Access:Able and Better Bathrooms

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Truly Access:Able for Better Bathrooms 

© Charles M. Schwab Architect, 2017

What’s new in the bathroom is partly the acceptance and attitude that bathroom access makes good sense for everyone. Bathing and hygiene industrial designers are besting their efforts by creating ever more attractive, innovative and accessible bathroom products. Bathroom home designers are also taking notice of this need and opening their minds to new space planning paradigms. Both segments see the future and their design efforts as a proliferating market opportunity spurred by consumers warming up to the fact that safety and accessibility can optimize health and be an effective home investment all the while, looking great to boot.

Beyond ADA for Better Bathrooms, Scan Pg 1
Better Bathroom By C. Schwab Pg. 1 from the article published in PN Magazine Jan 2017

The increasing focus on accessible bathrooms could also be attributed to sports, auto, and combat injuries or gravities general effect on us all: “What goes up must come down”. Attention to the bathroom access market is also, at least in part, due to medical advances resulting in people living longer. Nonetheless, let’s face it; living longer is not necessarily a plus unless our extended time on this earth results in a good quality of life.

A healthy, safe and comfortable hygiene routine goes a long way to making an improved or higher quality of life possible. Regardless of what the game of life throws our way, research reports that 90% of us want to stay in our own homes as long as possible. Innovation in the bath industry is helping make those dreams come true and that’s really the point of this article.

Staying in one’s own home is a personal and family benefit and adaptable and accessible bathrooms can help make that happen. Reminded by nurses, client circumstances and even the authors own family: it is often the bathroom that can block people from staying home. When mobility impaired person is not independent in activities of daily living, sometimes not enough consideration is given to bathroom space planning for caregivers and mobility bathroom aids and assistive technology.

So how do I select what’s best for me and my family?

People ask where do I start in order to get the most out of my dollar in the bathroom. With all the new bathroom-ware, cabinetry, water-saving & energy-saving devices, ventilation & lighting products, bathing, hygiene, grab bars, smart things and healthy products arriving on the market it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

Think big picture first, and that means coming back to the basics of space planning for all the users that will be using the bathroom. It means a universal design attitude (keeping all family needs in mind) with an accessibility focus for the specific needs of the SCI/D person who uses mobility aids. That all seems very obvious but often people initially get fixated on the “bling” of fixtures, technology or other details without first understanding space needs such as user movement specific to the mobility aids used, caregiver and storage needs to name a few.

The person mobility impaired may not be entirely independent in the bathroom, great if they are, but if a helper is needed the space for proper functioning needs to be considered first in the general bathroom layout. A severely impaired person will need more space with proper clearances around the toilet, shower, vanity, storage at each of these and also with understanding of the transfer process in and out of each activity area. That’s the kind of space planning this author is referring to: space that assists in complete function of the activities of daily living in the bathroom. That’s paramount, first and foremost for a frustration free bathroom. So what’s also new in the bathroom is an acceptance that more space needs to be allocated there.

Better Bathrooms Pg. 2Bathroom design basics suggest locating the largest spaces furthest from the entry doors especially if other family members will be using the bathroom vanities for example. Every mobility impaired person may not have their own private bathroom and in this case shared use needs to be effectively be planned for. Space around every fixture with or without a helper needs to be considered as well as circulation patterns around others if they’re also in the space..

Remember a barn door or pocket door will keep the swing out of the bathroom greatly increasing usable space. In a busy family, swinging the door out into a hallway is not a good idea no matter where you’ve read or seen it. The only exception is if you live entirely alone, in which case, why not omit interior doors all together. Once overall planning is carefully considered at each activity area, only then is it time to look at specific fixtures and products that will suit your needs most effectively. Let’s start with some shower options.

What’s new in the Shower?

The Pre-fabricated shower: If the mobility impaired person has good upper body strength and limited space is available for an accessible shower, a 3′ x 3′ transfer shower might be the best option. There are new accessible units with built in linear drains at the entry threshold that make possible a no curb entry. The more confined unit space of this shower can actually be a benefit over a larger transfer shower because the grab bars are closer and within easy reach, thus more efficient and manageable. (A transfer shower is one where the person only transfers, as opposed to when the person remains in the wheelchair and rolls into the shower). The author often specifies a pre-fabricated shower product constructed with a composite solid construction that allows for grab bar placement anywhere you want.

The wet room solution: When your needs include a shower helper/caregiver if in a back reclined shower chair the best solution may be what is known as the European wet room. I call it simply a wet room. These found their way into the residential market after originating in the English healthcare market. This is another example of how the healthcare market is shaping the future of residential design, and happening globally to boot The wet room is made possible when a prefabricated shower pan sits directly submerged in a concrete slab or recessed in wood floor joists. Structural details are required but this should not be a reason to immediately reject it. Liquid latex waterproofing is then spread over the entire floor and up at least 6″ up the wall. I bring it up wainscot height or up to 5′-0″ in the immediate shower area. The idea is he entire room can get wet without causing big problems. This system meets plumbing codes but other details (another article maybe) need to be considered.

The author designs these with one linear drain at the downslope of the showering area. Larger tiles are then possible as there are not 4 different slopes as in the case of one single drain. The wet room concept allows more space for caregivers, dripping shower chairs after the shower, as well as ability to easily clean up after hygiene accidents. The author often designs a wet room in a semi compartment space included within the overall bathroom. In that manner the vanity area is still available to other family members if the toilet/shower area is occupied. When this is the case an additional powder room is advantageous.

New Improved Shower Fixtures

PN Magazine , Around the House, Jan 2017, pg 3
PN Magazine , Around the House, Jan 2017, pg 3

Once the largest spaces are determined, it is time to look into some fixtures and bathroom details. Hand showers of all types assist for all showering options. And then there are water saving and energy controls. Consider an energy and water saving point of use water heater so water (in the hand-shower) is always the right temperature when you need it without having to leave the shower running so water can warm up.

A full body dryer is a nice compliment to any showering solution for the mobility impaired using a shower chair or other aid. A fan with a humidity sensor is another product to team up with the wet-room solution as parts of the room may contain water. Hundreds of toilet types are on the market. This is a huge topic and not enough space here today to get into that in depth. A glowing toilet nightlight can help you find your way at night. There are also connected water flush devices for toilets.

“Smart thing” electrical outlet connectors with dimming LED lights, water flood sensors and more are being added monthly to the smart connected bathroom. These products are known as “the Internet of Things” or IoT. The Amazon Echo ® can be utilized with these Samsung “Smart Thing®” adaptors for voice control of electronic and water saving devices. Then on top of that they can all be connected to your smart phone so they can even be controlled by you with your phone.

Betterbathrooms pg 4Remember first to think big picture and space planning and then explore what will continue to evolve in the expanding and healthy bathroom marketplace. For more information on bathrooms see the author’s new site



Author: Charles

Mr. Schwab is a home designer and licensed Architect specializing in universal and accessible design that is also sustainable and healthy. He also designs light commercial buildings.