Universal design is the future for creating bathrooms for an aging population.

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone in the construction industry that baby boomers are making a tremendous impact on the housing industry. With between 70 million and 80 million people, “boomers” comprise almost one-third of the nation's population. In 2003, there were almost 36 million people age 65 or older, a little more than 12 percent of the population. And by 2030, one in five Americans will be 65+.

An early-2003 housing survey by the American Association of Retired Persons interviewed 2,001 people aged 45 and older about the home features, community characteristics and services they consider important for their later years. More than four in five (83 percent) said they wanted to stay in their current residence for as long as possible, even if they may need help caring for themselves down the road.

This is what is called “aging in place.”

In the AARP study, three-quarters of respondents believe that they will be able to stay in their current home for the rest of their lives. Yet about half (51 percent) anticipate that they will need to change their homes as they age.

“While Americans have given some thought to the living situation they would like to have as they age, many have not taken into account the potential deterioration of health and physical ability that may occur in the later years of life,” the study states. It concluded that there is a need to educate consumers on the availability of home features that that can help them remain independent as they age.

This aging-in-place concept is driving the need for universal design.

'Design' Is The Operative Word

After the end of WWII, many returning vets were severely wounded, some missing limbs or paralyzed. As the nation did its best to make these veterans' lives easier, the architectural and building community began to rethink how homes could be built to accommodate those with disabilities, the AARP notes. Unfortunately, those first “barrier-free” homes were … ugly, more institutional-looking than warm and comfy. They were functional, but not aesthetically pleasing, and people didn't want to live in them. So not many were built, making it difficult for people with disabilities to find accessible housing.

“Years ago, universal design products were specifically designed to aid people who have a physical disability,” explains Diana Schrage, interior designer at the Kohler Design Center. “But with the first wave of baby boomers already entering retirement, we're now seeing a new emphasis on easy-to-use products designed to work for a broad 'universe' of customers.”

That means kids, grandparents, short and tall people, men and women, as well as people with temporary or permanent disabilities. Universal-designed products allow different people to enjoy the same home, even when their needs change. And they look better, too!

The good news is that universal design can be incorporated into existing homes as manufacturers develop new products.

“The goal of universal design … is finding products that meet the perfect balance of safety and function, but with an appealing design,” notes Brian Grant, senior product manager at Creative Specialties International, a division of Moen. “The best universal designs are those that blend seamlessly into the home and become an integral part of a room and its décor.”

The Universal Bath

One of the most challenging rooms in a house is the bathroom. Making the bathroom more user friendly should be the first priority when retrofitting a home for aging in place. Not only do doors and halls need to be wider to accommodate wheel chairs, universal design takes into account the bathtub, the shower, the sink, the faucets and the toilet.

Climbing over a high tub wall and lowering into the tub may be strenuous for some older people, but a parent bathing a child in that same tub may have difficulties also. Tubs that have ledges or transfer benches built on the side make it easier to get in and out. There are also accessible tubs where you walk into the tub through a door in the tub wall. You can fill the tub once the door is closed and the opening is sealed.

Even if people shower instead of bathe, they still have to climb over that tub wall. So maybe replacing that tub altogether with a barrier-free shower is the way to go. Low-lip models allow easy walk-in, while roll-in models allow wheelchair access.

Another shower option to consider is shower panels, which allow the bather to adjust the height for maximum coverage and comfort.

Grab bars for tubs and showers are a must. Seats may also be warranted for those who may be too weak to stand in the shower. Creative Specialties introduced its Home Care line of bath safety products to cover this market, and includes ADA-compliant grab bars, adjustable tub and shower chairs, adjustable transfer benches and dual tub grips.

Handheld showers are also an option. Many manufacturers make ADA-compliant models with sliding bars to accommodate different heights.

Wall-mounted lavatories or lavs with console tables provide clear space for a wheelchair user or allow someone to sit in a regular chair. How about the height issue? As men are generally taller than women, “his” and “her” lavatory sinks may be installed at different levels.

Faucets for both tub/shower and lavatory sink should have anti-scald devices. Single-control faucets for the sink are easy to use, but some double-handle models with unique shapes can also be easy to grasp and look great, too. And hands-free, sensor-activated faucets with anti-scalding technology are moving from the public bathroom to the residential bath.

Elevated toilets should be installed in the universal-design bathroom. A toilet that sits about 17 inches from the floor is easier to use for adults; most are 14 inches. Kohler introduced its Comfort Height on most of its toilet models; TOTO has its Universal Height toilets; American Standard has Right Height models; and Gerber announced its Maxwell line of 17-inch toilets. These higher toilets put less strain on the legs, knees and back because they're at chair-height, where people are used to sitting.

“Designers are now developing products that work better and more easily - and look beautiful, too - and so better enhance everyone's lifestyle,” says bath and kitchen designer Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD. “That's one of my rules about universal design: It has to function well and look good.”