Balancing Access and Beauty in the Bathing Space

From ancient times, when the bath was a place to go for pampering, to Victorian times, when it moved into the home and became primarily focused on personal hygiene, we have evolved in the cycle to where we are today. While the tub is used for bathing children and by a few as a main source of personal hygiene, we have expanded our experience of the tub as a ritual, a home spa for relieving stress and, again, for pampering.

For some time, my office has been observing the evolution of bathing in the home, with the goal being to solve the challenge of balancing safe access and beauty in the tub experience. It seems less difficult for us to create those incredible "performance showers" and more challenging to create both beauty and safe access in our evolving "relaxing baths."

There are many ways to approach this, and we'll examine just a few of the options and issues in this column. Hopefully, this will help you as designers, and inspire you to help us with some of the unresolved challenges in designing the area that includes the bathtub and the bathing experience.

Today's Tub Space

As far as materials for today's bathing and soaking tubs, everything old is new again and then some. Many of the original materials that were used for bathtubs are being used again today - teak, copper, glass and, of course, enamel on cast iron and porcelain. In addition, there is fiberglass/acrylic, stainless and new composite materials (such as American Standard's Americast, which has many properties of cast iron without the weight), as well as concrete, tile, solid stone and more.

Sizes vary greatly from the original standard 30"x60", with increased depth being a significant change. Where once most tubs did not go over 15" in depth, today's tubs start at 18" and go up to 25" deep, with Japanese-style sitting tubs as much as 42" deep. Shapes - from very fluid to minimalist rectangles and squares - are designed to be dropped into a deck, undermounted or freestanding.

Because the tub today is less about hygiene and so much more about the experience, we have interesting options for location. The tub area may be near the shower in the "wet area," or it may be outside the bathroom proper in an alcove or quiet away-space to take advantage of a view or of the solitude and the variety of therapies popular as part of today's tub experience. It may be part of the bedroom, sometimes separated or defined by partial walls, a screen or sliding doors. This is a great spot for the double or three-sided fireplace, raised to a height that can be easily seen from bed or while soaking.

The tub may also be designed into a bay or alcove, which sometimes offers a great opportunity for an architectural element such as an arch above or columns. It can also be installed in an "island" in the middle of the room, or a "peninsula."

Beauty and Accessibility

The major design challenge when designing a bathing space is how to plan for safely getting into and out of the tub. Where else in the world would we rationally attempt to balance on one foot on a wet and often slippery surface so that we could swing the other leg over a barrier and place it on another wet and usually slippery surface? And then, after an extended soak - during which time whatever muscle control we have has hopefully been relaxed - we reverse the process.

This is the challenge we face as designers. Following are some of the concepts we've seen or used, all responding to the challenge, but none resolving the risk entirely.

Some manufactures are responding to the need for improved access with seats and benches that coordinate or enhance the bath suite, with teak being a very popular material. While there are a number of other accessories that provide for temporary or permanent seating next to or in the tub space, a permanent deck is often preferred for its stability and the fact that it does not interfere with the tub's interior.

Universally, incorporating a deck into the design of a tub area is a concept that works for a fixture that can be surface or undermounted or one that is custom designed with an integral deck. At the head of the tub, a deck the width of the tub and approximately 15 inches deep is accessible to the greatest variety of bathers. This depth is enough to allow a bather to sit, rely on a wall at the head of the tub if there is one, and swing both legs over the side into the tub. A deeper deck will reduce the value of the wall at the head of the tub for support, and a shallow seat can be restrictive.

Having said that, it's been my experience that, when necessary, a deck in this location can be less than 15" deep and still help, particularly when there are sufficient hand supports or grips. The cleanest and surest design for this application includes an integral or undermounted tub so that the bather and any water can move unobstructed into the tub, with a slight pitch in the deck towards the tub to help avoid standing water. Where a drop-in tub creates a "curb" (some tubs have a lip up to 2-1/4" high above the deck), and particularly when the tub will include a shower, additional drainage may be needed in the deck to provide a channel for water that reaches the deck.

Often, there is room to create a deck wide enough for seating at the front edge of the tub but not at the head. When this is the case, several issues come into play. First, the deck must be wide enough for a bather to rest, but this will likely make it difficult to reach the far side of the tub for cleaning or support. Care must also be taken that the controls are located in a place that does not interfere with the bather swinging his/her legs over the side.

In fact, in a recent class I taught, young able-bodied participants generated a good discussion about whether it's best to keep that front deck to a minimum to allow those who choose the option of stepping over it. The result of that conversation was consensus that it would need to be either very narrow or wide enough to sit on, and the decision would be guided by the client's needs and preferences, and where support could be placed.

Whatever the deck or seat design used, grab bars and other support points must be incorporated. In addition, care must be given to locating controls so they are easy to reach and use without interfering with legs in this transfer process. This eventual concept is based on the top edge of the tub and deck being at a comfortable seat height, in the range of 18" above the finished floor.

However, most of today's tubs are deeper than this. When the look and the structural plan can support it, an option can be to design the tub in a slight recess, but this can increase the challenge of getting out of the tub.

Grab Bar Refresher

The inclusion of blocking between the studs, covering the area from 30" to 40" above the finished floor and anywhere else grab bars may be desired, will provide the structure needed for proper installation. A more flexible solution is to install 3/4" plywood in front of the studs so support can be added whenever and wherever the client desires. This requires some pre-planning, as the thickness of the 3/4" plywood must be accounted for in the design, just as sheetrock and finish materials are.

When working with existing walls where reinforcement is difficult to evaluate, a helpful option is a fastener called "Wing-it." Ideally, grab bars would be placed on all three walls in a tub alcove, and thanks to a number of manufacturers - including Ginger, Concinnity, Moen and Great Grabz - we have some designs that are more easily integrated to enhance, rather than detract, from the sense of the space.

We typically plan for grab bars with the 3/4" plywood throughout and actually confirm their locations with the client after the tub is installed. By having a client go through the act of entering and exiting the tub, we can mark the spot where support rails are needed and that's where they are installed.

The challenge is greater when planning grab-bar locations for a freestanding or island tub. If the tub is located within arm's reach of a wall, placing a bar not more than 9" above the rim of the tub will provide support when getting in and out of the tub. Sometimes this is a good opportunity for the use of a chair rail designed with a grip integrated in the cap molding. If the tub is not within reach of a wall, we have used custom bars that attach at the floor, and we've found a number of tubs with the bars integrated into the tub. A similar D-shaped bar can be incorporated into the deck of an island tub, located out of the path of leg movement during transfer.

You may have noticed that we have discussed some of the points to consider in planning the entry to the tub, but we have pretty much ignored a similar discussion regarding getting out of the tub. This is the real challenge, particularly with extremely deep fixtures. While we will have treated the floor to be as slip-resistant as possible, and placed support at the correct angle and in the proper positions to aid in the effort, there is still risk involved.

There seems no perfect solution. Perhaps we can compare ideas and another column can be written about safe and beautiful exits from the tub experience.