When designing and building new residential homes, Marty Kirchner never specifies standard toilets anymore, instead opting for comfort height, ADA compliant options. Kirchner, the co-owner and vice president of La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kirchner Custom Builders, notes that he helps his clients plan for the future during the design/build process.

“Many of my clients are baby boomers, so when I’m designing a home, we put in a lot of time thinking about things like: ‘What if I need a wheelchair someday?’” Kirchner says.

The most important universal design feature is making sure there is zero entry at the home’s entrances, Kirchner notes. He also ensures stairways are wide in case the day comes where a chair needs to be installed and has even designed homes with elevators or space for future elevators. Kirchner also almost always specifies at least one roll-in shower with no threshold.

“We go from very comprehensive and significantly expensive things like elevators to things that seem trivial, with relatively no additional cost to the home,” he says. “For example, sometimes I’ll have older folks tell me they don’t like doorknobs because they are harder to grab with arthritic hands. So simple things such as using door levers instead of doorknobs.”

Dan Cline, owner of Doc’s Plumbing, Oakland Park, Florida, has a client with five nursing and assisted living facilities and is in the middle of rehabbing the restrooms.

“In the nursing home, the restrooms have a toilet and lav — they have separate shower rooms,” Cline says. “We’ve done about 80 of about 120 restrooms in groups of about six or eight at a time. We work around when they have rooms available and they can clear out an area to make it safe.”

Doc’s installed new ADA compliant toilets, flush valves, bed pan washers and wall-hung lavs.

“We added 2-inch toilet seats to get an extra inch of height,” Cline says. “A standard seat is about an inch high, so with these, we get an additional inch.”

In addition to higher toilets, Cline notes that grab bars and roll-in showers are also popular amongst his clients.

“We’ve done several roll-in showers for a facility that takes care of people with cerebral palsy,” Cline says. “They had roll-in showers, but there were big humps in the threshold. People in motorized wheelchairs were hitting that ramp and slamming into the toilet. So we cut out the floors and lowered the shower area. Sometimes, it’s not that easy to make them handicapped accessible.”

 

On the rise

The reality is that with the success of modern medicine, people are living longer and may prefer to reside in their homes longer as opposed to moving to assisted living facilities — especially if the home is already paid for, notes Richard Rossi, national account manager, new construction, Niagara Conservation Corp. This simple fact makes concepts such as universal design and aging in place increasingly important in today’s market.

“This puts huge emphasis on building universally so that when folks do age, they can stay in their homes and not have to spend their money to remodel,” Rossi says. “If we do not take universal design into consideration, it may be that families and individuals cannot occupy a living space throughout their lifetime, and we may ostracize valuable members of our community who live with disabilities.”

Rossi adds that Niagara supplies toilets to hospitality, multifamily housing and senior living facilities, so it’s important to incorporate universal design in those spaces.

“Without it, these sectors are not inclusive to everyone, and they risk the loss of business from certain demographics,” he says. “ADA compliancy is a big deal in the plumbing realm, specifically toilets. This is why Niagara works hard to construct our toilets with dimensions that meet ADA compliancy — the bowl is at least 17 inches from the ground. People may not always realize this, but the access point to a flushing mechanism is also a trend in universal design. The ability for the side handle to switch from side to side is very important.”

Homeowners want products that feature the best in style and functionality, notes Michael Reffner, senior manager, bath category, Moen.

“The breadth of products available for consumers interested in universal design or aging in place is getting larger, more stylish and innovative,” Reffner says. “Consumers continue to gravitate toward innovations that make their lives easier, including products that offer the benefit of smart technology, such as Moen’s U by Moen shower.”

U by Moen is a cloud-based, app-driven digital shower which offers Wi-Fi mobile connectivity and personalization, delivering on consumers’ desire to create their perfect shower experience with up to 12 customizable presets. Consumers can control their shower anyway they like: with their voice, the smartphone app or the in-shower controller.

 

Still come challenges

Cost is a factor that hinders universal design, Rossi notes.

“It’s a bit more expensive up front, but when you consider what homeowners will have to pay later down the line to remodel, designing universally is a worthwhile investment,” he says. “Space may be an issue too — to be compliant with certain ADA regulations, you have to ensure there is enough room for those with disabilities to move about in a space.”

Additionally, through research, Moen has identified certain downsides associated with universal design.

“We’ve learned there are stigmas often attached to installing bath safety products as homeowners do not want their bathrooms to look institutional by adding items such as grab bars,” Reffner says. “Armed with this knowledge, Moen has developed products that are both safe and stylish. For example, we have more than doubled our grab bar offerings to perfectly match our most popular bath suites, and have developed a tasteful teak wood folding shower seat, which supports up to 400 pounds, and is offered in two finishes for a warm, rich look.”

At the end of the day, it’s up to contractors to educate their customers on these products and their uses.

“Sometimes you have to help customers understand that a dollar spent now is less than $3 spent five years later,” Kirchner says. “I don’t tell people how to spend money, my role is to present them the options, let them know how much it’s going to cost and let them decide how to spend their money.”