Universal Design in the Bathroom

by bkrigbaum@solagroup.com

Design considerations for aging-in-place, accessible spaces and adaptable dwellings have become the rule and not the exception. With that in mind, imagine a conversation with a Millennial couple about installing grab bars in their bathroom. Although they may not have a need for this feature at this time, as a design professional one should plan for their and other occupants’ potential needs.

There is an extraordinary amount of information about universal design and its application for how we design baths today. Add to that the advancements in products and technology of bath fixtures. By sorting some of that information into three key categories—safety, comfort and sanitation—one can develop best practices for design of any bath.


Tile remains the top product for flooring in baths. Textured finishes on tile and grout lines create a slip-resistant surface. Polished marble tile is a classic but one of the most dangerous products used in the bath because of its slippery surface when wet. You may consider using a smaller tile size (thereby increasing grout lines) with textured accent tiles to create a slip-resistant surface.

Curbless showers remove potential tripping hazards at the shower by using a trench, linear channel or tile insert drain. A curbless shower installation for walk- and roll-in access requires careful planning and installation. When considering tubs, controls should be on the access side regardless of whether it’s a free-standing or platform-style tub. No one should have to reach across or stand in the tub to turn the water on.

Grab-bar products offered today do not have the institutional look they once did. It is possible your client may not want them, so you should anticipate someone who will want grab bars by installing blocking in the shower, tub and toilet area. Leave a diagram of the blocking with the homeowner as reference for future use. Secure a second copy in plastic inside the vanity or linen cabinet. Code may dictate placement of grab bars but you should consider the needs and height of the user.

Lighting provides safety and comfort. With the technology and options available today, there is no excuse for installing a single light bar over the mirror and calling it good design. An illuminated mirror or side lighting at the vanity mirror provides even distribution of light, eliminating shadow lines. Sensor technology with recessed lighting at the toe-kick space on a vanity will provide enough illumination for someone to use the bathroom during the night without shocking the eyes. Several smaller recessed fixtures, rated for damp locations, create better overall illumination than a single wall- or ceiling-mount fixture. In addition, multiple lighting options with dimmers allow the user to meet his or her needs.

Install a 3-foot-wide door. If someone in the home ends up using a walker or wheelchair, a wider door will allow access without obstruction. If enlarging a door is not possible, use swing-clear hinges to increase the door-opening clearance by 11/2 to 13/4 inches.


Radiant floor heat should be part of every project. For a low cost, it offers soft, even, continuous heat for the homeowner. Radiant floor heat works with a variety of flooring types, but tile is most suited for it.

Code dictates the centerline for a toilet should be 15 inches. An 18-inch centerline allows for more comfortable use of the toilet with the installation of grab bars. It also allows more space for assisted use. Seat height should be 16 to 18 inches from the floor to the top of the rim. This may be a little tall for children. There are many aftermarket products that provide a temporary solution for children. A closed, elongated front will accommodate all users regardless of age or physical ability.

Lever-style handles are easier to grasp whether on a door, cabinet or faucet.


In-wall tank and carrier systems for wall-hung toilets allow for continuous uninterrupted flooring at the toilet area. Depending on the toilet size, mounting the toilet can add accessible floor space for a wheelchair in a small bath.

Instead of the typical combo heat/light/vent unit, consider at-the-source ventilation to reduce moisture and odors in the bath. You may want to install one unit at the toilet area and one at the tub or shower area. Ventilation units are best on a timer. Depending on the manufaturer, the vent should run for five to 10 minutes after the user has left the bath.

When you consider the amount of moisture in a bathroom, tile, solid surface and quartz composite make the most sense for wall coverings. Depending on the size of the bathroom, cost can become an issue. Consider finishing the walls at the toilet area with tile or another nonporous product.

The products on the market today give us the opportunity to design baths without an institutionalized look. Our responsibility as design professionals is to enhance the livability of the home and accommodate the occupants at all stages of life. You can change the course of humanity one (kitchen and) bath at a time.

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