From Sterile to Stylish

Aug. 1, 2004
ADA-compliant bathroom products now target the majority of your customers. BY WILLIAM ATKINSON SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR When one thinks of ADAcompliant bathroom fixtures and accessories, the word "sterile" usually comes to mind. These days, however, stylish is replacing sterile. And it's not because companies are trying to market stylish fixtures exclusively to disabled people. Rather, they are targeting
ADA-compliant bathroom products now target the majority of your customers.


When one thinks of ADAcompliant bathroom fixtures and accessories, the word "sterile" usually comes to mind. These days, however, stylish is replacing sterile. And it's not because companies are trying to market stylish fixtures exclusively to disabled people.

Rather, they are targeting mainstream consumers of all ages with their ADA-compliant offerings and not even mentioning the fact that the products happen to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The strategy is working — so well that it may not be long before the majority of new-construction bathrooms are outfitted with ADA-compliant fixtures.

Besides the marketing strategy involved in this trend, some local legislation is triggering the move. The city of Naperville, Ill., for example, passed a "visibility ordinance" in early 2002 to assist people with disabilities when they visit homes in the city, such as grandparents visiting their children or grandchildren's homes. The ordinance applies to all new home construction and requirements include minimum width openings on all first-floor doorframes, minimum heights for electrical receptacles and maximum heights for light switches.

In the bathroom, the ordinance requires wall reinforcements in all firstfloor bathrooms (wood blocking installed in the wall framing) to support grab bars if they need to be installed. "These reinforcements must be installed on all walls that are adjacent to toilets, shower stalls and/or bathtubs," explains Dick Dublinski, development services team leader for the city. He is also aware of similar ordinances in Phoenix and a city in Texas. And since Naperville adopted the statute, Dublinski has received more than 50 e-mails from other communities interested in adopting similar legislation.

New generations
While manufacturers initially created special fixtures that were designed to be ADA-compliant, most are now expanding their lines to appeal to other generations, particularly baby boomers. Gary Uhl, director of design for American Standard, says his company has focused on accessibility for more than 10 years.

"We realize that the baby boomers are aging," he says. "I'm one of them, and I find that few of us want to admit that we aren't as agile as we once were. Our research has found that if it is easier for someone with disabilities to use a product, it will also be easier for the population in general to use."

Uhl recalls something a professor told him a few years ago: In reality, almost everyone in our society has some kind of disability. However, the only ones we notice are those that are easily visible, such as people in wheelchairs.

" For example, people who wear glasses, hearing aids and various types of support worn under clothing usually aren't considered disabled, even though they are," Uhl points out.

Understanding the value of reaching out to others beyond those who are obviously physically disabled and qualify under ADA guidelines, manufacturers also realize the importance of designing stylish ADA-compliant fixtures.

"We have gone out of our way to make sure that the vast majority of our new products meet ADA requirements, but that they also retain style," Uhl says. "Just because a customer purchases something for accessibility doesn't mean it has to look sterile or generic."

The company's research has found something very interesting: If it emphasizes to customers that a certain fixture has been designed for people with disabilities, even if it is stylish and functional for other people, most customers will walk away from it, not wanting to be identified with something aimed at disabled people.

"As such, we design with disabilities in mind, but we market with style in mind, and we emphasize that style when we talk with customers," he notes, adding that the company's price book does use a wheelchair icon for products that are specifically designed for disabilities. "This is for architects or engineers who need to know if something is specifically ADA-compliant or not."

Kohler Co. focuses on style as well.

"We have increased our awareness of universal design for ADA-compliant products," says Diana Schrage, an interior designer with Kohler's Design Center. "We find that we can still meet ADA requirements with many of our traditional products, depending on the way the products are installed."

For example, the company's Tea for Two tub meets ADA requirements with the addition of a 15-in. transfer seat at the head. Its comfort-height toilets also meet ADA requirements.

"However, we market them simply as comfort-height toilets," she explains.

Delta Faucet also pays attention to the style of its products.

"Our newer products focus on good looks, but they are all ADA-compliant, even though we are not aiming them at the handicapped market," says Faye Adams, new product development manager.

Product examples
Here is a sampling of what some of the manufacturers are offering:

American Standard has moved away from knobbed faucet handles, realizing that 5-lb. pull levers and crosses meet ADA requirements. This has worked out from the style standpoint too, Uhl says. With its single-control bathroom faucets, it installs hot-limit safety stops, allowing users to set the top temperatures.

"This is for people who have slow reflex actions who may not be able to move their hands out of the way in time, and people with nerve-ending damage who may burn their hands without even realizing it," he says.

The company also markets a series of toilets called "right height," which are easier for users to get on and off, he adds. American Standard tubs have a deck area where users can sit and swing their legs into the tub, rather than having to climb over to get in. All the company's sinks, whether undermount or pedestal, follow ADA requirements for knee clearance. American Standard also offers thermograb-static bath/shower valves.

"Federal codes require pressure balance," he explains. "However, we believe thermostatic valves are better, because they maintain a temperature. Pressure balance valves don't account for temperature changes in the water coming to the faucet."

Moen has had its ADA-compliant line, called Home Care, in existence for about six years, says Brian Grant, senior product manager. Products include an adjustable tub/shower chair and adjustable transfer bench with large, comfortable seat pans and contoured seat backs that snap into place to provide additional security. It can be customized with accessories, such as a pair of handles with textured areas to improve grasp and flared tops that allow people to use the palms of their hands to push up.

Hansgrohe offers a thermostatic valve with a lever handle to make volume control easy. The scald control has a thermostatic cartridge.

"If there is a cold water shutdown, the cartridge also shuts down the hot water," explains Lars Christensen, product manager. "The temperature control is also easily accessible and adjustable."

For the company's luxury lines, the design sports a high-end, modern look from the designers Hansgrohe uses in Italy and France.

Kohler offers the President's Tub with swinging door. Users can open the door, enter the tub, put a slip-down seat in the tub and close the door, Schrage explains. The gasket creates a seal.

Despite the new designs that make fixtures ADA-compliant, installation takes place in virtually the same way as traditional fixtures, according to most manufacturers. Christensen notes that the base body of Hansgrohe's ADA products is the same as its other products and has the same screw-on installation.

For Moen, Grant says, the only issue would be the correct placement of bars for the users' convenience and mobility.

American Standard's ADA-compliant products are installed the same way as traditional items, Uhl says. He does add another caveat, though, that should be of concern to contractors:

"Contractors do need to be aware of positioning of products within the bathroom, such as the width of passageways and placement of grab bars."

Future faucets, fixtures
While most manufacturers have already shifted from focusing only on the elderly and those with noticeable disabilities to embrace the needs of aging Baby Boomers, some see even wider opportunities opening up with all segments of the population, and for a number of reasons.

"Our products are becoming more popular with older people in general," Grant says. "Most of them want to stay at home as long as they can, rather than moving into retirement homes or nursing homes. We realize that our products can help them stay at home and remain independent longer."

And, despite the fact that baby boomers are aging, many still have a mental barrier about using these products, Grant says.

"They don't want to admit that they can't function completely on their own anymore," he explains. "However, we are finding that as they become more familiar with these new products to take care of their parents, they are becoming more comfortable using them themselves."

Moen is finding that its ADA-compliant products are gaining popularity with pregnant women and people recovering from sports injuries. In addition, younger parents are becoming interested in the products as a way for their children to be safer, such as when they are getting in and out of showers and tubs, Grant adds.

Delta is seeing the multi-generational appeal of its products. Two years ago, for example, the company launched an electronic-flow faucet for residential use. The water is activated for 30 seconds when users place their hands under the faucet. The fixture has an adjustable temperature, as well as a high-temp limit stop. It comes with a battery pack that lasts five years, or it can be hard-wired.

"The product not only appeals to the elderly, but we find that parents like it for their young children, who often have trouble using traditional faucets," Adams says.

The implications for contractors should be obvious. As more and more people find ADA-compliant fixtures appealing, such products will begin to become mainstream. This opens up a whole new opportunity for contractors, Grant says. For example, plumbing contractors can make consumers aware of all the other products available that they may not know about, such as high-rise toilets and singlehandle levered faucets.

"We are seeing a whole new group of contractors who specialize in accessibility issues, such as installing grab bars," Grant says. "While they are in the home, they realize that a lot of other opportunities can present themselves."

William Atkinson is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to CONTRACTOR.

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