Design Strategies for Generation Y

by WOHe

Because the youngest members of our client households have
always been important, we as kitchen and bath designers are called
on to create spaces that stimulate their minds and encourage their
participation in the activities of the home. As our society
evolves, the position of children in the household is changing
particularly in the group labeled Generation Y, and we will do well
to pay attention to the characteristics and psychographics
available on this group.

While we don’t want to ignore those younger than age seven, a
look at the children of baby boomers, referred to as Generation Y
or sometimes as the Echo Boomers or Millennium Generation, offers
some strong indicators about how our society is changing. This
group, 60 million strong, is the first group large enough to rival
the baby boomers (72 million), and is very different.

Ages 7 to 22, Generation Y is more culturally diverse than any
other generation, and they thrive on that diversity. In many cases,
they are more independent and financially responsible, perhaps as a
result of family situations with a single parent, two working
parents, or a grandparent as caregiver. Often accused of growing up
too fast, this group is stimulated by more information and more
options and situations that require decision-making. Like their
parents, they need home to be a safe haven, but their preferences
for what makes a safe haven or home are very different.

At her K/BIS presentation last year, Sarah Reep CKD, ASID, CMG,
clued us in to the clout and buying power of this generation.
Because their numbers are so high and they spend more willingly on
consumer goods than Generation X, they are the targets of major
marketing strategies. Internet access has broadened their view of
the world and, as a result, they are more informed or savvy.

Gen Y also seems to have greater influence on their parents
buying choices. While children may not have the final say, market
research indicates that they do influence space planning and
product selection in both the kitchen and the bath. Also, as their
own haven, bedroom and bath spaces seem to be a great opportunity
for their expression.

The mainstream traditional response to designing for children
has been to use primary colors, or let them choose their favorite
sports team or fairy tale as a motif with the major influence often
being a parent’s image of how the space should look.

Safety has always been, and will always be, a major focus,
particularly in designing for children. The items and spaces a
child uses are designed to be easily accessible and within
comfortable reach. Those items and spaces a child is to be
protected from are designed to be out of reach and lockable or
secure from curious little people.

While these two directives for children’s design still hold true
to a degree, the needs and desires of Generation Y are challenging
us to expand and adjust our designs.

Perhaps in response to the need for home as a comfortable place,
we are seeing more natural motifs and soothing colors replacing
some applications of the traditional primary colors in high
intensities. Our office recently did a child’s bath with a nautical
theme in blue and green watercolors with cinnamon accents,
including decorative elements that could be changed or removed as
the child matures.

While we continue to lock away the unsafe, Generation Y, with
more time at home alone or with a caregiver, is more independent
and definitely using or accessing more items and spaces on their
own in both the kitchen and the bath. The result is that we are
challenged to plan a microwave station that can be safely accessed
or provide a way to reach a bath vanity that is more convenient
than climbing on the adjacent water closet, as guiding parents’
hands may not always be part of the process.

In the kitchen
The fact that one-third of these children come from single-parent
households and three-quarters have working mothers translates into
independence and a need
for children to have a share of responsibility.

The microwave is the epicenter of the child-friendly kitchen,
and while it is not a new phenomenon that children will use the
micro-wave, today’s generation is using it for more than
after-school snacks. Placing the microwave at a height of 24″ to
48″ above the finished floor might allow young adults to use the
microwave safely without climbing on open drawers or

A microwave center might be expanded to include prep and serving
dishes, related food storage, a water source and garbage. Access to
the refrigerator/freezer and dishwasher should be nearby.

Bringing things within the reach of this shorter cook can be a
challenge in conventional kitchens. If the items to be used by a
child can’t be stored concisely and within his/her reach, a step
stool might be added to avoid the need to jump onto and down from
the counter.

Whether built-in or conveniently stored, the step stool must be
lightweight and stable, and where possible it will have a safety
railing or be installed so the counter might serve as a safety bar.
If counters cannot be designed at multiple heights, a pullout work
surface in a lower drawer might do well.

In a universal kitchen design class that I taught in upstate New
York, one designer offered that an unexpected benefit of the
raised-height dishwasher was the way the family toddler could “make
her own breakfast” using the open door as her counter. When she was
done, the door was closed and the mess went away.

Use of computers and the Internet as a primary means of
communication for children is one of the main drivers behind
computer access in the kitchen. After determining the main computer
station for the children of a household, the kitchen computer and
message desk can be planned. At the very least, a connection for a
laptop and a bulletin board at child-friendly height should be
planned. A place to sit becomes important if this is where a child
may do homework or surf the net under parental supervision,
maximizing family interaction time. This space can also act as a
games or project area, particularly appealing if it can be separate
from the main eating area. Sometimes, flexibility can be planned
into the snack bar of the kitchen to accommodate this.

This look at changing needs for children and responsive design
in the kitchen would be incomplete without another look at the
risks of improved access for little people. In terms of appliances,
digital controls allow for the option of a control lockout feature.
Smart house technology can provide us with even closer observation
and controls, but manufacturers tell us we don’t seem to be ready
for it yet. The bottom line is that the kitchen remains an area
where the designer and the end user must make responsible decisions
about safe access.

In the bathroom
Despite the attitudes of our most savvy Generation Y or younger
clients, the focus in children’s bath design remains on safety,
access and convenience, as it does for all age groups. Perhaps
because they are smaller spaces, bathrooms also seem to be the
place where personality can be expressed boldly, especially in the
fittings and finishing details that can be easily changed.

In the vanity area, provisions must be made for the growing
stature of the children, sometimes by offering a pull-out step
stool in the lower portion of the vanity cabinet, or by including a
free-standing step stool stored in the open knee space below a
wall-hung or console-style vanity area. While easy-to-plan,
adjustable-height vanities are certainly not mainstream, they are
another option. Fittings are sometimes easier to reach when placed
to the side rather than behind the sink, and the single-lever
faucet design assists those with developing motor skills.

In the shower/tub area, a safe and easy way to enter and exit is
a primary concern, and among the items critical to this goal are
low or no thresholds for the shower, enough deck at the tub to
allow a little one to sit to enter, and grab bars placed at
child-friendly heights.

Fittings in the shower should include an adjustable height,
hand-held spray that can double as a child’s showerhead. As with
all fittings, there should be anti-scald features.
In the toileting area, where the rest of the world is becoming more
comfortable with a higher seat, of course the children are not.
Several products exist today to help accommodate this.

One manufacturer, American Standard, has a child’s commode that
can be changed out as a child grows. Second, home urinals are
becoming more popular, and certainly these can be planned at
child-friendly heights.

Storage takes on entirely new dimensions in the child’s
bathroom, as space for water and other toys must be incorporated
into each of the stations. Storage must be at child-friendly
heights and, in some cases, putting it on casters provides
flexibility. Multiple hampers will help in sorting laundry and in
keeping clutter to a minimum. Even when the laundry room is located
near the bedrooms, it might as well be in another galaxy for most

Much of what we choose for children in the bathroom is good for
everyone, but the finishes, fittings and accessories may be the way
the space takes on a child’s personality. Favorite colors and
motifs can be used here and easily changed as a child matures. Fire
engine knobs on a cabinet can be easily changed to anchor pulls and
onto minimalist stainless details as needed. Flooring that has
warmth and some resilience is most forgiving and matte finishes can
be less slippery.

Washable wall finishes are critical, especially around that
commode or urinal, and some are available that allow a child to
color on them and wash off the art as wished. I have to wonder if
this is a good habit to promote; perhaps a child-height art board
is a better bet.

Full-height mirrors allow children to see their growing bodies
from head to toe. Lights-on motion detectors help provide safe
access, and rounded or eased edges are good for all of us,
especially little ones.

All children, especially Generation Y, insist on being taken
seriously. So, why not include them in the process, listening to
their thoughts with an open mind? Design that responds to their
needs is possible, practical and, in many cases, essential.

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