometimes simple details make a huge difference in how Bookman works in the kitchen. For example, dishes are stored in lower cabinets, in wide, deep drawers, at her level, so she doesn’t have to lift them down from an upper cabinet.

Bookman, a corporate trainer for employee assistance programs and a licensed (but nonpracticing) clinical social worker, has had both hip joints replaced, and while she gets around with no problems, her mobility is somewhat limited. Who knows what may lie in the future?

“We had to consider the possibility that Judy might be in a wheelchair some day,” said Shankman-Cohn. “We wanted to make sure that the kitchen could still work for her.”

To that end, the opening from the living room to the kitchen is wide and has no threshold. The space between counters on opposite sides of the kitchen is broad enough that a wheelchair can easily turn around. Toe-kicks at the base of the cabinets are higher and deeper than normal, so foot-rests on a wheelchair won’t bang against the cabinet doors.

Shankman’s nod toward environmental concerns comes in the form of renewable bamboo floors, double-pane windows, long-lasting and low-wattage xenon lighting and a composting unit built-in under the prep sink.

“The main concern,” said Shankman-Cohn, “was meeting Judy’s requirements, but we wanted to make sure that we addressed some environmental issues, too.”

Bookman has lived in the house, a modern 1960s design with an open floorplan, since 1989. She is divorced.

“When we started the redesign,” she said, “my idea was just to remodel a small, old-fashioned kitchen, regardless of accommodations, but Leslie asked me how long I intended to live here. I don’t have any plans for selling this house and moving, and I realized that this was the chance to get the kitchen I really needed and could work in for years. Anyway, if I put the house on the market, I would have to sell it to a family of munchkins.”


image courtesy of the Commercial Appeal