While working with a client on his primary bathroom design, I dove into the nitty gritty details to provide him with a life-altering bathroom all while keeping the costs well below your average bathroom remodel. His bathroom already had a curbless shower and had been remodeled 15 years ago to prepare him functionally as his multiple sclerosis disease progressed. At the time, he was not in a wheelchair and didn’t have roll-under sinks and had a large jet tub taking up quite a bit of space. He is now in a manual wheelchair and has already been fitted for a power wheelchair.
While some may know about the stages of progressive neurological diseases, the average designers, builders, and trades may not. At the initial stage of diagnosis, most people’s disabilities will not be visible. However, as time passes, their mobility function declines and they often require a wheelchair to get around full-time. The progression looks something like this: walking, shuffled gait or drop foot (dragging feet), needing a cane and/or walker, limited lower body movement (unable to place one foot in front of the other) with increased fatigue. Upper body strength sometimes decreases and fine motor skills are compromised requiring a manual wheelchair that can eventually require an upgrade to a power wheelchair.
This is a prime example why it is crucial to have an occupational therapist (or even physical therapist) on the design-build team. We factor in their current function and the likely progression that will require additional needs and equipment. This foresight allows you to be proactive and prevents costly changes later.
Therefore, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on roll-under sinks.
The ADA Stamp does not make it “accessible” for everyone.
What makes a bathroom functionally accessible is beyond that ADA icon we see on products such as toilets, sinks, appliances, flooring, and even tubs. Keep in mind the ADA design guidelines are only the minimum requirement for public entities such as commercial spaces, multi-family housing units, government facilities and more.
So, what does it mean exactly, when a sink is “ADA compliant?”
Sink is mounted no higher than 34” from the floor
Knee clearance under the sink is 27” from above the finished floor with a 30” wide opening
Depth space (front to back) under sink is 17-25”
Unobstructed floor space below sink
Pipes are insulated (or covered with a panel) to prevent bumps and burns
Wash basins no deeper than 6.5” (from top to bottom outside bowl)
These are great general guidelines to use in public places, but when it comes to working with clients, it’s crucial to focus on them holistically, factoring in their existing and future function as well as the environment they live in.
With new construction, the design options are unlimited. It is much easier AND less expensive to design the bathroom exactly how you need it on a blank canvas. When in a remodel, the available space is often our limitations; however, this is where we get creative. The available space will help guide us on the type of products and design features.
What type of sinks do we have to choose from:
Wall mounted (saves on space but requires good support such as blocking)
Pedestal (also saves on space but not as flexible on height if you need a custom height)
Under mount (see details below)
Vessel (above countertop): Consider the height of countertop when installing because cabinets may need adjustment to lower countertop for reachability and access to bowl.
Small wall mounted sinks (great for very small bathrooms that cannot be extended beyond the existing walls).
For a roll-under sink, I went with an under mount bowl for many reasons. I chose the American Standard Universal Ovalyn Sink because it also allows more flexibility on the type of faucet and freedom to place anywhere that is most functional for the client. We had drawer based cabinets made to be installed on both sides of his sink for ease of access while sitting at the sink. Modified toe kicks were not a top priority for this client for various reasons. In addition, his feet were slightly tucked under his manual wheelchair and with a roll under sink, he can access his drawers to the right and left. NOTE: All wheelchairs are different. In addition, I like to point out that every cabinet line is different and offer different features which can also be a limitation in design. ADA guidelines recommend minimum 27” clearance under the sink. With my client in his manual wheelchair, it was 27” from the floor to the top of his thighs. When he upgrades to his power wheelchair, he will be even higher. I saw the opportunity to get creative and maximize space under his sink.
Here are some tips to maximize access to sinks:
Measure distance from the top of mid-thigh while seated in wheelchair to the floor (don’t forget about measuring other equipment they use). Measuring to the top of the thighs allow them a little more room to roll under and get closer to the sink especially for face washing or shaving. This method can also be applied for someone sitting in a chair.
Due diligence reading over the specification sheets. Consider depth of sink bowl (interior AND exterior) and the depth of the countertop. Some websites will allow you to search by depth.
Factor the thickness of the countertop that the bowl will be attached to underneath into the under counter clearance calculation. If using a face front panel to cover the 2x4 frame for support, factor that in as well. For instance, most bathroom countertop heights are standard 34” high (ADA recommends no higher than 34”). Subtract the countertop thickness and bowl depth from the 34” to obtain an approximate clearance space under the sink from above the finished floor. ADA requirements for sink depth is 6 1/2.” If someone needs a little more than 27” clearance under the countertop, you will need to find a more shallow sink bowl (maybe 5”).
To gain more under sink space, choose a sink with a rear drain (and when every centimeter matters, sometimes it helps to have rear overflow drain - see diagram below).
The sink can be brought forward especially if you have a deep countertop (for more under counter storage). When the countertops are templated by the stone fabricators, you can tell them where to place the sinks and even faucet holes (for instance, placing faucets on the right or left hand side). They can be brought as close to 2-3” from the front edge.
Perhaps this diagram below highlights the need to think outside the ADA box or simply maximize under counter space…it’s zooming in on the fine details of two sinks that are ADA compliant AND both have a water depth at 4 inches.
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