"Universal Bathroom" Prototypes Win National Design Award for UB Architects

Release Date: October 22, 2001

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UB researchers have won a national design award for their "universal bathroom," which has movable fixtures that accommodate any user, regardless of physical stature, age and level of physical ability.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A "universal bathroom" developed by an architectural team from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning has won the Bronze Award in the 2001 American Society on Aging (ASA) competition for new products for mature markets.

Abir Mullick, associate professor of architecture and project director; Drew Kelly, assistant professor of architecture, and Edward Steinfeld, professor of architecture, won the award in the competition's professional category and were recognized recently at the first joint conference of ASA and the National Council on the Aging in New Orleans.

Their two proposals for a convenient, flexible, colorful, attractive bathroom are, like those for all universal-designed systems, designed for able-bodied users, people with disabilities and for ease of use by caretakers of dependent users. They are based on the premise that the room should accommodate the user, not vice versa, and be able to be used with equal ease by all persons, regardless of physical stature, age and level of physical ability.

The award was presented for two working bathrooms prototypes fabricated by the UB team: a movable fixtures bathroom and a movable panels bathroom, both of which, Mullick says, offer exceptional benefits to the manufacturer and the consumer.

Changes in bathroom design are necessary, he says, because bathroom technology, which hasn't changed since bathrooms were invented, is not very functional. Existing bathrooms, with permanently installed fixtures and a single design for all users, he says, do not work well for most people because every person has different needs.

"One bathroom design for all users presupposes that they are identical individuals and have no need for a personalized environment," Mullick adds.

He calls them "clumsy, inefficient and dangerous for all of us at different times in our lives -- when we are very young, ill, old or injured, for instance." He says they are always dysfunctional for persons with permanently disabling physical conditions and actually increase their dependence on others.

"Many able-bodied people also are disabled by the design of the bathroom when they are unable to reach for accessories, open faucets or support themselves in the shower," Mullick says.

This is unfortunate and unnecessary, according to Mullick, because new and readily available technologies make possible major innovations that can address the needs of many different users at once -- bathrooms that are "universal" in safety and function.

The UB bathroom prototypes reflect the social and inclusive philosophy of universal design. They have the potential to unify diverse population groups so that no user group is excluded by their design. They encourage individualization through the use of flexible components so users easily can adapt a bathroom to suit their personal needs, taste and preferences.

The award-winning bathrooms are made up of several prefabricated units: a lavatory unit, toilet unit, shower unit and support unit. They have running water, drains, electricity and wall units that will fit even the smallest residential bathroom space.

In these bathrooms, movement and arrangements of panels and fixtures open up the space in different ways to accommodate comfortable use by various people, including children, the elderly and those who require assistance. The sink and shower can be raised or lowered according to use preference, and can be moved along the wall to enlarge spaces for those who use walkers, wheelchairs or have caretakers.

In theory, fixture movement creates three large shower, toilet and grooming spaces in one small bathroom.

"The room suits different body sizes, space preferences and makes it much easier for users and caretakers to move freely in the space without being injured," Mullick says.

He notes that the fixtures adjust in height to accommodate both seated and standing users and individuals of different heights, including children.

He explains that fixture movement is a result of innovations in existing plumbing and drain technology that were used here in an unconventional manner. This will prevent slips and falls due to wet floors and will allow the bathroom to be hosed down for easy cleaning and maintenance.

Components can be installed independently or together in various color combinations and design styles. They can replace existing fixtures, or be used in new construction and total installation costs and space requirements are less than those of traditional bathrooms.

When designed for use by a large population, the bathrooms offer manufacturers benefits also -- "a competitive advantage and an increase in market share," Mullick says.

"We've designed the units not only for ease of operation, but for ease of maintenance, repair and recycling. Their modular nature allows manufacturers to provide continued service and production of replacement parts. This will eliminate the need to produce many types of bathroom technologies, prevent overproduction and reduce waste associated with the manufacture, use and disposal of old fixtures."

Although the bathrooms are not yet available commercially, Mullick says several major fixture companies are interested in manufacturing their brightly designed components, and hotel chains have expressed interest in installing them because the components are so accommodating, easy to use and easy to clean.

The project was developed with assistance from the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education.

Mullick and Kelly are affiliated with the UB Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center), the home of the UB Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Center for Universal Design. Both are housed in the UB School of Architecture and Planning and both directed by Steinfeld.

Mullick, an industrial designer and urban planner, is one of the developers of the principles of universal design. He calls this project "an excellent example of how the universal design philosophy can create flexible environment and produce innovative designs that are high in usability, convenience, aesthetics, surprise and fun."

Although no Gold Award was presented in the ASA professional category this year, the competition's Silver Award in the professional category went to a design team from Tytex Corp. for a product called "SAFEHIP," a girdle-like garment that uses soft, sewn-in shields to distribute the impact of a fall to the soft tissue surrounding the hip, greatly reducing the likelihood of fracture.

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