News & Politics

Bathroom Design Ideas: Planning for Children and Aging

Making important decisions now can save you money later

Some Moen bath accessories, such as this shelf (bottom) and toilet paper holder, double as grab bars.

A bathroom is the most complicated renovation you can do in a home. Per square foot, it’s also the most expensive, which is one reason why homeowners usually redo bathrooms only every 20 years or so.

But what if you’re remodeling a bathroom for a child’s room–and you want a space that will work when your eight-year-old is out of college and the bathroom is used mostly by guests?

Or suppose you’re 50 and you want a bathroom that will enable you to age in place in your home?

Here are tips from bathroom designers on creating a space that not only looks beautiful but works just as well now as it will later.

Accounting for Children
“When people have children, I tell them: ‘Don’t design your bathroom for your child.’ It does get dated very easily,” says Carolyn Thomas, a designer with Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath in Chevy Chase.

Skip the dinosaur tiles. It’s best, say designers, to stick with solid, neutral-colored tiles and fixtures–then perk up the space with accessories and paint.

“The answer is color,” says Falls Church designer Dee David. “You can take a bathroom that is relatively simple and make it more whimsical with color.”

A little girl’s bathroom might be purple now, then green when she’s a teenager.

“We recently did a child’s bathroom where they painted the walls a fun aqua,” David says. “Then we put pictures on the wall that were little-girlish, with pink and yellow and green and blue, which is really easy to change down the road.”

Aging Gracefully
People in their forties and fifties may cringe at the notion of installing grab bars and other safety features that are essential for elderly homeowners, but manufacturers such as Moen are making grab bars that are less institutional-looking and more stylish–and that double as towel bars, shower shelves, or toilet-paper holders.

Still, if you’re not ready to put in bars–they’re a good idea at any age, including for little kids, say designers–you might want to prepare the walls for them later.

“When you are doing a shower–and that’s definitely where grab bars come into play–while those walls are open, put in additional cross studs so that your framing can support grab bars when they’re needed,” says Peggy Card of Tabor Design Build in Rockville. “Once you mark your plans with the exact location of the studs, you can close up the walls. You’ll know exactly where the studs are, and it becomes a one-drill operation. They do sell grab bars you can put in without a stud, but being able to put them up properly is always best.”

If the toilet will be in a separate enclosure or behind a half wall, consider reinforcing those walls, too. When it comes to choosing a commode, consider taller comfort-height models; they make it easier to sit and stand.

If possible, you might install what’s called a roll-in shower, which has no curb or lip at the entrance. A bench to sit on in the shower is another feature that you can enjoy now and that will come in handy later. Consider, too, putting the shower head on a slide bar so it can be moved down or installing a hand-held spray–either allows someone to take a shower while sitting on the bench.

What if you have your heart set on a bathtub?

“For resale purposes, real-estate agents will tell you that you need to have at least one tub,” Card says. “But stepping out of a tub is the most dangerous thing an elderly person can do.” Showers with benches are safer: “We often will look at sacrificing resale if it’s the only bathroom. If you do a tub, make sure there’s a lot of deck around it so you can sit on the edge and spin into it.”

As for doorknobs and faucets, designers recommend lever-style handles versus twist knobs, which can be hard for arthritic hands.

See Also:

Adding More Storage Space

High-Tech Toilets and Steam Showers

Compromising Between Husband and Wife

Older homeowners often prefer more heat in a bathroom, Card says. A combination light/fan/heater or a heated floor might be a good investment.

When choosing tile, forget high-gloss marble. Think texture.

“Whenever I’m working with someone who is older or someone with children, I look for things with texture,” Card says. “Not so much texture that the floor becomes difficult to clean, but you want to make sure you have traction. The more undulating or knobby the tile is, the more traction you’ll have.

“There are so many safety issues that need to be addressed, because the bathroom is one of the most dangerous rooms in the house if you’re elderly. These are just things to think about.”

You can still get a spa-like bathroom with gorgeous tile and a tub or shower. But contemplating these features now, says Card, means you’ll have an answer to the question “Will this bathroom still work when I need it to?”

The Complete Dream Bathrooms Package

This article appears in the May 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986 as an editorial intern, and worked her way to the top of the masthead when she was named editor-in-chief in 2022. She oversees the magazine’s editorial staff, and guides the magazine’s stories and direction. She lives in DC.