Bathroom design for all ages

Design considerations for aging-in-place have become the rule and not the exception. There is an extraordinary amount of information on universal design and its application. By sorting some of that information into three key categories — safety, comfort and sanitation — one can develop a best practice for design of any size bath.


Tile remains the top product used for flooring in baths. Textured finishes on tile and grout lines create a slip-resistant surface in the bath. Polished marble tile is classic but one of the most dangerous products used in the bath due to its slippery when wet surface. One possible solution is to use a smaller tile size with textured accent tiles to create a slip-resistant surface.

Remove potential tripping hazards at the shower by using a trench, linear channel or tile insert drain. A curbless shower installation for walk-in and roll-in access requires careful planning and installation.

Grab bar products no longer have the institutional look we associate with them. Towel bars are not grab bars and grab bars are not towel bars. They each have a specific purpose. It is possible your clients may not want them. Anticipate their or someone else’s needs by installing blocking in the shower, tub and toilet area. Leave a diagram of the blocking with the homeowner as reference for future use.

Multiple lighting options in the bath provide the best solutions for safety and comfort. With the options available, there is no excuse to install a single light bar over the mirror and call it good design. An illuminated mirror or side lighting at the vanity mirror provides even distribution of light. Sensor technology with recessed lighting at the toe kick space on a vanity provides enough illumination for someone to use the bathroom during the night and not shock the eyes. Several smaller recessed fixtures, rated for damp locations, create better overall illumination. Multiple lighting options and the use of dimmers allow for the needs of the individual user.

Whether a free-standing or platform style, the tub controls should be on the access side. Never should you have to reach across or stand in the tub to turn on the water.

If someone in the home ends up using a walker or wheelchair, a wider door allows them access without obstruction. In a remodel, enlarging a door may not be possible. Use swing clear hinges to increase the door opening clearance by 1½ in. to 1¾ in.


Radiant floor heat should be a part of every project. It works with a variety of flooring types but tile is the best product for the installation. A soft, even, continuous heat in the bath is a benefit for all individuals.

Code dictates the centerline for the toilet should be 15 in. An 18-in. centerline allows for a more comfortable use of the toilet with the installation of grab bars. It also allows more space for assisted use at the toilet. Seat height should be 16 to 18 in. from the floor to the top of the rim. A closed elongated front will accommodate all users regardless of age or physical ability.

A solid core or paneled door reduces sound transmission. Additional sound deadening options should be considered for the plumbing wall. If the bath is on a second floor, the wall on the first floor housing the drain/waste/vent may require additional insulation to reduce the noise from the plumbing. This is not specific to universal design applications but is a good design practice.


In-wall tank and carrier systems for wall-hung toilets allow for continuous uninterrupted flooring in the toilet area. Depending on the toilet size and mounting, this type of installation can add accessible floor space in a small bath for a wheelchair user.

Instead of the typical combo heat/light/vent unit, consider at-the-source ventilation to reduce moisture and odors. Ventilation units are best on a timer. Depending on the manufacturer, the vent should run for five to 10 minutes after the user leaves the bathroom.

When you consider the amount of moisture in a bathroom, tile, solid surface or quartz composite make the most sense. Consider finishing the walls at the toilet area with tile or other nonporous product.

The products on the market give us the opportunity to design baths without an institutionalized look. Our responsibility as design professionals is to enhance the livability of the home and accommodate the occupants at all stages of life.

Judith A. Neary, CMKBD, is a certified master kitchen and bath designer with more than 25 years of design experience. She is a professional instructor for the National Kitchen and Bath Association.