Universal Design is for Everyone

“No one ever asks me for universal design features up front,” says Los Angeles bathroom designer Sarah Barnard. “But I recommend them to every single person I consult, even if they’re 25 years old.”

Homeowners don’t like to face the prospect of getting older, says Dan Bawden, a founder of the National Association of Home Builder’s Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) program. And, they think a universal design bathroom will look like a hospital facility.

The good news: Contemporary universal design features are aesthetically pleasing — even hip. “A bathroom with universal design doesn’t have to be ugly,” Barnard says. “In fact, a well-designed accessible space can be spa-like and luxurious. There are attractive high-end finishes out there, such as luxurious grab bars with beaded escutcheons. They’re not like the grab bars in public restrooms.”

If you’re thinking about adding universal design features to your bathroom, consider consulting a CAPS contractor, who’s trained specifically on which building features accommodate certain disabilities.

Essential Features

Most universal design features are simply modifications of products and design specifications that you would consider for any bathroom space.

Wider doors. A 30- or 32-inch-wide interior door is considered standard, but universal access requires 32 inches of clear space when the door is open, which usually means specifying a 36-inch-wide door.

Expect to pay $20 to $30 more for a 36-inch-wide door over the cost of a 32-inch door. If you need to widen an existing door opening, you’ll pay an additional $125 to $500 for new framing, trim, and labor.

Be sure to check how much space a larger door requires when it swings open. Bathroom doors should swing outward.

Grab bars for shower, tub, and toilet. Cover the framing of the entire tub, shower, and toilet surround with ½-inch pressure-treated plywood so that you can install grab bars anywhere on the wall, either immediately or at any time in the future.

Adding the plywood costs about $250 for labor and materials for a 3-foot-by-5-foot shower enclosure; grab bars cost from $50 to $300, depending on the quality of the finish. Expect to pay $50 to $125 per grab bar for labor.

If you have restricted mobility, consult a CAPS builder about how many grab bars you need, what sizes they should be, and where they should be located. Because different health issues require different bar placements, it isn’t a good idea to add more than one bar now if you’re healthy.

A curbless shower. These showers have no lip at the floor and can be accessed by those using a wheelchair or other mobility device. The floor slopes down toward the drain; a swing-out door or a shower curtain keeps water contained. From a design standpoint, the minimalist lines fit seamlessly into a contemporary spa-style bathroom.

A curbless shower requires that the shower pan or drain be slightly lower than the surrounding flooring. Typically, your building contractor lowers the shower floor area by trimming the tops of the floor joists (and strengthening them if necessary), then installing a concrete shower floor (for tile) or a curbless shower pan.

Installing a curbless shower costs about the same as installing a “regular” fully tiled shower stall. However, expect to pay an additional $200 to $300 in labor for modifying floor joists.

Lever-style door handles and faucets. Lever-type handles are easier to use than twist-type knobs or handles, and they’re especially convenient for kids or anyone with limited dexterity. They’re available in as many styles and finishes as other faucets and handles, at comparable prices.

Related: Replacing Door Hardware for a New Look

Hand-held shower. These versatile shower heads attach to a flexible hose that makes them easy to use while sitting. Many have a ‘trickle’ or ‘pause’ setting that allows you to shave or wash your hair without wasting water. They’re also good for cleaning the shower stall or bathtub. Hand-held units are no more expensive than fixed shower heads.

A shower bench. Choosing an acrylic shower surround with a built-in bench costs no more than a plain stall, and adding a built-in corner bench to a tiled shower costs around $150 to $250 extra. A folding, waterproof shower seat that attaches to the wall costs $150 to $500.

Tall toilets with no-slam seats and lids. Toilet seats with soft-close mechanisms are great for small children — or anyone who’s accidentally banged a seat shut in the middle of the night. Test-drive one in a showroom to see if you agree; a soft-close seat is $35 to $65. Tall toilets are 16 to 18 inches high compared with the standard 14 or 15 inches. Additional cost for a tall toilet is minimal, around $50 more for comparable styles.

Wall-mounted sinks. To provide space beneath a bathroom lavatory for wheelchairs or other mobility devices, consider a wall-mounted sink. Wall-mounted sinks have no vanity cabinet or supporting legs underneath, which makes cleaning floors a snap. Depending on the style, some have shrouds that conceal drain traps and water supply tubes under the sink. Expect to pay $200 to $1,000 and up.

If you prefer cabinets, mount them at least 9 inches off the floor to allow room for a wheelchair footrest to pass underneath.

Wheelchair clearance. Wheelchair-accessible bathroom dimensions require clear space of at least 5 feet (60 inches) in diameter to allow a 180-degree turn. If space is at a premium, consider keeping the room open rather than compartmentalizing the toilet so that a wheelchair’s turning radius can be accommodated.

Slip-resistant tile. Ceramic flooring tile has a jargon-y rating called a COF — coefficient of friction. All that means is how resistant the tile is to slips when wet. A COF of .60 or above is safe for bathrooms and meets or exceeds safety requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Slip-resistant tile doesn’t cost more than tile with a lower COF.

Related: Best Shower Ideas