Bathroom remodels for long-term accessibility

When a leaking shower forced a home-improvement project, Jeanette and Pete Knudsen decided to make long-term plans. The Mesa couple made it easy to walk in and out of the shower with a low-threshold entry, reinforced walls so they could put in grab bars if needed…

The Mesa couple made it easy to walk in and out of the shower with a low-threshold entry, reinforced walls so they could put in grab bars if needed, added a removable bench to make room for perhaps a walker and installed a handheld showerhead for convenience.

Now, if aging or illness forces more change, the shower is ready.

“If our homes are designed with these principals in place, they are adaptable,” said Jeanette Knudsen, an interior designer who owns Design for a Life Span in Mesa.

Of course, she knows that’s a tough sell to homeowners who equate “aging in place” design with institutional surroundings.

“If I talk about aging in place, I can see the wall go up, the eyes glaze over, the curtains close and we’re done.”

But experts say these design considerations are a must for Baby Boomers and seniors who want to remain in their homes. And that seems to be the case: A 2010 AARP survey of people 45 years and older found that nearly 75 percent want to stay in their homes as long as possible.

Universal design promotes accessibility for all ages, and, in the home, there’s no better place to start making plans than in the bathroom. Owners who make that room adaptable now, through a remodel or new build, are the best prepared to live independently.


Homeowners should first consider a few quick, no- and low-cost home modifications, said Knudsen, who is an allied member of the American Society of Interior Designers’ National Council for Aging.

Make sure the lighting is bright enough by adding new lights or simply using brighter bulbs. Consider lever-handle faucets and handheld showerheads, which are easy to use at any age. Install grab bars, but be sure the wall has adequate structural support.

Bathroom for New Homes

Of course, planning for the future is easiest with a new home.

“A new build is definitely the time where you can do as much as you want,” said Katie Smith, program director for FSL Home Improvements, a division of the Phoenix-based non-profit Foundation for Senior Living.

Ideally, a bathroom will be large enough for a wheelchair, with at least a 5-foot turning radius. It will also have a wider door that is 36 inches across, with lever handles rather than knobs.

A roll-in shower is also key, with a “trench drain” at the perimeter to catch water that may spill out onto the bathroom floor, Smith said. Owners can reinforce walls to accommodate grab bars and may want to add a permanent shower bench, which will be useful today and in the future. Towel bars placed at varying heights will offer easy access.

Knudsen suggests placing electrical outlets and light switches at heights that can be reached from a wheelchair.

Remodeling Have Plenty of Options Too

Homeowners who are remodeling have plenty of options as well, depending on their budgets.

Modifying a shower to make it accessible should top the list. A barrier-free entry is preferred, but will be more costly than a low-threshold entry. Owners can also modify an existing bathtub by cutting an opening that is 4 inches off the floor and easy to step over.

If the budget allows, owners might consider installing faucets outside the shower or bath to provide a caregiver easier access. Regardless of the type of shower or bath project, anti-scald temperature controls are a must.

Wall-mounted or pedestal sinks can provide easy access in the future, but can also cause storage problems, Smith said. Owners may want to add a removable base cabinet or cabinet with pocket doors until access becomes an issue.

Knudsen also recommends cabinets with 9-inch-high toe-kick areas (near the floor) for the greatest accessibility. Mirrors that are hung lower or tilted slightly toward the floor will make it easier to see.

Some owners may want to take modifications a few steps further. The non-profit FSL operates a caregiver house in central Phoenix that shows off universal-design practices throughout a typical house as well as modifications that can make existing rooms more accessible. The house is open to the public by appointment.

The home’s new-build bathroom features universal design throughout and includes extras like motion-activated faucets. It is also wired for sight and sound, with a Skype-like setup that allows a caregiver to check on someone remotely.

In a new-build home, an owner can have bathrooms pre-wired for this technology and install it as needed, said FSL spokesman Joe Switalski.

Universal Design Options

Fortunately, homeowners have plenty of universal-design options today that mix function with form. Wall-mounted sinks, for instance, are available in a wide-range of styles that “disguise” their mission. Fashionable lever handles for the shower, sink and door, which are readily available, are an amenity rather than a necessity.

Home supplier Kohler, known for its cutting-edge bathroom and kitchen fixtures and products, makes a line of sleekly designed, brushed-nickel grab bars. Stylish universal design is being recognized every year by the National Association of Home Builders, which launched a new aging-in-place design awards program in 2007. This year, a winning Texas design studio drew praise for a stunning bathroom remodel.

According to the NAHB, the firm enlarged the room to add more space for a wheelchair, a spa tub and a no-step shower, using luxe materials like slate, granite and mahogany.

Experts say projects like that are proof that universal design can be stylish and smart.

“This is one of the biggest hurdles we have to get over,” Knudsen said. “It’s practical, it’s economical and it’s beautiful.”