Universal concept is design for all of us

Universal design aims to make space more friendly for aging homeowners and those with disabilities

  • Joe Wetherington's remodeled bathroom is based on the universal design concept that has a goal of making it easier for elderly and those with disabilities to live in their own homes.
Joe Wetherington's remodeled bathroom is based on the… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
January 13, 2012|By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Joe Wetherington loved a lot of things about his waterfront condo in Canton, but the layout of his old master bathroom wasn't high on the list.

Although the bathroom boasted such amenities as a large whirlpool tub and porcelain tile flooring, they were not very practical for a 56-year-old man living with multiple sclerosis.

As his condition worsened, Wetherington realized the space needed an overhaul to make it safer and more accessible.

"I use a walker pretty heavily now, and it didn't fit through the door," he said. "I had a huge soaking tub which I could not use. And I thought the marble floors could be very dangerous."

So the bachelor, who purchased the two-bedroom home nine years ago, sought pros to remodel the master bath and the guest bathroom — the favorite spot of his rescued cat, Mary Rose.

He needed a team experienced in universal design — a concept that all new environments and products, wherever possible, should be usable by everyone, regardless of age, ability or circumstance.

"These types of remodels are becoming more popular among baby boomers and others," said George Brown, president of Greenleaf Remodeling, a residential company in Lutherville that specializes in older homes, green building, universal design and accessibility.

After seeking referrals, Wetherington hired Greenleaf to tackle the project, which unfolded over the course of a month and a half and cost $35,000.

Greenleaf worked in tandem with consultant Pat Caulfield, a kitchen and bath designer who has an art degree from Maryland Institute College of Art. Like Brown, she also specializes in designs that help homeowners stay in their homes as they age.

Together, they set about designing Wetherington's bathrooms to accommodate his current lifestyle while also anticipating future needs, such as the possible use of a wheelchair.

"You want to make the space beautiful and high-end, but also functional," said Brown, whose staff includes several full-time craftsmen. "You think about what can be remodeled or changed to make things more accessible for someone who's aging or has mobility issues. And safety is important: Bathrooms are where lots of falls happen."

Indeed, the bathtub and shower in the old master bath had already posed problems for the homeowner.

"He was squeezing into a tiny corner shower that he could barely get into," said Caulfield. "It was not a very comfortable place to be."

After talking with Wetherington, the design team aimed to create a spa-style sanctuary — one that complies with standards established under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the master bathroom, the contractors tore out the old tub and shower, replacing them with a spacious, barrier-free shower complete with a fold-down teakwood seat. The installation is the same height as the Wetheringtons walker to allow for safe access.

They also installed a hand-held shower wand and a stationary showerhead with polished chrome fixtures from the Kohler Purist collection.

Vertical and horizontal grab bars were installed in the walls, also in coordinated chrome, and the porcelain tile floor was textured to assist with traction.

The room decor uses a color palette of warm tan and sandy gold with white accents, including a ceiling painted sea-haze blue. Maple vanity drawers, glass mosaic tiles, open shelving with lined baskets for storage and a lighted display area for the owner's Venetian glass collection lend the space a sophisticated feel.

"People want comfort and they want to be pampered in their own homes," said Caulfield. "Anyone can make it look pretty, but it has to function for the needs of the client. We wanted him to feel uninhibited."

Brown said they also took care to incorporate green principles aimed at reducing the impact on the environment during the remodeling process and beyond.

"We use sustainable building practices and healthy, safe and nontoxic materials," he said, noting that debris and materials were recycled and donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Wetherington, who was involved in shopping for tiles and fixtures, but vacationed in Europe during a good part of the renovations, said he's pleased with the results.

"It's like night and day," said the homeowner, who is considering other changes to the condo.

He wasn't the only one impressed with the remodeling job.

Last year, the project garnered top honors from the Home Builders Association of Maryland. The Accessible Living Award, a category newly created by the association, recognizes excellence in design and construction of an accessible-living bath remodel.

The project proved equally satisfying to Brown, who noted that adapting a house for the aged or those with special needs doesn't have to mean "institutional looking" or dreary.

"It can be designed well and beautiful," he said.

And the work itself is rewarding, Caulfield added. "You know you have done something to improve the quality of someone's life."

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