It’s time to change the bathroom to accommodate the graying of America.

Gray America has stamped the bathroom’s landscape. With baby boomers getting older faster than … well … faster than they’re getting younger, the design of time-tested bathrooms is shifting. Add to the formula a growing population of disabled people, and it’s easy to see why a standard 5 by 7 foot bathroom no longer fits the need of America.

The concept of universal design, born in the early 1990s, takes into account the needs of the disabled, but it’s the aging of our society most fueling the concept. Universal design recognizes special needs of people of varied ages, sexes and functional abilities, and arranges areas so that all people can use the facilities.

According to a 1984 survey, approximately 35 percent of people over 65 need assistance in order to perform bathing activities. By 2030, 37.66 million people, or 21 percent of the population, will be over 65. People are just living longer, and the plumbing industry is conforming.

“The quantity of requests for information about universal design has really picked up within the last five years,” says Lawrence Trachtman, executive director of The Center For Universal Design at North Carolina State University. “People are looking for more technical information on how to solve design issues in bathrooms.”

The Center For Universal Design, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, examines changes and trends in bathroom accessibility and design. In 1996, the organization published a report from a forum it co-hosted on accessible plumbing fixtures.

“Everyone has an image of what a bathroom should look like, as they have been exposed to basically the same design for the last 40 years,” the report states. “While there is a strong incentive to follow tradition in plumbing fixture design, the market is ripe for innovation.”

Innovative In New Construction

According to Trachtman, new construction does not pose a big problem for universally designed bathrooms. “Builders are able to leave enough space, and carefully consider products,” he says. Trachtman believes the driving force behind universal design in new construction is still the builder, and the consumer isn’t getting much say with new products. Consumers may be looking for plumbing features that will add value to their investment, but lack knowledge about universal design, he says.

“Consumers are becoming more aware of the products that are available,” says Ron Grabski, vice president of market development for Gerber Plumbing Fixtures. “More showrooms are setting up sections with universally designed products. It’s something that is spreading by word of mouth, and turning into a nice convenience.”

Grabski says 17-inch water closets are edging into showrooms, replacing some 14-inch models. He points out, though, that 90 percent of water closets sold are of the 14-inch variety. “Five years ago, our 17-inch toilets were only getting requested in white,” Grabski says. “Today, there is a much bigger acceptance of higher toilets. We’re being asked to make more colors to blend into residential homes. It’s no longer a hospital or hotel toilet.”

Placing a bathroom of universal design into a new house is as simple as allotting more space. The increased space does not necessarily mean increased square feet for the home. Space for a larger tub or shower can be “borrowed” from a neighboring room or closet. The most difficult challenge is making the bathroom look more traditional and less institutional.

“Universal designs are not looked upon as institutional anymore,” says Pete DeMarco, team leader of product development, codes and standards at American Standard. “We want products to be typical, something that non-disabled people would buy. We want it to become standard.”

DeMarco echoes The Center for Universal Design’s report, which says plumbing companies have become more universal in their attempt to meet the needs of a broad market. Handheld showerheads are more common today, no-threshold showers are becoming an industry standard and tub walls are dropping down.

According to the report, the area in and around the tub or shower is often the most confining. It becomes a tough environment with the combination of “protruding edges, slippery surfaces and poor illumination.” The combination sends more than 440 people to the emergency room each day because of falls in the bathroom.

Still, The Kohler Co. points to some difficulties with the concept of universal design. Bob Giese, the company’s human factor specialist, says it’s not easy to design a bathroom that works for everyone all the time. “We keep coming out with new product lines that are ADA accessible, and can be used in hospitals and commercial buildings,” he says. “We’re finding more people requesting these products in residential homes.”

It’s most challenging to keep the costs down on all the add-on safety features. “The more access a person wants in their home, the more expensive it’s going to be,” says Giese. “The cost tradeoff is tremendous. If we can get younger people to install the products, the benefits will be there throughout life.”

Money is a key issue moving bathrooms into the universal design era. The Associated Press estimated in 1994 that safety features built into a $1,000 plumbing product could help prevent hip injuries from falls and eliminate an estimated $12,000 in health care cost associated with them.

“Products in bathrooms of universal design don’t have to be expensive,” says Trachtman. “People will shy away from expensive products. The more access consumers have to products, the less it will be characterized as expensive.”

The Remodeling Angle

Remodeled facilities present more challenges for universal design because of space constraints, says Mary Jo Peterson, a certified designer for the National Kitchen & Bath Association. She says when it is not possible to increase the room size that changing fixtures will open up space. “A wall-hung lavatory with adjacent cabinetry hung above the floor, conversion of a tub to a no-threshold shower or an in-wall tank toilet are ways to open up the floor space without moving walls,” Peterson explains.

Remodeling jobs encompass adding grab bars around the water closet and shower areas, allowing knee space under the lavatory and adding a water closet 18 inches from the sidewall. Peterson says remodelers should install grab bars instead of towel bars. “While towel bars can never be used as grab bars, using grab bars as towel bars provides that every accessory of this type in the room will have the integrity to support a person, should they slip or reach out,” says Peterson. “Grab bars are certainly available in every material, style and color to enhance rather than detract from a space.”

Other nonstructural remodeling additions include lever-type faucets, adjustable height showerheads, offset controls and mixer valves with pressure balancing and hot water limiter.

“Safety is a big issue. We need areas that are physically less demanding on older people,” says Gerber’s Ron Grabski. “We don’t want as much on their legs and hips. As baby boomers age, they’ll become more aware of it.” Grabski says that is another reason why toilets are higher in universally designed bathrooms.

Lever-type faucets enable people with arthritis to control faucets. (Electronic faucets do the trick as well.) Another example of convenience and safety, offset controls allow for the shower water to be tested before actually getting into the shower, while the mixer vales with pressure balancing and hot water limiter prevent drastic water changes once inside. “We don’t want older people jumping back from a water change, and falling and breaking their hips,” Grabski adds.

Land Of The Free

Regulations governing universal design have become more stringent in the last five years, but still do not cover everyone’s needs. The two biggest mandates that apply to plumbing contractors are the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines. The ADA has specific requirements that apply to plumbing, including fixture size and placement and clearances around fixtures. The Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines call for more general requirements in fixture clearances and grab bar positions.

“There still are some differences between federal, state and local requirements, but they’re getting better,” says American Standard’s Pete DeMarco. “We need to comply with all the standards otherwise we can’t sell in a specific state. All the standards go hand-in-hand.”

The forum that The Center For Universal Design co-hosted determined that the main problem with the codes and regulations was communications. The report says that industry and government officials use different knowledge bases, which results in different recommendations. The plumbing industry is more educated about the latest trends than the government, but it’s difficult to change plumbing codes, the report points out.

The Center For Universal Design believes that requests for information about universal design in bathrooms will significantly rise in the next five years. So let the landscape change.

For seven product strategies to universal design, click here for the Web exclusive story. For more information about universal design or a copy of “Technical Report: Accessible Plumbing,” contact The Center For Universal Design at 919/515-3082.