Bathroom Design
How do you change your bathroom design as you age in your home? (Photo by Deborah Pierce)

(Accessibility expert Deborah Pierce, AIA, CAPS, discusses changes you can makes with bathroom design to accommodate changing physical capabilities.)

I’ve designed hundreds of bathrooms over 35 years. Some were simple places to do one’s business and leave, while others were quite embellished. A few stand out, such as the bathroom-gym for an exercise buff, with a treadmill, weight-lifting bench, and huge shower. A song-writer client wanted a guitar-niche beside the toilet, where relaxed strumming brought him inspiration.

Most projects are more prosaic - a standard sink and toilet, a tub/shower, perhaps a linen closet. Residential design is often about aesthetics – plumbing/electrical fixtures, accessories, and finishes. Accessible design adds the needs of wheelchair users – for maneuvering space and grab-bars.

A personal encounter with disability forced me to re-think bathrooms for the 95% of people who don’t use wheelchairs.

One minute I was racing down the stairs. Seconds later, I was on the pavement and unable to move, with one shoulder dislocated, and a torn ligament in the other.

Multiple surgeries and months of recovery later, armed with new self-care skills, I design differently. I know first-hand that disability can occur any time. Personal hygiene takes longer with a disability, so getting the details right makes the tasks more pleasant, reduces frustration, and improves safety. Traditional design leaves tremendous room for improvement!

Today I own a 2-family house, consisting of two flats. Steve and I live upstairs, but we’ll move down if greater accessibility is needed. Our bathroom design criteria included a bidet-style toilet, good storage, comfort-height fixtures, and room for two people – the tub-guy and shower-gal.

The 72 square-foot master bathroom holds a tub and sink, with generous alcoves for shower and toilet. Frosted glass pocket doors and a shower panel bring both privacy and daylight. Non-slip porcelain tiles cover the floor, and walls have plywood beneath the drywall and tile, for future installation of grab-bars.

Steve’s deep soaking tub has side-wall plumbing controls, so he can crank-up the heat without changing position. There’s a hand-shower for assisted bathing – essential when shoulders are impaired. My shower is a roomy 36” x 42” - big enough for a small chair. Built in shelves put soap products in easy reach.

Both the sink and washlet-toilet are wall-hung for right-size mounting heights. The toilet’s in-wall tank saves space over standard models, an important consideration in tight quarters. The sink has a 2-drawer vanity and a P-trap close to the wall – easily adapted for seated use.

bathroom design

In this new bathroom design, storage is generous and divided into several locations for point-of-use access. A large mirrored medicine cabinet holds meds and first-aid. The two-drawer below-sink vanity holds hair care and dental products. A full-height cabinet beside the toilet holds extra rolls of paper and personal care products. And a shallow shelf alongside the tub holds a wine glass, plus soap and shampoos.

As you plan your own bathroom design, take the time to measure your own reach ranges and usability dimensions, and explore options for products. Aging bodies spend more time in the bathroom. With a little planning, you make that that time great!


((Deborah Pierce, AIA and CAPS, is an architect and author of The Accessible Home (Taunton Press). In a career spanning 35 years, she has designed access upgrades at public buildings and worked with homeowners to create accessible residences, both new and remodeled, tailored to the unique conditions of each user. During a 5-year tenure on the American Institute of Architects, Deb initiated a national design awards program focusing on accessible homes. Recipient of the BSA (Boston Society of Architects) Women in Design Award of Excellence and the BSA/MA Architectural Access Board’s Honor Award for Accessible Residences. Deb is a frequent speaker at regional and national conferences.)

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