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Like other common installation standards, it is not building codes that set the height of kitchen countertops, but rather a set of common and established design standards set by the industry over a long period.
These design standards are established by studies determining the most comfortable and practical dimensions for average residents for all the various elements of home construction. Most of the industry follows these standards, meaning that stock cabinets, countertops, windows, doors, and other elements will follow the dimensions set forth by these standards.
Kitchen Countertop Standards
For countertops, the established standard is for the top of the countertop to fall about 36 inches above the floor. So widely accepted is this standard is that base cabinet manufacturers build all their cabinets to a height of 34 1/2 inches, assuming an adequate toe kick and countertop thickness will be 1 1/2 inches.
This has been shown to be the best ergonomic height for a kitchen countertop. It may not be the best for a specific task, but it is the best overall compromise for the majority of tasks done in the kitchen for a user of average height.
For most people, a kitchen countertop height of 3 feet provides a comfortable workstation. Be aware, though, that these design standards are aimed at making things comfortable for average people, who are 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 8 inches in height. If you are much shorter or much taller, the design standards might not be ideal for you.
Varying Countertop Height
As with any feature of your home, countertop height can be varied to meet your situation. A family of 6-footers may find 36 inches so low that they have to stoop uncomfortably while preparing food, while a family with members less than 5 feet in height might also find the standard countertop height to be uncomfortable.
It can be difficult and expensive to make these alterations, though, since stock base cabinets will need to be altered, or custom cabinets will need to be built from scratch, in order to change the countertop heights. Moreover, you should be careful about dramatic variations to construction standards, as the potential future buyers of your home may not appreciate them.
Countertops for Those With Disabilities
Users with physical disabilities, such as those confined to wheelchairs, may find both stock base cabinets and countertop height standards to be impractical. In kitchens designed for accessibility, at least some portion of the base cabinets is left open so that users can roll wheelchairs beneath the countertop while preparing food.
The countertops themselves are often lowered to a height of 28 to 34 inches or even lower. If only a section of countertop is customized for wheelchair users, make sure the open space is at least 36 inches wide.
While these custom changes may, of course, have an impact on the future sale of the house, they are a small price to pay to make a home convenient and comfortable for disabled residents. In today's marketplace, you may even find that an accessible kitchen is actually a desirable selling point to future buyers.