Universal design for bathrooms: stylishly functional

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | April 14, 2014

Universal design is not new, but you may not have heard the term. If you have, you may think it's strictly about environmental design for the elderly or people with mobility issues. Did you picture an institutional bathroom as you read that?

Blink, and refresh your mind's eye. Universal design is for everyone, and the latest home products and design concepts might pleasantly surprise you.

The engineers, architects, product designers, and environmental design researchers who developed the concept of universal design pointed out that you have to include aesthetics when applying UD. It's for everyone, and it was never their intent to single out or stigmatize anyone in need of special design adaptations -- in fact, quite the opposite. Universal design was meant to level the playing field.

Universal design principles in a nutshell

The seven principles of universal design published and copyrighted in 1997 by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University's College of Design address issues that can apply to anyone:

  • usability/simplicity
  • accessibility
  • safety

"Universal" means that these principles apply equally to any and all users regardless of factors such as

  • age
  • mental capacity
  • physical capability

Universal design can help users of various levels of ability perform daily functions with a higher degree of independence or without any assistance at all.

Aging in style

Aging in place remodeling specialists typically turn to UD to guide them in accommodating older clients who want to delay or altogether avoid institutional living. That may be why universal design and aging -- or physical disabilities -- are so strongly associated. But a home design that incorporates the principles of UD must be as useful, flexible, and easy to comprehend for a child as it is for an older adult, a gymnast, or someone with mobility and/or sensory challenges.

Unfortunately, some builders, designers, and contractors who are trying to incorporate elements of universal design into new homes and remodels have met with resistance to the suggestion of things like grab bars, raised toilets, wall-mounted toilets and sinks, or walk-in tubs. The Baby Boomers, for example, often referred to as "active adults," are aware they may need these accommodations down the road, but some of them aren't ready to be reminded of it daily. Many just simply fear they'll have to sacrifice style in favor of function.

Verna Vuckovich, principal of v.v. Interior Design and a certified Associate Kitchen and Bath Designer (A.K.B.D) in Great Falls, Mont., agrees:

"A client I had was remodeling a bathroom, and they were all for the reinforcements in the walls for grab bars but didn't want to have them installed just yet. They were in their late 50s and planned on staying in the house until they couldn't do the stairs anymore. They are very active in their exercise habits, and I took it that they didn't want to see themselves as needing them."

She recalls many years ago seeing grab bars in a home in a well-to-do, country club neighborhood and thinking they were so out of place that they should be removed. But she says, "I do like that there are more choices in grab bars now." When clients balk about grab bars, she gives them the plans showing where she's reinforced the walls so they can install them when the time comes.

Style that puts "fun" in functionality

When Boomers look around their homes, many of them want to see a style and sophistication that reflects all they have worked to achieve over a lifetime. Melissa Mroczek, a designer for 15 years and now principal in the design firm Space & Place in Omaha, Neb., recently worked on two master bedroom remodels for couples in their 60s. "Everything they needed was on the main floor so they could stay in the homes as long as possible," she said. "They wanted quality, timeless design that would last, yet not look too horribly outdated in 20 years."

These particular active adults, to paraphrase Mroczek, were looking for features to allow them to age in place -- door clearance and the ability to install or adapt universal design features when needed. But they were also looking for clean, simple design using good quality materials -- larger tile sizes, natural stone, high-end fixtures that are easy to operate, and custom built-ins to maximize appropriate storage as needed.

Their top priority -- ease of maintenance -- also embraced the spirit of universal design appeal. They asked for little or no grout to scrub; no "dust-catcher" surfaces and no hard-to-clean crevices.

Mroczek also cites the following trends she's been seeing in bathroom features, many of which embrace universal design in that they are multi-generational, aesthetically pleasing, and accessible:

  • Walk-in/roll-in showers. There is nothing to trip over when getting in and out, and because they are level and seamless with the bathroom floor, easy to mop out.
  • Free-standing tubs. A custom wood platform surround can make entering and exiting a freestanding tub easier. You can even sit to bathe the grandkids. It also provides a place a caregiver can sit if that time comes.
  • Floating vanities, or vanities with removable panels. You can push a chair under a floating vanity if you get tired. Removable panels mean you don't have to remodel to accommodate a wheelchair later on.
  • Built-in niches in the shower or tub. Placed low enough, even children can reach.
  • Built-in shower benches. What woman wouldn't love a place to sit down or prop her legs for shaving them?
  • Comfort height toilets. The height of your toilet is something that you want to be just right.
  • Wall-mounted toilets. Floor-cleaning can be easier when you don't have to maneuver around a toilet's base.
  • Stylish grab bars. Some of the latest designs have modern lines, like Kohler's curved Elevance. Others, like several clever models by Invisia, double as soap dishes and towel racks.

Tricked-out walk-in tubs?

While both Vuckovich and Mronczek have observed that many clients are opting to get rid of their tubs altogether, there are those who don't want to give up the pleasure of tub bathing. For them, walk-in tubs can provide a safer bathing experience. Many manufacturers offer features, either standard or optional, such as:

  • molded benches
  • slip-resistant bottoms
  • low thresholds to step over
  • built-in grab bars
  • fast drain and fill
  • built-in water heaters
  • air and water jets for therapy
  • chromotherapy -- colored underwater lights

If you think walk-in tubs are too utilitarian for your style, enhancements such as the following can completely change their appearance from institutional to inspiring:

  • beautifully tiled surround
  • mirrored sides to reflect intricate tilework in the rest of the bathroom
  • shower/tub combo with swing-in upper glass doors and rainfall shower head

The list of universal design products and remodels is extensive and the choices varied. Good design can be functional and stylish while serving the needs of every family member no matter what their age or condition. If your architect, builder, designer, or Realtor says, "I recommend universal design elements," don't cringe. It doesn't have to look like assisted living -- just easier living.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.