When Linda Silas’s new home was built in Poulsbo, her design for the main bathroom included a roll-in shower, a pedestal sink with good wheelchair access, a comfort-height toilet and a 36-inch-wide doorway. She envisioned a time when she’d need those features and wanted to make sure her new house was well-equipped.
“One thing that designing from the start allowed is space,” Silas says. “There’s enough room to manipulate a wheelchair. That’s harder to do in a remodel.”
Whether you’re starting from scratch like Silas did or trying to reconfigure the first-floor bath in a city bungalow, you may be able to leverage one other factor to your advantage: time.
“You want to plan in advance,” says Paul Kocharhook, owner of Pathway Design and Construction in Seattle. “If someone has a stroke or a hip replacement, you won’t have time to remodel the bathroom before they come home from the hospital.”
Kocharhook says just about everyone who consults with him about a bathroom remodel has accessibility issues on their wish list. “It might be aging in place, or having a parent move in with them. This even comes up with millennials,” he says.
Designing for the future
Even if aging in place isn’t the focus of your next bathroom remodel, there are several things you can do during the course of the project to save yourself time and money in the future.
“Before the wall surface goes up, you can put in blocking for future grab bars,” says Julie Campbell, an architect and co-owner of CTA Design Builders in Seattle. “If you need to install them later, you won’t have to open the wall.”
And while most building codes require only one electrical outlet in a bathroom (typically near the sink), a remodel is a great time to add more. This will make it possible later to install a bidet toilet or add a “washlet” seat — both of which require electricity to heat the rinse water.
If you have a newer home, you might not have to do a lot to upgrade your bathroom for aging in place.
“It’s a cultural shift that our bathrooms are getting larger,” Campbell says. “Comfort-height toilets and barrier-free showers are increasingly common.”
On the other hand, if you live in one of Seattle’s older homes, you may find yourself, quite literally, in a tight space.
“I’ll have people ask me if they can make an old house livable or if they have to move,” Kocharhook says. “It really depends on how livable they need that house to be.”
He notes that so many homebuyers are actively seeking accessible bathrooms that they’re now one of the database search options for homes in the Northwest Multiple Listings Service.
Safety and style
For most people, an aging-in-place bathroom remodel aims to increase comfort and safety for the owners and visitors. Campbell says that can be achieved while also creating a stylish space with features such as tile, marble and sophisticated finishes.
“Remodeling for aging in place does not require a full ADA-compliant bathroom,” she says, referring to the design standards in the Americans with Disabilities Act. “What most people are looking for is a walk-in shower with no curb, a higher toilet, enough space around the toilet to be able to maneuver a walker and a non-slippery tile floor.”
For example, Campbell says, ADA standards mandate a 3-foot-wide doorway. But in most cases, a 2-foot-8-inch doorway width would be adequate for someone using a walker.
If you are designing a bathroom that will accommodate a family member with a specific disability or a degenerative disease, Kocharhook recommends consulting with an occupational therapist to decide which elements to update first.
“We use an occupational therapist to inform our design right from the beginning,” he says.
Elevating the experience
If it’s been a while since your last bathroom update, you may be pleasantly surprised by the appearance — and capabilities — of today’s toilets.
They’re sleek-looking, with easy-to-clean surfaces and dual-flush mechanisms that save water. Comfort-height toilets — designed for greater accessibility as we age — can make it easier for someone with knee or hip issues to get on and off the seat. They measure 16 inches from floor to rim, 2 inches higher than traditional toilets. (ADA-height toilets are 17 to 19 inches from floor to rim.)
Because of the difficulty — and danger — of climbing out of a wet bathtub, shower stalls are a key feature in a bathroom designed for aging in place.
A low-barrier shower stall will allow someone using a walker to step in. For wheelchair accessibility, a flush-entry shower — found in many luxury bathrooms — is a popular option. Some flush-entry showers include glass doors with a rubber threshold, while others have a panel that encloses a portion of the shower. Excess water from the open end of the shower is typically captured in a long, narrow “trench drain” that is installed in the tile floor.
A spacious tile shower should also offer room for either a removable shower chair or a built-in seat.
When homeowners choose to splurge on a higher-end item for their aging-in-place remodel, it’s often for a walk-in tub. Walk-ins once had a dated, institutional appearance, but manufacturers such as Kohler and American Standard now offer deep soaking tubs and jetted spa tubs with elegant surrounds and side panels that can fit into the style of most bathrooms.
Julia Hinkley loves the walk-in soaking tub she installed in her South Seattle home.
“Baths are really important to me, but I had gotten to the point where it was difficult to get out of the tub due to my bad knees,” she says. “The walk-in tub is easy to get in and out of, and it fills in about five minutes. I hope to be able to use it well into my 80s.”