Universal design has morphed into a concept homeowners of all ages can benefit from.

Delta's Zero Threshold Shower Base allows for easy in and out access to the showering area.

Nancy Butters’ toilet was 30 years old and had already undergone numerous repairs.

However, Butters’ motivation for recently replacing the venerable fixture went beyond just age.

“It was too low. I needed a higher one,” the Southern Pines, N.C., resident says. “I’m 83 years old, I live by myself and I’ve got a little problem with one of my knees. While they were at it I said, ‘Why not put in a grab bar?’ Sometimes you have to make life a little easier and that’s just what I  did.”

She made her life a little easier by incorporating plumbing-related elements of the increasingly popular universal design concept that emphasizes usable and effective products and environments for people of all ages and abilities while still keeping aesthetics in mind.

“It’s universally beneficial to all phases of life,” saysAndie Day, principal of Andie Day-Design for Life in Boston and a designer who specializes in universal design. “It’s more about making the house work for you rather than the other way around.”

One of the Aquatic Ava Bath's key components is an automatic up/down door.

The Misconception

Universal design is far from limited to helping only senior citizens and persons with limited mobility execute day-to-day tasks like showering and using the restroom in their own homes. Instead, this concept has evolved into something that is beneficial to the masses, whether it’s children or people who fall into the increasingly growing “aging-in-place” category.

“It’s not just seniors. It’s everybody,” saysBrad Cozier, the senior product/brand manager at Home Care by Moen. “We pride ourselves on developing products for all walks of life, whether it’s for seniors or a mother-to-be. Everybody can use some aspect of universal design.”

Cozier speaks from experience. He has a 4-year-old son and altered his bathtub to accommodate the youngster.

“We put in a tub grip to help get him in and out,” Cozier says. “Putting that in makes it safer.”

Day stresses that universal design can come into play in the home at any time of the day.

“A mother is holding a child in her arms. She’s got limited manual dexterity,” Day explains. “She’s got only one hand or maybe even just an elbow free, but she can still turn on a hands-free faucet. Maybe someone very athletic in their 50s has knee surgery and has a challenge getting in a bathtub. There are showers where there are no curbs so you can easily slide in. There are so many applications.”

It can also help prevent disaster from striking.

“I had a client with Alzheimer’s who turned on the water, walked away, forgot about it and flooded the house,” Day says. “At the same time, something like that can cause a slip hazard. There are faucets where if you walk away, they turn off automatically. All of these things are designed to make lives better.”

Rick Slack (right), a plumber at Ray's Plumbing Service in Aberdeen, N.C., recently installed an American Standard Baby Devoro children's toilet at Sandhills Children's Center in Southern Pines, N.C. Also pictured is Ray's Plumbing Service President Ray Bosworth, whose company has done a steady stream of universal design installations in the area.

The Baby-Boomer Factor

But data points to the country’s baby-boomer population as being the demographic where universal design has the potential to make the greatest impact in the upcoming years.

Delta Faucet Product ManagerEric Gundersenpoints out the number of people in the country age 45-65 is double that of the 65-and-older population, according to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report. He notes those same baby boomers own half the homes in the country (according to the National Association of Home Builders) - and a third of the homes that residents age 50 and older own were built prior to 1960 (meaning a greater need for renovation may exist).

In addition, tub and whirlpool bath manufacturer Aquatic commissioned a research report in 2009 on accessible baths that reveals by 2015, the population of the 65-and-older crowd is projected to grow to north of 46 million - or 14.4 percent of the projected total U.S. population.

“The aging baby boomers are unprecedented in numbers,” notesLarry Brody, the owner of shower, design specialties and grab-bar manufacturer JACLO. “A lot of these boomers are more interested in staying in their homes.”

Ray Bosworth, the president of Aberdeen, N.C.-based Ray’s Plumbing Service, says his company has seen no shortage of universal design work with customers in those demographics.

“We live in an area where a large majority of people are retirement people,” he says. “People that are moving in here have no urgency to go to a rest home.”

Bosworth, who did Butters’ renovations, also recently completed a universal design project (as part of a new home construction) forMikeandIlene Keatley, a couple in their 60s who live in Lakeview, N.C. The Keatleys had a no-threshold shower installed along with separate his-and-her height-adjusted showerheads, a hand-held shower and multiple grab bars.

“We’re getting older and what if we have an accident?” asks Ilene Keatley, who embraced universal design partly due to situations she’s experienced with other family members, including her husband hurting his wrist in a horse accident. “We said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We’re planning for the future, but this is practical for anybody. I can’t wait until my grandson uses the shower. He’s going to love it.”

The inclusion of a lever handle on faucets - like Kohler’s Purist - has become increasingly popular in universal design due to its practicality and aesthetically pleasing look.

Looks Are Important

Another major selling point in universal design is the aesthetics of the products and fixtures.

“You don’t want to put in a big tub with a harness that looks like it came out of the intensive care unit,” saysCarter Thomas, American Standard’s design director. “People want something as functional as possible with updated colors and designs. Every room you go into in your home you want to behome.”

“People don’t want to feel as if they are stepping into a restroom at a convalescent facility,” Bosworth says. “Things are done now in a cosmetic manner that do not scream ‘rest home’ and ‘handicapped.’ Everything can blend in.”

Butters kept aesthetics in mind when she picked out her toilet and grab bar. “The grab bar is shiny and has kind of a sheer look to match other things in the bathroom,” she says. “The toilet is creamish so it’s a better match for the tile.”

Gundersen says manufacturers have done a good job of listening to the demands of the consumer on the subject.

“We’re all starting to roll out products that not only enhance lifestyles but look good,” he says. “The popularity of this is because the product is now out there. Manufacturers have really jumped on the bandwagon.”


Bosworth says he does a steady stream of decorative grab bar business. Likewise, Brody says his company specs more grab bars for projects than any other item.

“The most frequent thing certainly is the grab bar,” Bosworth says. “That’s the first step. After the grab bars, it progresses. Maybe we’ll tear out a tub and put in a shower and get the threshold as low as we can get it.’

Bosworth, who walked the show floor at the recent Kitchen & Bath Industry Show in Chicago and saw myriad universal design offerings, notes fold-down seats in showers are also gaining popularity.

Walk-in showers/tubs, raised-height toilets and grab bars, though, are not the only items finding their way into bathrooms. Plumbing contractors, designers and manufacturers are seeing a consistent increase in interest of other universal design items like hand-held shower sprayers, diverter and thermostatic valves, hands-free faucets, faucets and showers with lever handles, drop-in tubs for kids, and height-minded lavs and vanities.

JACLO says it specs more grab bars for projects than any other product it has.

Making Dollars And Sense

Diana Schrage, Kohler’s senior designer, believes the incorporation of universal design into a home also yields a financial benefit.

“I do a lot of presentations and when I’m asked who are the people we should offer universal design to, I say everyone,” Schrage says. “It’s much more cost-effective. It helps people design for longevity.”

Day recently worked on the home of a woman felled with health problems where the cost of the extensive renovation was equivalent to the cost of two years in a local nursing home/assisted-living facility.

“In two years, that home is paid for,” Day says. “The person is happier and quality of life has improved. I’d like to see some of these designs mandated in new construction. When you go back and modify a home, it costs more. Remodeling is not necessary if you do it right from the beginning.”

The Future

The consensus is universal design is here to stay and will only continue to grab a bigger share of the marketplace.

“We have three main categories: hydrotherapy, everyday and accessible bath,” saysDavid McFarland, director of marketing and new product development for Aquatic. “Our vision for the future is that accessible bath will blend into the other two categories. I think the market is going to demand that. This has become a top-of-mind idea for a lot of people.”

So much so that two organizations - Livable Design by Eskaton and Life-Flex Home - now offer certification to home environments that incorporate universal design.

“The future is obviously in universal design with the population aging and living longer,” saysRosemarie Rossetti, president of Universal Design Living Laboratory whose UDLL national demonstration home in Columbus, Ohio, is slated to be certified by Livable Design. “The medical model suggests it’s much more cost-effective to stay at home and have the independence created by being in the home.”

Nate Rauh, St. Louis-based KAI Design and Build’s housing studio leader, notes the city of St. Louis even has an Affordable Housing Trust Fund where universal design requirements are directly attached to construction.“Part of the idea for it is the aging-in-place concept,” he says.

Bosworth also believes the market will continue to expand. In fact, he has already helped contribute to the uptick.

“I have one knee that I take Celebrex for,” he says. “I already took the tub out of the master bath and put in a shower. I wanted to do it before Ihadto do it.”