19 Universal Bathroom Design Ideas to Incorporate in Your Remodel

bathroom sliding glass shower
Photo: Marty Baldwin

These universal design principles from design pros help create a bath that's safe and accessible for as many people as possible, no matter their challenges. Here's what pros say about integrating universal design into your bathroom build or remodel to make it as easy-to-use and secure as can be.

01 of 19

What Is Universal Design?

bathroom vanity with 4 drawers in light wood
David A Land

Universal design aims to ensure everyone—regardless of age, size, or ability—can safely and effectively use a space. For your bath, that means creating a place to clean up that's designed to work for as many people as possible. Here's what homeowners can do to embrace universal design principles in their bathrooms, according to accredited designers with the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA).

02 of 19

Recess Storage

bathroom sliding glass shower
Marty Baldwin

"Niches provide a non-intrusive avenue for key storage in certain areas like within a shower stall, near the toilet, or on the wall above a vanity," says Michael Kaestner, Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP) and owner of Kaestner Designs. Unlike wall-mounted shelving, recessed storage niches don't jut out into the room, reducing the likelihood that someone will bump into them or try to grab onto them for stability. The NKBA recommends storing frequently-used items 15 to 48 inches above the floor for best accessibility.

03 of 19

Embrace Technology

white walk in shower with bench
James Yochum

Technology adds a new level of access for universal design. For example, digital shower controls, smart toilets, medicine cabinets, and lighting can all be controlled by smart-home systems and apps, often allowing personalized settings that help users stay both safe and independent. Another tech-savvy addition is a humidity-sensing bath vent. These fans turn on and off automatically to stop moisture from accumulating, preventing mold, peeling paint, and warping wood which can create unsafe conditions over time.

04 of 19

Add a Wall Treatment

cool gray upstairs bath with skylight window
Kimberly Gavin

Make an easy but significant update to an existing space by adding a horizontal wall treatment. “If there is ever a case of vertigo or someone gets dizzy, having a horizontal feature helps with balance,” says Cindy Kelly, Associate Kitchen and Bath Designer (AKBD) and Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP) at Cindy Kelly Kitchen Design. Choose a paint, tile, wainscotting, or board and batten detail in a contrasting color so it can be easily identified.

05 of 19

Install a Taller Toilet

grey and white striped bathroom
John Bessler

Standard toilet seats are 14 to 15 inches off the ground. “Chair-height toilets are today’s industry standard. Most fall in the ADA-compliance category of 17 to 19 inches from the floor to the rim of the toilet, including the seat,” says Sara Scott, Certified Kitchen Designer (CKD), Universal Design-Certified Professional (UDCP), and principal designer at Tailored Designs, LLC. Also called comfort-height toilets, these taller models require less bending and pressure on the knees, and they are easier to use for someone transitioning from a wheelchair.

06 of 19

Invest in Main-Level Access

small bathroom walk in shower
Anthony Masterson

Many homes feature a powder room on the main floor, but universal design principles require outfitting the main level of your home with a full bathroom. In addition to allowing anyone who enters your home to use the space (many half baths in older homes cannot accommodate a wheelchair or walker), it will also provide a bathroom for family members of any age if they get injured and cannot make it upstairs during recovery.

07 of 19

Expand the Doorway

master bedroom with gray walls and sliding doors
Jean Allsopp

Most doorways range from 30 to 32 inches wide. A 36-inch-wide opening makes it easier for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices to enter the bathroom. Whether embarking on a major renovation or a smaller upgrade, Kelly recommends widening the doorway and changing to an outward swing instead of a door that swings inward. “If someone were to fall or pass out against the door, you can’t reach them in a timely fashion. The majority of falls in a house happen in a bathroom,” says Kelly. Another solution Kelly suggests is a pocket door.

08 of 19

Ensure Adequate Floor Space

modern farmhouse glass shower gray tile striped towel
Emily Followill

You might be surprised how much floor space a bathroom needs to be accessible. For example, there should be at least 60 inches of open floor space in the room so that someone in a wheelchair can comfortably turn around.

Floor space gets tricky when you consider toilets. "Private water closets are great for privacy, but are difficult to use when assistance is being provided by a walker or another person," says Scott. Instead, Scott recommends a larger-than-standard space for the toilet area—ideally with ample space on one side and a grab bar on the other. This leaves room for mobility devices or assistance from another person. The extra space might feel weird when it's not needed, but storage furniture can easily fill the area—and easily be removed—when the time comes.

09 of 19

Add a Bidet

vanity with wide drawers
Stacey Branford

Bidets have become a popular universal design request because they promote good hygiene for everyone. “Bidet seats will give you a cleaner clean without the reach which is great for everyone but especially those with limited mobility,” says Scott. Bidets are commonly incorporated into the bath with an add-on seat for an existing toilet or a new toilet with a built-in bidet. Just remember to plan for an outlet near the toilet so there's power for the bidet.

10 of 19

Opt for a Floating Vanity

dark wood floating sink vanity
Stacey Brandford

Floating vanities come in various configurations, from a storage-packed set of cabinets to a simple countertop with a sink. Pairing this design flexibility with installation adaptability means floating vanities are a big success for universal design. A wall-mount vanity can be installed at the right height for any user, including accommodating plenty of space underneath for a wheelchair to slide under or to fit a bench to provide additional support.

11 of 19

Maximize Lighting

white bathroom lighting
Anthony Masterson

The right mix of lighting ensures safety in the bathroom. Lighting helps with everyday tasks—making it easier to apply makeup, find items in drawers, or notice the difference between shampoo and conditioner—and identifying potential safety hazards, like a bunched rug or water pooled on the floor. Ambient lighting should illuminate the room overall, including the entry and shower or tub areas, as well as task lighting at key functional areas, such as at the mirror and in the shower.

Universal design is finding new and beneficial uses for lighting, too. “Installing lighting in the recessed toe-kick of cabinetry can be great for middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom. Toe-kick lighting with a dimmer makes a nice low light to illuminate the path for safety without affecting melatonin levels so you can get back to sleep faster,” says Scott.

12 of 19

Get a Grip with Flooring

black hexagon mosaic tiles bathroom
Michael Partenio

Outfit your bathroom with slip-resistant flooring for added safety. Small mosaic-tile flooring has many grout lines, which provide good traction. Larger tiles with a bit of texture can also be a good choice. Kaestner suggests looking into slip-resistant commercial flooring that can be installed in a residential setting. Just be sure tiles are installed evenly to get a smooth surface that is free from trip hazards and easy for mobility devices to navigate.

Editor's tip: Avoid flimsy rugs that are not secured in place, as they are a trip hazard and difficult to navigate with a walker or wheelchair.

13 of 19

Switch Towel Bars for Hooks

Bathroom with light blue walls and hanging white towels
Laura Moss

Robe and towel hooks require less space on the wall than a traditional towel bar, so you can install them in more convenient locations. Hooks close to the shower and sink put towels nearby, especially if installed at the right height. “Consider the height of the hooks off the floor based on the user. Hooks around 48 inches off the floor can be great for kids or anyone that has limited shoulder mobility,” says Scott.

14 of 19

Add Cabinet Hardware

bathroom sink with blue tile flooring and wood shelving
Marty Baldwin

Increase accessibility of closed storage by adding hardware to linen closets, vanity doors, and drawers. “Decorative handles help with assisting individuals who lack dexterity in their hands, and provide easier access to bathroom cabinetry,” says Kaestner. D-shape drawer and door pulls with ample space for fingers to fit between the hardware and the cabinet work well for many users.

15 of 19

Select a Single-Lever Faucet

porcelain bowl sink
Erik Johnson

Universal design recommends faucets should be able to be used with only one hand and without requiring a lot of twisting. A single-handle faucet—with a lever handle rather than a knob or cross-style handle—allows the user to turn the water off and on with an open palm or a closed fist. Similarly, a single-lever shower control is easier for most users. For both faucets and shower controls, hot and cold should be clearly identified with red and blue indicators.

16 of 19

Incorporate Grab Bars

white shower with clear glass door
Gordon Beall

Boost safety by installing grab bars near the toilet and in the shower and bathtub, so that people have something stable to grab onto when using the space. Although grab bars are more stylish than ever, they're not decorative fixtures; they need proper reinforcement to do their job. “If you are remodeling and don’t want to add grab bars now, it is good to go ahead and add wood blocking behind the tile so if/when you are ready to add them, the wall is ready to accept the grab bars securely,” says Scott.

17 of 19

Convert to a Curbless Shower

diamond patterned dual shower
Werner Segarra

When it comes to bathing, zero-threshold showers are the most accessible design. Unlike a tub/shower combo or a traditional shower stall, a curbless shower has no raised threshold that needs crossing. “Whether you are entering on your feet, with a walker, or by wheelchair, the absence of a curb for a shower is a win-win scenario,” says Kaestner. “They eliminate the tripping hazard by removing the curb and replacing it with a sloped shower floor and enhanced drain.” This floor treatment means it’s not a simple swap from traditional to curbless shower—plan for additional costs and preparation when installing.

18 of 19

Attach a Shower Bench

walk in shower white tiles with bench and shelf

A shower bench provides support while bathing. Kaestner recommends built-in or fold-down seats. “We should avoid anything in a shower that could move and possibly increase the likelihood of creating a slip-and-fall scenario,” says Kaestner.

19 of 19

Include a Handheld Shower

marble shower with silver hardware
Ed Gohlich

Great as an addition to a traditional showerhead or simply on their own, handheld showers offer the most flexibility for users. Installed with a vertical shower bar, you can position them at varying heights. “They can be used as a normal shower head positioned high for a full-body shower, or lower at shoulder height, to take a body shower and not wash your hair,” says Scott.

A handheld shower can target (or avoid) specific body areas. Handheld showerheads also more conveniently clean children and pets and are even handy for cleaning the shower itself.

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