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The bathroom can be a hazardous place. The combination of wet surfaces, tight spaces, and difficult-to-grasp and use knobs and pulls in hard-to-reach places can spell disaster if one isn't careful—and that goes for people of all ages and abilities.

The concept of universal design aims to change all that by helping contractors and designers to turn bathrooms into safe, well-planned living spaces. Yet even as railings, benches, and easy-access showers have become more and more common, a myth persists among some homeowners that universal design leads sterile, industrial-looking decor. Fortunately, award-winning designs are starting to put that myth to rest.

The Crest Ridge Master Bath project, built by the Tier 1 Group in Austin, Texas is one such design. Earlier this year it won a Watermark Award from BUILDER magazine, a sister publication to JLC. The bathroom, which was designed for a family caring for an elderly relative, has a thoroughly modern look, with sleek finishes and motion-sensitive lighting.

REMODELING magazine, another sister publication of JLC, also recently did a cover story about universal design throughout the home ("Design it Forward" by Stacey Freed). The article's section on bathroom design describes numerious ways to make a bathroom accessible and code-compliant.

One of the biggest issues when working with universal design—especially in the bathroom—is having enough space around fixtures to accommodate a wheelchair, walker, or even a caregiver who needs to be nearby to render assistance. In "Better Bathroom Access Made Easy," the space issue began at the door for contractor-author Robert Criner. He had a client who wanted a wider bathroom doorway, but did not have the budget to relocate the wall next to the doorway.

Criner and his crew were able to remedy the problem by replacing the existing butt hinges with a set of offset hinges, which allow the door to swing completely out of the opening creating a wider area to walk through. Criner also notes that you can create more space by removing the stop molding on each side of the doorway from the floor to wheelchair height.

Often it's the contractor and designer who bring up the topic of universal design, not the homeowner. In a piece for REMODELING, called "Favorite Universal Design Features," Houston-based contractor Dan Bawden listed 17 of his favorite universal design features, with many of the features covering bathrooms—from grab bars (#5) to wider doorways (#12).

It's clear that universal design is set to become more and more popular among homeowners as a smart part of just about any remodeling project for those looking to spend the rest of their lives in their current homes.