As a relatively niche sector of the mobility market, the inclusive kitchen segment is generally dominated by a small number of suppliers and dealers. Having remained largely untouched by the mainstream mobility retail sector, there are attractive opportunities for businesses looking to get involved as inclusive kitchens are increasingly considered to be important as adapted bathrooms. But what exactly is driving the sector into the future and how can it be approached?
More and more disabled people are staying in their own homes for longer, helped to live independently by any number of innovative equipment, devices, gadgets and solutions. But behind any truly accessible home there have to be substantial adaptations to the most important rooms of the house and not least the kitchen.
For many disabled people living independently, modern inclusive kitchens are an essential requirement rather than a luxury purchase. And as such the market for specialist kitchens is continually expanding. For the mobility sector, this means suppliers, OTs, contractors, dealers and installers are all being called on to help end-users live more enriching lives. Access and mobility professionals are all working alongside each other to help clients reach the best solution and there can be multiple firms involved at all stages, from assessment and design to supply and installation.
Members at all ends of the spectrum are noticing certain trends driving the sector and are taking steps to capitalise on them. For James Dadd, managing director of AKW, a specialist in inclusive kitchen provision, the market has been swelling due to the national pressure on housing. Although local authorities are asking more firms to bring accessible housing to towns and cities across the UK, there remains a critical shortage of appropriate housing.
This means that extended families are being driven to live together. But rather than over-compromising and attempting to fit around each other, AKW is developing solutions that all parties can enjoy. Family-inclusive kitchens are now an important part of the firm’s product portfolio, ensuring that the solution not only embraces the mobility needs of the principal client, but that the kitchen works for the wider family as well.
While designing a product that is diverse and can cater for different people who have varying needs requires a degree of compromise, suppliers agree that safety, quality and aesthetics still top the list for adaptive kitchen requirements. Today’s clients want a safe, accessible kitchen that looks great too, according to kitchen specialist Adam Thomas, a senior design consultant with Design Matters.
“We emphasise safety in everything we do. Working with disabled people means that design details like safety stops on rise and fall elements and the raised edges that we put on all our worktops to contain hot spills raise our product above the best of the rest. We have always supplied standard kitchens alongside accessible kitchens so that clients get a full luxury showroom experience, regardless of the kind of accessible kitchen they need,” comments Thomas.
“When we started moving into accessible kitchens in a serious way back in the early nineties, my goal was to make our accessible kitchens look as good as our high-end standard designs. I think we have finally reached this point. Sadly, the difference in quality and performance between a Design Matters kitchen and one of the big national suppliers’ best efforts is difficult to discern from photos. We spend a lot of time going back and correcting serious design errors by inexperienced designers.”
Bringing the right product to market is one thing, but ensuring it is effectively installed and maintained is another. For both dealers and suppliers in any sector it is vital that the end-customer has a hassle-free experience and disruption is minimised during installation. For kitchens in particular, which tend to be much larger projects to manage than a stairlift for example, it is important for contractors and suppliers to work together for the benefit of the end-user.
This means offering comprehensive advice and support to ensure each job is completed seamlessly. Andrew Lowndes, Pressalit Care’s UK sales manager, explains that the firm makes technical and installation advice for its partners a priority. Advice on its website, practical product demonstrations and installation videos are all available for the professionals working alongside the company.
“Our team at our UK head office in Reading is always on hand to offer technical support, we visit many shows and exhibitions, and to help increase awareness of our product ranges share case studies and technical tips via social media. There’s no substitute for seeing our products working first hand, so to assist in kitchen and bathroom design we use a specialist test facility at Brunel University, just outside of London,” he says.
Likewise, Design Matters knows that any additional help it can give to its partners will mean long-term benefits for itself. In an industry where reputation is absolutely key to repeat business and referrals, most suppliers know better than to leave their partners stranded on a job. Richard Smithies, managing director, heads up the company and works closely with Thomas on the specification side of its accessible kitchens. He also helps support existing dealers. “Support is really important, but it’s a time-consuming business and requires commitment on both sides,” Smithies says.
For any mobility business model to take off it needs a solid grounding and impeccable reputation among its customer base. Dadd strives to achieve this with his firm and to secure the optimal result for the end-user he aims to offer the best possible end-to-end support to his dealer partners. This means employing a technical support team that is on hand to answer dealer and installer questions and attend site visits whenever needed. AKW also prepares a wide range of best practice and installation guides to help answer the majority of design and product specification questions.
Just as suppliers are there to help contractors overcome on-site installation challenges, they must also consider the issues they themselves will face as the industry changes. Events outside of the sector such as economic and demographic fluctuations can be a cause for concern for most suppliers. Design Matters is no different and has to contest with forces dictated by the market and other factors out of its control. For Thomas, the main concern is the struggle the firm has with the legal system and the way that typical budgets for accessible kitchens in compensation claims are set at £15,000.
“If a really good tailored accessible kitchen saves a lifetime of delivered meals or personal assistants for meal preparation, then a typical £35,000 investment makes good economic sense,” he outlines. “We’ve been fighting this battle for years. We continue to work alongside case managers and personal injury solicitors to try and make our case, and have confidence that we are beginning to win the argument. Being able to make a hot drink and a meal is as important as being able to use a bathroom — but there are no government guidelines for kitchens similar to ‘Doc M.’ Freedom in the kitchen is being seen as optional and not absolutely necessary. Disability rights have come a long a way, so I remain confident that we will win this battle.”
Meanwhile, public funding cuts have been flagged up as an issue for AKW. Dadd explains that the redundancies in local agencies and government departments are placing pressure on the level of coordination that previously existed between social care, housing services and accessible housing design companies. It is now taking longer for cases to be assessed for publically-funded projects and this is meaning that AKW is seeing an increase in the growth of privately funded installations, he says. Nevertheless, the firm is working to solve these problems and has embraced them as an opportunity to explore new avenues.
And like Dadd, Lowndes has spotted prospects in the challenges presented. “It’s about helping decision makers to understand the opportunities that arise through installing specialist equipment into kitchens that are used by less-abled people,” he says. “The benefits are far reaching, from independence and self-esteem of the individual resident or home owner, right through to helping reduce demand on carer and health professional resource.”
It is comforting for contractors and dealers to know that the inclusive kitchen suppliers they work with are working to resolve and embrace the challenges the sector throws up at them. While it remains a difficult area to operate in, given the high cost of kitchens in a market of cash-strapped customers, suppliers are continually working to make their solutions profitable and viable for mobility dealers and contractors.
Even with public funding cuts making it difficult for many people to purchase adapted kitchens, firms are clearly working hard to pressure the government into changing legislation and their view on such products as a necessity rather than a luxury. It is hoped that kitchens will soon be seen on the same level as inclusive bathrooms and when that time comes, dealers who have given forethought to the sector will be the best placed businesses to take advantage of the potential new wave of customers