Universal design bathroom remodel hidden in plain view

Master bath conceals accessibility features within stylish design

June 17, 2011
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Paula Silverstein knows what she wants. “I’m either yes or no. There’s no gray area,” she says.

That decisiveness drove her selection of Owings Home Services, Eldersburg, Md., to remodel the master bathroom in the house she and husband Larry Silverstein built in Owings Mills, Md., 25 years ago. It drove every design detail of the award-winning project. And it drove the challenging process of carrying out the design in a tight space and on a tight schedule.

In 2008 Owings Home Services built a room addition and carried out some other work to make the house more accessible for Paula, who has used a wheelchair since an accident. The Silversteins contacted no other remodelers about the work. “We had seen several other Owings jobs and loved everything,” explains Paula. On top of information about the company at the Owings website, “references by sight” — that is, the quality and beauty of Owings projects — and recommendations from past clients made the decision for the Silversteins. The experience using Owings on the first project was so positive that, “It was easy to trust them” with the bathroom remodel, Paula says. Again, the Silversteins contacted only Owings.

Hidden accessibility

Based on experience, company co-owner Joe Smith had a good idea what to expect when he met with the Silversteins in early 2010 to discuss the master bathroom project. First, Paula had prepared a detailed design concept featuring luxury products. “She’d done a lot of homework,” says Smith, “and drove the product selection.”

Second, she required that the space be wheelchair accessible but not look accessible. “We have an elevator,” says Paula, but it’s hidden behind a closet door. “No one would know it’s there.” For Paula, all accessibility features in the house must pass a similar “invisibility test.”

The old bath was inaccessible and dated. Walls and a pocket door split the 150-square-foot space in two, with a dressing area on one end and a bathroom, crowded with a huge soaking tub and a separate shower, on the other. “We took it all out,” says Paula, and built an elegantly appointed, open plan bathroom within the existing footprint.  

Owings completed the room design, contracting Durkee Kitchens, Owings Mills, Md., to plan the cabinet layout and provide the custom cabinetry.

Separate vanities and richly equipped custom cabinets provide both ample storage and individual lavatory areas for Paula and Larry.  A large shower with neo-angle entry takes advantage of a bright corner. French doors featuring custom, leaded glass panels link the bathroom to the bedroom, as does a two-sided fireplace.

Invisible accessibility? Central circulation space accommodates a wheelchair turning radius; the shower entry is wide and curbless; the diagonal-tiled floor is smooth; the mirrors de-fog automatically; the room is bright and warm; windows and overhead fixtures provide balanced lighting throughout the space; and behind the walls Owings placed blocking for grab bars should the Silversteins decide to install them later by the toilet and elsewhere around the room. The center of Paula’s vanity has room for a seated user, but the countertop is not unusually high. “We taped the space with Paula,” says Smith, to calculate the necessary legroom under a super-slim drawer.

Hidden challenges

Relocating the toilet introduced a problem under the floor. At tear-out project supervisor Craig Breining discovered that the joists ran in the wrong direction for rerouted plumbing. Owings crews carefully headed them off and reframed the floor to avoid disturbing the library directly below the room.

The pre-sloped, fiberglass shower pan is designed to be installed without requiring reframing. Because it comes smaller than the Silverstein shower enclosure, the tile installer was tasked with matching the pan’s slope across the rest of the shower floor. To waterproof the curbless shower and bathroom floor, Owings laid a flexible liquid membrane over the floor and shower walls. A rubber compound seals all joints.

The sleek simplicity of the clear glass shower enclosure belies concerns about its installation and function. Though large, the shower is header free; Smith was pleased that the door could be hung on a framed wall. Breining worried that the glass would be vulnerable to bumps from the wheelchair. A stair-stepped tile side wall helps to protect the glass while adding style.

Paula had fallen in love with a master bathroom see-through, gas fireplace pictured in a magazine. Fitting the raised, granite hearth fireplace into the Silverstein bath “was tough,” says Smith, especially since Paula also wanted a tile surround on the adjacent doorway. Smith ordered the smallest double-sided unit available from the manufacturer — 32 inches wide, 31 inches high. Owings ran the gas line from the basement to the second floor bathroom, and vented the unit through the attic and roof. The tile around the fireplace needed to be done in stages, with the marble sills set first, then the tile above. The tile installer managed to make everything come together beautifully. “He’s very diligent; he wanted to make the job perfect,” says Larry.

Daily access

As the only accessible fixture on the second floor, the master bathroom toilet needed to be functional throughout production. Even when re-framing the room, lead carpenter John Quinn framed around the toilet every evening and screwed it to the subfloor. Nightly jobsite cleanup also met a demanding standard, to ensure safe, unencumbered access.

The Silversteins monitored progress on the project with eager anticipation, urging Owings to move quickly and even asking that the work be completed two weeks early to coincide with Paula’s birthday. Breining revved up production, sometimes having two or three trade contractors at work simultaneously in the room.

In the end, Owings met the accelerated schedule. The design and workmanship met the Silversteins’ hopes. The bathroom is discreetly accessible and boldly beautiful. “I’m happy as a clam,” says Paula.

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