Often times beautiful design goes wrong when people forget about function.

The functional use of spaces is the bottom line.  No matter how beautiful a space is, if people can’t use it functionally, it is useless. I learned about this first hand when I moved into a beautifully remodeled house that had never been lived in. I found many problems with functional use that were over-looked. For example, in the newly renovated bathroom there was no toilet paper holder installed; linen closets with no handles or knobs; and a shower without a door or curtain rod.  While these things were easy to fix, they showed how the building professionals had forgotten to think about the functional use of the spaces they were creating.

This concept becomes even more important when considering people with health concerns or disabilities who might have functional limitations. A skilled building professional will not only consider the use of the space by an average person, but also by people with a variety of functional impairments. It is not enough that the design problems could be worked around, but that in good design no one should have to work around it. This is the motivation behind movements such as universal design, barrier-free homes, visitable homes, and life-time homes, but also a fundamental principle in creating custom home modifications for people with disabilities. This series simply asks the question of “what could be improved?”  It is not meant to criticize, but to encourage people to think about the functional use of the spaces by real people living in a home.

Today we are going to look at this well thought out shower space.  I took this photo while staying in a wonderful Airbnb rental.  I give the owners praise for creating a space that is attractive and can easily used by guests of many abilities.

So, let’s look closer at this shower space.  The owners took a small bathroom space and found a creative way to make it a wet room, allowing more space for both the shower and toilet areas.  There is no built in shower stall.  Instead the entire room is waterproofed under the tile floor and walls, and the shower curtain seperates the spaces. One of the big benefits of this approach is that there are no barriers to entering the shower for someone with a mobility impairment (no curb to step over to get into the shower) and there is plenty of room to use a shower chair or have assistance with bathing if needed.  The flooring has small tiles with a slightly textured surface and lots of grout lines, which both decrease the risk of falls.

A second thoughtful design piece is the showerhead.  This shower head can be placed in the mount, which slides up and down the bar to any location desired.  The showerhead is located where a person can easily reach the water controls to turn on and adjust the water without getting wet.

The last feature I want to point out is the shower curtain with pockets.  The pockets allow for ample storage in a location that is easy to reach.  These shower curtains require a securely installed shower bar (best if mounted with anchors and screws), and cost less than $20.

So, what could be improved?

In a rental properties, how could this space be made easier and safer for people of all abilities?

What about people with mobility impairments, such as a bad knee, hip, or back?  Or people who may use a cane, walker, or wheelchair?

What about people with low vision?

#1 Control the water on the floor.

The open plan allows water to cover the entire floor, making it slippery.  A simple addition of a collapsible water dam would help to keep the water in the shower area and away from the toilet and sink areas where a person might be standing.  It is a small rubber bump that easily flattens when stepped on or rolled over.  They can installed with silicone and come in a variety of colors.  A contrasting color would be best to prevent someone with low vision from tripping on the slight bump.

#2 Use some color.

This bathroom was designed to be very neutral, which gives it a pleasant appearance.  However, the neutral color palette makes it hard to see for anyone with low vision.  Using color can increase safety and ease of use by creating contrast between surfaces, such as between the floor and the shower curtain.

#3 Grab bars.

While this bathroom is not trying to follow ADA accessibility guidelines or be wheelchair accessible, there are still many reasons to include at least some grab bars for safety and ease of use.  Having a few hand holds in the shower area and near the toilet will make the space easier to use for anyone with a mobility impairment, such as a bad knee, hip, or back.  Grab bar options can easily blend into the current, simple décor, doubling as towel bars and toilet paper holders.  This website offers many ideas of what this could look like: http://www.greatgrabz.com/ .

Example of a shower area using contrast in colors

Example of a grab bar combined with a toilet paper holder

Rental spaces are a great place to use universal design features (and visitable homes guidelines) as they are spaces that are going to be used by people of many abilities.  Considering common health conditions and disabilities, such as low vision, decreased balance, and mobility impairments, will help to create a safer and more comfortable space for everyone.