October 23, 2015 by: Heimsath Architects Staff

Accessibility issues can be particularly complicated and challenging for churches.  When it comes to church kitchens and accessibility, there are a surprising number of gray areas in applying building codes and permitting requirements.  Here are five issues that need to be considered early in the planning of your kitchen:


  1. Volunteers are not Employees and not all that goes on in a Church Kitchen is work.

Most commercial kitchens in restaurants, schools, conference centers, and the like are considered "Employee Work Areas" by the accessible codes and thus are exempt from most of the accessible requirements.  Since church kitchens are often used by a variety of people and volunteers and since the kitchen often serves as a social hub of the church rather than just a place to make food, these spaces usually have trouble meeting both the 'employee' and the 'work' requirements to get this exemption. 

Abidng love Lutehran Kitchen Design

Abiding Love Lutheran Church, Austin Texas

This kitchen is a hybrid between commercial and residential.  The Church does not currently use it as a commercial kitchen, though we have designed it to easily convert if necessary.  The City required the vent hood over the residential equipment and it is sized to handle commercial equipment should the Church decide to change.  The kitchen has a separate hand sink and counter both to meet the accessible requirements and future commercial requirements.  We have also prepared for a grease trap, though we did not install one at this time.

The counter top at the roll down door is at accessible height since it is a serving surface.  The microwaves, though in a close fitting alcove, are not built in or hardwired--They can be removed from their openings and placed on the counters if needed.

  1. The newer accessible requirements for storage in a kitchen are a real eye opener.

In the latest accessibility codes (we typically work with the 2012 Texas Accessibility Standards, which are in turn based on the current ADA requirements) the storage requirements for a kitchen have been updated to specify that 50% of the shelving needs to be accessible.  This means that 50% of the shelving needs to be above 15" and below 48" from the floor.  If you think about a typical counter height of 36" and then 12"-14" of clearance above a counter, you can see that most of the upper cabinets won't be accessible (Though they do make some interesting pull down elements for upper cabinets).  One of the best things we have found to work with this requirement is to have a section of full height cabinets.  In the picture below we have drawers in the lower section and adjustable shelves in the upper section.  Since the vast majority of this section is accessible, we can easily make up for any upper cabinets that occur. Some of the shorter users of the kitchen may appreciate this as well.

Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX

This kitchen is a full-on commercial kitchen, but we still have accessibility requirements.  In this case we have two hand sinks as required by the city reviewer.  We used the large full height storage cabinet to handle the accessibility requirements for storage.  The island and dishwashing areas are at typical commercial heights while the counter along the wall is at accessible height.  This kitchen also has a walk-in cooler which is typically exempted by accessibility requirements.

  1. Hand Sinks are the way to go.

In an accessible space, 5% but not less than 1 of the sinks provided must be accessible.  Accessible sinks in church kitchens can be problematic because the knee clearance requirements do not allow for a very deep sink.  To solve this, we like to use a separate hand sink. This way the hand sink meets the requirements for accessibility and then the rest of the sinks can be whatever you desire. Also, if the kitchen is a commercial kitchen the hand sink is usually required anyway.

  1. Counter Heights

An accessible kitchen not only needs at least one accessible sink, but also a 30"-36" work surface that is required to be at 34" above the floor.  Though this section does not require a knee clearance, the height is lower than the common 36" counter.  We have found that setting whole sections of counter at 34” can be a good idea becuase some of the kitchen users prefer a lower height anyway.  However, keep in mind that some appliances will not fit under a 34" counter.  Also, if you are using some of your counter space as a serving counter, it needs to meet the accessible requirements for the people being served.

First United Methodist, Temple, Texas

This kitchen is more residential in scope, although it is very large.  The city did insist that they have a full sized grease trap but allowed residential vent hoods.  We used a hand sink here to free up the other sinks for accessible requirements.  In this kitchen, the diners actually flow into the kitchen so we have one set of islands for prep and one set of islands for serving.

  1. Not a Kitchen?

The defining piece of what makes a kitchen or a kitchenette is a fixed piece of cooking equipment like a range, a built-in oven, or a built-in microwave.  Oddly enough a plug in microwave that sits on the counter is often not counted as a built-in piece of cooking equipment.  Not being a kitchen can exempt you from the 50% storage requirements, though you still need to have 5% and at least 1 of each storage type accessible.  A 'break room' with no cooking equipment does not have to meet the 50% storage room, but does require knee clearance under the sink.  If the sink is for 'mixing drinks' only, you actually can classify it as a 'wet bar' (or coffee bar) which not does not require the 50% storage rule and does not require knee clearance.  



Of course, all of these issues should always be reviewed in advance with the authority having jurisdiction.  Be proactive.  Request your Architect or building professional address these issues in advance to avoid problems later. The questions about church kitchens and accessbility don't fit into neat categories so the local official may have to use discretion in determining accessible, but still reasonable solutions.


We have some great information on designing your church kitchen.  Click below and download this essential resource: Tips for Church Kitchens.

Tips For Church Kitchens  

Church Design & Construction/ Building Codes/ Codes & Permitting