Accessible Housing by Design — Bathrooms CMHC

Accessible Housing by Design — Bathrooms CMHC

Accessible Housing by Design — Bathrooms

Universal Design

Universal design is a concept designed to accommodate the functional needs of everyone: children, adults and seniors with or without activity limitations or disabilities.

One of the goals of universal design is to maximize the usability of environments. Everyone appreciates having a well-designed bathroom that is safe, spacious, relaxing and easy to use.

The successful design of a universally accessible bathroom starts with identifying potential users and anticipating the needs of all family members and visitors who will use the bathroom.

An overview of the key concepts of universal design is provided in “The Principles of Universal Design ” text box at the end of the document.

Bathroom Design

One of the latest design trends involves the creation of spacious bathrooms that incorporate a variety of features and flexibility of use. As a result, bathrooms become more adaptable and comfortable for individuals and families. The concept of universal design, whose objective is to meet all users’ needs, is incorporated into many bathroom features such as bathtubs, showers, lighting and flooring.

By providing flexibility in the selection of design features and incorporating adaptability into bathroom design, the life and usability of a bathroom is extended, which promotes the concept of “aging in place .”

This concept is increasingly popular with families and individuals who choose to stay in their homes and neighbourhoods as they grow and age. Planning for individuals’ changing needs and abilities allows for periodic bathroom customization based on changing requirements and reduces the need for future costly renovations.

Photo by: Betty Dion

Figure 1 — Large accessible bathroom

A universally designed bathroom should be comfortable and safe for all family members. Give consideration to all of the design elements associated with the bathroom:

  • size and location of the bathroom within the house;
  • configuration of the toilet, bathtub and shower within the bathroom;
  • type of tub or shower you prefer;
  • floor and wall coverings;
  • safety issues such as slip resistance of the floor, the presence of grab bars or support rails;
  • storage requirements;
  • types of lighting; and
  • overall use of colour and space.

Planning for future needs is good practice. Principles of universal design and FlexHousing™ also encourage flexibility, adaptability, safety and efficiency.

Ask Yourself

  • How many bathrooms do you have? How many people share the bathroom?
  • Do you need to have easy and quick access to a bathroom?
  • Do you and your family prefer to use the shower or a bathtub?
  • Do you have a disability that has an impact on the way you use the bathroom?
  • Do you require assistance using the bath or shower?
  • Do you worry about a family member who lives with you or often visits who might fall in the bathroom?

These are important considerations that will help you identify your bathroom design requirements. Your requirements should also address the following factors:

  • Efficient design
  • Minimal effort
  • Adaptability
  • Ease of cleaning
  • Accessible Housing by Design — Bathrooms CMHC
  • Manoeuvring space
  • Safety

Creating a bathroom that maximizes safety and convenience is the cornerstone of good design.

Efficient Design

Begin with general planning issues such as the location of the bathroom within the home. Is there an accessible bathroom? Is there a bathroom on each floor? Is there only one bathroom serving a number of people? Is there a bathroom for visitors? Is there an ensuite bathroom?

Traditionally, bathroom designers have focused on the configuration of the bathroom fixtures within a small area. Homeowners are increasingly looking for larger bathrooms, particularly in newer homes with both a shower and spa or bathtub, as well as a toilet, one or two vanities and maybe even a urinal or bidet.

This trend to larger bathrooms allows for easier manoeuvrability for people as they get older and may need to use a mobility device. However, people with very limited mobility may find they need to plan for support as they move around a larger bathroom. If you have limitations in your mobility or balance, it is important to consider additional safety issues such as the placement of controls within easy reach (see Figure 2) and the presence of grab bars beside the toilet and near the bathtub or shower.

Photo by: Betty Dion

Figure 2 — Bathtub with edge seating and accessible controls

Designing a safe bathroom also involves preventing falls. Falls frequently occur in the bathroom but they can be avoided with careful planning and selection of materials. Bathrooms should have a vertical grab bar mounted on the wall for people to hold onto as they get into and out of the bathtub or shower. Tubs and showers should have a non-slip surface and the bathroom should have adequate lighting and ventilation.

Design Considerations

Minimal Effort

Designing for minimal effort is an important principle of the universal design concept. Planning for efficiency considers the location and relationship of the elements within the bathroom. This will result in the placement of related items together in the same location within the bathroom. Placing the storage for make-up and medicine near the vanity/sink area is logical. Placing towels and bathing supplies near the bath or shower reduces the need to walk around the bathroom while wet.

Flexibility and efficiency of effort can be achieved through such design considerations as providing storage options at a variety of heights, a range of lighting options, an adequate place to sit down in front of the washbasin, and a vanity with room for storing materials where they can be easily seen and reached. Extra storage space may be required by some people for equipment such as shower wheelchairs.

If the bathroom is large enough to include a washer and dryer, please see CMHC’s About Your House fact sheet Accessible Housing by Design — Appliances for additional design suggestions.

An excellent time to think about how to prevent falls is when you are redesigning or renovating your bathroom. Grab bars, non-slip surfaces, adequate lighting and ventilation should be integrated into your plans.


Adaptability can be achieved by installing a shower head on a vertical slide bar so that it can be adjusted and set at a variety of heights; by providing a raised seat for the toilet and grab bars that fold down; by using drawers for storage; and even by pre-programming temperatures for the shower.

If only periodic access to knee space under the washbasin is required (such as in a visitable bathroom), moveable storage under the sink can provide knee space (see Figure 3).

Provide adequate manoeuvring space and support for a hoist should you require one or anticipate needing one in the future. See CMHC’s About Your House fact sheet Accessible Housing by Design — Residential Hoists and Ceiling Lifts for further information.

Figure 3 — Movable storage under the sink

Ease of Cleaning

When making decisions about the selection of bathtubs, floors, toilets and showers, remember to take into consideration the surface finishes. For example, wall and floor surfaces in the shower should be designed to drain fully to prevent mold from growing. Adequate ventilation in the bathroom is extremely important to eliminate moist air and the potential for mold or mildew growth. Flooring should be slip resistant, yet easy to clean and maintain.

Minimal effort should be required to clean the bathroom. Plan to eliminate the presence of difficult-to-reach areas and select materials that do not need special cleaning supplies (see Figure 4).

Photo by: Norbert Koeck

Figure 4 — Ease of cleaning

Bathroom cleaning products should be stored in easy-to-reach locations, preferably in drawers that slide out so that the products can be easily seen and reached. If family members include children, people with Alzheimer’s, persons who are very forgetful or have developmental disabilities, careful thought should be given to the storage and security of these products.


Safety hazards in the bathroom deserve the highest consideration. The bathroom is the site of many accidents and falls. A non-slip flooring surface is extremely important, especially when wet.

Bath mats on the floor should be avoided because they can be a tripping hazard and an obstacle for many people with mobility impairments. On the other hand, a non-slip mat in the bathtub is an excellent idea to prevent a slip or fall.

Burns can be another safety hazard in the bathroom, particularly for children and people who have reduced sensitivity or ability to feel temperature changes. Mixing valves that limit the water temperature to a maximum of 49ºC (120ºF) can be installed. In order to avoid growth of Legionella bacteria, it is not recommended to lower the hot water tank temperature below 60ºC (140ºF).

Avoid sharp edges on surfaces in the bathroom to prevent injury in case of a fall and consider various lighting options. Installing grab bars is highly recommended.

Towel rails are not designed to provide support in the bathroom. Towel rails can, of course, be replaced by grab bars that can serve both functions.

Grab bars should be installed to suit the particular user or users. There is a wide variety of types of grab bars; some that fold down and others that are permanently installed (see “Grab bars ” below).

Manoeuvring Space

When designing a bathroom for someone who uses a walker or wheelchair, you should allow a sufficient manoeuvring space of 750 x 1,200 mm (30 x 47 in.) in front of or beside all fixtures including the bathtub, shower and storage spaces. It is especially important to consider the manoeuvring space in front of all of the controls, so that it is not necessary for someone to lean to reach them, which may result in a fall. Don’t forget to provide sufficient manoeuvring space in front of all windows and window controls (see Figures 5 and 6).

A minimum manoeuvring space of 1,500 x 1,500 mm (59 x 59 in.) within the bathroom will allow for turning around and approaching the bathroom elements. For power wheelchair or scooter users the required turning radius is larger, increasing the minimum manoeuvring space to 1,800 x 1,800 mm (71 x 71 in.), depending on the size of the mobility device. Room should also be provided for people who give assistance or care in the bathroom (see Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 8 features a bathroom design that incorporates both a shower and a double bathtub and provides sufficient manoeuvring space for either a side or angled approach to the toilet and access to the tub, shower and vanity. Note the provision of storage space and the location of the controls for both the shower and bath, which are within easy reach.

Other Bathroom Design Components that Increase Usability:

Providing a large open tiled floor and wall area with drainage not only accommodates more than one person in the shower, but it also allows adequate space for someone using a shower bench or shower wheelchair, and who requires some assistance while bathing.

  • D-type handles on storage drawers;
  • drawers that pull out fully and cupboards with pull-out shelving;
  • hands-free faucets;
  • reinforced walls that accommodate grab bars in customized positions;
  • resilient flooring (rather than hard surfaces);
  • lighting activated by motion detectors;
  • shower head that can be adjusted to a variety of heights.

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