Deciding to add universal design

As smart as universal design is, it can be a tough sell. Ninety-five percent of home builders report that buyers aged 55 or older can be resistant to purchasing a home with universal design features, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). That’s interesting when you consider that two-thirds of those buyers also say they plan to stay in their own homes after retirement.

There are two reasons for this disconnect, says remodeler Dan Bawden of Houston, founder of the NAHB’s Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) program. First, buyers don’t like to face the prospect of getting older. Second, there’s the notion that a universal design bathroom will look institutional, like a hospital facility.

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

“It’s funny—the closer people are to retirement, the less they want universal design. They say, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I tell them, even if you’re perfectly healthy and able-bodied right now, if you have an accident or develop a health problem, the last thing you’re going to want to deal with is a three-month remodeling project to retrofit your bathroom.”

Most important, contemporary universal design features are aesthetically pleasing, even hip. “A bathroom with universal design does not 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, consider consulting a CAPS-certified contractor. CAPS builders are 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.

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. Bawden recommends covering 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 per area; grab bars cost from $50 to $300, depending on the quality of the finish. Expect to pay $50 to $100 per grab bar for labor.

If you have restricted mobility, consult a CAPS-certified 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 those with arthritis or with limited dexterity in their hands. They’re available in as many styles and finishes as other faucets and handles, at comparable prices.

Hand-held shower. These versatile shower heads attach to a flexible hose that makes them easy to use while sitting. “I convince people to consider these because they’re great for cleaning the tub or shower,” Bawden says. “Plus they have a ‘trickle’ or ‘pause’ setting that allows you to shave or wash your hair without wasting water.” Hand-held units are no more expensive than fixed shower heads.

A shower bench. “A triangular bench in the corner of a shower has multiple uses,” Bawden says. “If you need to sit in the shower, you can, but the able-bodied can use it to store stuff or balance while shaving.”

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 extra. A folding, waterproof shower seat that attaches to the wall costs $150-$500.

Tall toilets with no-slam seats and lids. “I put these in every bathroom unless the bathroom is for small children,” Bawden says. “People love them; they’re easier to sit on and more comfortable.” Test-drive one in a showroom to see if you agree; 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, yet they’re designed for strength and durability. 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 cabinets are desired, mounting them at least 9 inches off the floor allows 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.