The design of today’s thoroughly modern bathroom represents the convergence of a number of growing social and cultural trends in our country. As the American population ages and more of our citizens live longer active lives, we wish to ‘age in place’ in our homes and businesses. We therefore want bathrooms, fixtures and features that are universally designed for those throughout a full range of ages and physical abilities. As we increasingly recognize the fragility of the environment and climate, and the limits to finite natural resources and energy, we seek spaces and finishes and appliances that are durable, efficient, and sustainable over the long term. As we recognize the effects on our health of stress, overscheduled lives and toxins in our surroundings, we search for baths that can be welcoming spaces, allowing time for relaxation and rejuvenation, free from harmful substances and products. We also sense the dual, and often conflicting, pressures of our age: a greater drive toward personal luxury and extravagance, coupled with a growing need or desire to economize and maximize with what we have or can readily obtain.
So how do we get the most from our bathrooms?
Let’s look first at water use. Over the past 50 years, Americans have increased their average annual water usage by 50%. We now use about 100 gallons of fresh, clean water per person per day across the nation. Roughly ¼ of that usage is simply for flushing toilets, while almost another 1/6th is run through faucets. As a result of such continually growing demand on freshwater supplies, up to 2/3rds of the nation will experience significant water shortages within just the next few years; many already have over the past decade.
We can therefore greatly benefit ourselves, our futures, and our planet in conserving water by the bathroom choices we make. The broad range of water conservation options include: low-flow faucets and shower heads; faucets with automatic electronic cut-off; low water volume flush toilets; dual-flush toilets that have two flush volumes available; waterless composting toilets; waterless urinals; use of ‘gray-water’ (such as that from showers or dishwashers) for reuse in flushing toilets or irrigating lawns; and on-demand water heaters. Through proper fixture selection, we can reduce toilet flushes from as much as 3 or 4 gallons per flush to about 1.28 gallons per flush, with no loss of function or efficiency. Similarly, we can reduce showerhead water flow to about 1.5 gallons per minute from 2.5 gallons per minute or more, resulting in even greater water conservation.
Next, we can examine universal design in bathrooms: design in which peoples of all ages and all physical abilities or limitations are considered. Thus, a bathroom might serve an aging retired couple with various limitations of mobility, strength or vision, as well as their visiting children and grandchildren. Universal design options include: pocket doors or wide doors for wheelchair access; no-slip surfaces suitable for wheelchairs; appropriate mounting heights and easy-reach ranges for mirrors, fixtures, countertops, and controls; tilting or adjustable mirrors and/or lighting; the provision of rails, grab bars and other such supports; walk-in tubs; roll-in showers; sink-top allowing seated or wheelchair use; access room at toilet and/or bidet for transfer from a wheelchair; bench seating; backrest and/or headrest in shower or tub; hand-held body spray; anti-scald measures; suitable lighting levels; eased edges and highly visible edges and corners on countertops or other projections.
But what of the health, relaxation and rejuvenation aspects of the bathroom? Through proper design, we can achieve a bathroom that nurtures both our physical and mental well-being, creating a warm safe haven at the end of a harried day or the beginning of a glorious morning. Health and relaxation options for bathrooms include: daylighting via skylights, glass block, stained or textured glass, to give us natural sunlight and warmth; windows for views of outdoors to reconnect us with nature; replication of outdoor environments or relaxing locales in bathroom decor to remind us of places we love; natural or organic colors, shapes, patterns, textures, and materials to connect to our sensual side; comfortable design and layout for ease of use; spa-type features such as spa or hydrotherapy tubs or showers, saunas, steam showers, soaking tubs, or aromatherapy accents to pamper us; heat lamps and warming drawers for towels and robes. Bathrooms can also become more open to bedrooms, sitting rooms, changing rooms and other such spaces, to broaden the experiential palette.
How green can we make our bathrooms? We can stress a longer term, life-cycle focus, by creating bathrooms that are universal in design, and thus need not change or be remodeled as we age. We can also seek durability, long-term utility, efficiency and sustainability in the fixtures, finishes and accessories we choose. We can strive for low- or no-maintenance, while avoiding toxic materials like lead and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). We can select materials that are renewable or renewed, reusable or reused, recyclable or recycled, and containing low embodied energy in manufacture or delivery. We can reduce electrical energy consumption through the effective use of daylighting. We can conserve water and energy through the use of low-flow fixtures and on-demand water heating. The EPA’s WaterSense Program provides guidance on fixtures that combine water conservation with functional effectiveness.
How luxurious can we make our bathrooms, and at what cost? As we all become more worldly, we experience more varied and luxuriant bathroom settings at spas, hotels and resorts. Through relatives, friends, travel and the media, we become more aware of exotic bathroom designs, layouts and accessories. We eventually come to crave high style, high quality and high sensory value in our bathrooms. Through the proper selection of either luxury or ‘affordable luxury’ features, we can create the bathroom of our dreams. Here are some luxury or ‘affordable luxury’ options: wardrobe/changing area; make-up area; exercise area; seating area; fireplace; warming drawers; platform tub or whirlpool; tub for two; tubs with water-reheating functions; walk-in tubs for the mobility-challenged; custom shower with hand-held spray, body sprays and/or steam system; heat lamp; radiant floor heating; his and hers sinks and countertops; bowl vessel type sinks with elaborate faucets; hands-free faucets; bidet; separate toilet and/or bidet enclosure; unique or custom cabinetry; unique or custom sink designs; remote or in-place shower controls allowing preset water temperature; finishes of pewter, oil-rubbed bronze, nickel, stainless steel, crystal; chandelier(s); upgraded finishes; artwork; plants or florals; chromatherapy lighting; even a beverage center with espresso machine.
And just when you think you’ve loaded just about everything anyone of any age, ability, background or desire could ever want into your new bathroom supreme, travel to Japan, where you can experience the ultimate toilet, with its heated seat, deodorizing fan, accompanying music, anal wash/dry function in lieu of toilet tissue, and even the optional testing of one’s waste to monitor a variety of medical conditions.