What “universal design” really is, and why it’s making a splash in the bathroom

What if we designed bathrooms (or all spaces, for that matter) for the people who use them, integrating flexible design solutions that work for the tall and the short, the young and the old, the able-bodied and the physically challenged? This is the question that guides universal design (sometimes called “design for all”), which involves the creation of products and environments that can be used by as many people as possible, regardless of age, size or physical ability.

“It’s design that respects the differences and needs of the people who will use that space over the life of the space,” says Mary Jo Peterson, a certified kitchen-and-bath designer, author, speaker and educator who specializes in universal design. “It’s about the fact that you might be 5-foot-2 and your husband is 6-foot-2 and you have a 2-year-old, so when we design the shared space, we should take all of that into account,” she says.

With universal design, one might assume that functionality comes at the expense of good looks. Not so. In fact, many of the latest bathroom design trends take their cues from universally designed spaces: Large, threshold-free, walk-in showers, for instance, have become increasingly popular—and are a universal-design best practice. They’re ideal for all ages and abilities, especially individuals who rely on walkers or wheelchairs, because there’s no rim to step over. Taking that concept to the next level is the wet room, which combines the shower and the bathroom into one large, open space that’s easy to maneuver. The shower bench, another wish-list item, helps those who could benefit from taking a seat, is equally great for getting a leg up while you shave and doubles as storage. Handheld spray wands in the shower and bath not only amp up the relaxation factor but also are musts for anyone with a physical limitation.

Beyond the bath, floating vanities are a chic, modern take on bathroom storage. The wall-mounted vanities also create knee space, allowing people who use a wheelchair or walker to roll right up. “It’s also nice if there are multiple vanities, so they can be designed at different heights,” Peterson says.

Good lighting is a hallmark of universal design, and LED technology is lighting the way. “We can tuck lights in grout or tiles, and they can be motion activated,” says Peterson, “so a soft light comes on when you head to the bathroom at night.”

Bathroom fixtures also have received the universal-design treatment. Solutions range from touch-activated faucets that go easy on achy hands to sophisticated towel bars, corner shelves, toilet levers and tissue holders that incorporate grab bars that stylishly comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. “More and more universal-design products are available and are better looking and more affordable,” Peterson says.

Ultimately, universal design allows us to tailor living spaces to the needs of those who use them, without sacrificing aesthetics. And much like the spaces and products it creates, universal design has the kind of staying power that ensures it’s not just another trend. “It’s just becoming good design,” says Peterson.