015: Freestanding tubs, are they safe?

Good Fit Poor Fit
Design Advisor Feedback
015: Freestanding tubs, are they safe?

Show Notes

In this episode, we discussed the feedback our design advisors gave on the tubs as seen in the article Seen at the Interior Design Show 2020: More killer bathtubs.

Images of freestanding tubs linked from the above article. 1) White tub placed away from the wall with a small gap between the tub and wall. Faucet and hose attachment included. 2) Tub displayed on tile beside a fireplace with a turquoise outside and white inside. Tub shaped like a long bowl with thin sides. 3) Tubs in a display at the design show. There are people walking around Looking at them.


[00:00:31] Kati: Hello, it’s Kati and Sarah and in today’s episode we are going to be talking about an article that we found online that is about the trend of free-standing bathtubs in the design industry. You’ve probably seen them before. They show up a lot on the home design shows on HGTV and elsewhere as they’re viewed as something that’s really cool to include in homes.

[00:00:53] The design of these free-standing bathtubs are narrow and sleek with the tub either installed close to a wall or in the middle of a room. Be sure to check out the show notes of this episode to see a picture of these free-standing tubs as well as the article that’s titled “Seen At The Interior Design Show 2020: More Killer Bathtubs”. This article is actually discussing the reasons why these tubs are unsafe and even made the point that they were all over the place at the show and seen as a current design trend. 

[00:01:24] A lot of times when someone is curious about universal design or accessibility, they’ll do a quick Google search to see what they can learn about it. Usually, they’ll search for pictures too so that they can get a better idea of how someone might have implemented universal design features in the past. But we’ve found that many times these pictures aren’t really depicting universal design and it’s very possible that architects and builders will see these pictures assume the design works for everyone, and run with it, and that might not be the best thing to do, especially in bathrooms. 

[00:01:57] Sarah: Yes. Bathrooms are such a scary place when you might be navigating around with decreased mobility, vision, endurance, or other limitations. I know even for me when I’m trying to wash my now 17-month-old daughter, I’m afraid of her safety in the tub.

[00:02:13] So getting the functionality correct in the bathroom is very essential for someone to be able to bathe safely in a way that’s easiest for them. Universal design is tricky for bathrooms because people bathe or shower in many different ways and the design has to be flexible and inclusive enough to work for a wide range of people.

[00:02:33] Some people use shower chairs that sit in the shower, some are mounted onto a wall or there are others that roll into the shower. Some people lower themselves down into the bottom of the tub and sit on the bottom because they prefer a bath. Universal design tries to incorporate all of those needs by providing the space and flexibility to make that task happen safely, plus accommodate for all the different types of equipment that can be used in the bathroom for any person. 

[00:03:03] It’s a design challenge and we want to get it right. That’s why in our organization we think it’s essential to ask health care professionals and people with daily life experience with disabilities to give their input into the design.

[00:03:16] So we sent this article that Kati talked about and the pictures that we’ve included in the show notes to our design advisors and we are excited to share the results with you. If you remember from one of our previous episodes on the “stramp”, we’ve been looking up different pictures that appear on Google when someone searches for the term universal design to see what comes up, and then asking our group of volunteers who have a wide range of experience with disability to check them out to see if the design or a product is actually usable for them or their clients.

[00:03:46] So here’s the info we provided in our survey to the design advisors:

[00:03:51] This article makes a lot of good points about the safety or lack of safety of freestanding bathtubs. Think of the old clawfoot tub with a modern twist. I’d like to hear what you think about this design trend based on your personal and professional experiences. I know people bathe in so many different ways and need different equipment to do so. Plus some prefer a shower and others prefer a bath. If a bathroom had a walk-in shower and a tub was in the plans, would a freestanding tub be functional for you? 

[00:04:21] So then we asked our design advisors to answer a multiple-choice question about the picture. The three options were: it works well, it could be better, or it wouldn’t work. Then there was a text box for them to describe why they chose the answer they did. Many people shared their experiences and others had interesting thoughts, ideas, and questions, which helped highlight all the different perspectives from the design advisors. 

[00:04:48] Kati: So there were a total of 12 people that responded to our survey. Of those 12 people, no one thought it worked well. Five people said it could be better, and seven people thought it wouldn’t work at all. Everyone who responded included a little explanation about why they thought what they thought and that provided us with a little more insight and helped us understand the perspectives of various people with different abilities. Their responses really made it clear that what could work for one person might not work for another. 

[00:05:17] So we analyzed their feedback and separated their responses into four categories. These categories are positives, negatives, ideas, and questions.

[00:05:27]So we’re gonna go ahead and share some direct quotes from those categories and give a bit of an additional perspective from us as occupational therapists. 

[00:05:36] So for the positives category, there was only one positive quote that we received in the feedback and that quote was that “the tubs will work for a higher functioning person”.

[00:05:46] And I agree, this will definitely work well for someone who is high functioning. That’s obviously who the designer had in mind when these bathtubs were designed, right? They’re designing for an able-bodied, cognitively-sound person, and that means they didn’t consider all of the other people in our society who might function a little differently because of a disability or impairment.

[00:06:07]But what we have to understand is that we are all only temporarily abled. At some point in time, we all will experience an illness, a disability or an injury, whether that be ourselves or family members and we will need a bathtub or bathroom that’s functional. And this bathtub just isn’t going to do that for us at that point.

[00:06:27] Sarah: Yes. Your points and the comment about useful for higher functioning people is spot on. It’s like people need to take a test drive with these tubs to really get a feel for how they’d be used. Especially as a person who is high functioning, they need to realize that they won’t be that way forever. Even a temporary broken leg or goodness, someone who was pregnant would find this free-standing tub difficult to use. I don’t think people think into the future about what could happen and when they are in a situation, they may suddenly realize that what’s in their home doesn’t work. 

[00:07:04] Kati: [00:07:04] Right. All right, so let’s move on to the next category, which is all of the negative things that people said about the free-standing bathtubs.

[00:07:11] Most of our design advisors agreed with what the article said, which is that they are dangerous and not functional. So I’m going to go ahead and read some quotes that we received from our volunteers so that you can understand their perspectives. Some of the quotes include that: 

[00:07:27] “It’s hard to get out of the tub without slipping”, “Transfers in and out would be next to impossible”, “Not functional for wheelchair users without adaptive equipment”, “Does not seem very functional”, “Tubs will likely be situated far from walls and potential grab bars”,  “They have very thin sides”, “There’s a high step clearance”, “No handhold placements”, “It looks slippery”, “The colors of the inside and outside of the tub are the same, so figure-ground is an issue”, “It eliminates access for people with disabilities and limitations”, “Sitting on hard surfaces would potentially damage the skin and start muscle spasms”, “And it’s too deep to lift myself in and out of easily”.

[00:08:12] So from my perspective, the biggest flaws of this tub is that the sides are way too tall, the edges are way too narrow and it’s way too deep. These three flaws have a huge impact on how someone is able to get in and out of the tub. For example, the tall sides would be too difficult to step over, for say, an elderly grandparent who has arthritis in their knees or an aching hip. And because the sides are too tall, it’s hard to recommend adaptive equipment like a tub bench because the legs of the tub bench only go so high and it just really wouldn’t be a great fit. 

[00:08:46] Sarah: Yeah, I really agree. I know when my grandparents were aging, I had to help them figure out the safest way for them to get in and out of the tub without falling, which included a tub bench like you talked about, Kati. So they could sit on the bench on the outside and lift their legs over the side in a seated position. At least with a regular tub, it would be easy to accommodate a tub bench for someone to sit on if needed, but these sides in the tubs we’re talking about are really high and also narrow.

[00:09:16] Plus with the bowl of the tub-shaped the way it is, there may not be a flat surface for the seat to actually sit on on the inside without being wobbly. And there are actually companies out there who do go into homes and cut out portions of the tubs so people don’t have to step over them. That was actually a recommendation of a design advisor: Could somebody cut out the side of the tub so it was easy to get in?  So we know that it’s definitely a problem with people having to getting in and out of the tub with regular tubs.

[00:09:47] I also think it’s a great point that the designer advisors were mentioning, how the tub was set further away from the wall making it more difficult to reach potential grab bars.

[00:09:57]Plus I think cleaning around the tub would be difficult too. The space between the tub and the wall, I could see a lot of water, dirt, and hair getting trapped in between there and it would be really difficult to clean. 

[00:10:10] Kati: That’s something I actually didn’t think of was the cleaning aspect of things because cleaning your home is a very meaningful occupation to many people and if the design of the tub is making that task difficult, then that just is kind of scary. I wouldn’t want to do that either. 

[00:10:27] Sarah: Yeah. And could cause a lot of frustration for people who enjoy cleaning their bathroom. I’m not a person that enjoys cleaning the bathroom, but some people do.

[00:10:36] Kati: Right. All right, so let’s go ahead and move on to the next section which are the ideas that are design advisors gave us on how to improve the design of these free-standing bathtubs. The feedback said:

[00:10:48] “In a perfect world, you could add textured surfaces, handles, or different types of seating to help the user transition in and out of the tub while maintaining it’s aesthetic”, “You could use a rubber bottom mat or put a rougher or textured inner surface inside”, “You could make the sides of the tub lower to facilitate easier transfers and minimize fall risk”, “This may work better if placed by a corner wall in order to place grab bars on the wall”, and one person recommended using a portable shower seat. I guess there’s a brand out there called the CAREX seat that someone has experienced using and it was pretty helpful in the past. 

[00:11:30] From my perspective, if you’re going to have a freestanding tub in your bathroom, it definitely needs to be close to a wall so that in the event you need to install a grab bar in the future for more support that the wall is close enough to the tub, that the grab bar is going to be within reach for you to use it.

[00:11:47] I think it would be a good idea for the bottom of the tub to have some more texture for slip resistance. And I also think the sides of the tub definitely need to be lowered, if possible, to make the clearance stepping in and out of the tub more accessible. 

[00:12:02] Sarah:  Yeah. I also think that these are helpful ideas to make it safer for someone in the household who was dead set on getting a tub like this. I also think that there are ways to make other tubs more stylish that have more functional features with lower sides and some tile surround that has a fun design to it instead of using one of these tubs. 

[00:12:23] Over the summer when we did our pilot project with some of the students, we actually had a similar discussion about this exact same tub style. One designer wanted to keep it because it was a trend and another tried to find products or rework the style to maybe create a corner jacuzzi-like tub with wider sides, closer to the wall so it would be more functional. So what we ended up doing is putting in a standard tub base and added decorative tile around the sides. We wanted to make sure there was a place to install grab bars if people wanted those and to offer a place to put a seat in the tub if desired for safety.  

[00:13:02] So when we asked our design advisors about the design, we came to the conclusion as we have with this post that freestanding tubs weren’t going to work and for a majority of the users, we really needed to go with a regular tub set up. 

[00:13:17] Kati: Great. So the last category that we are going to discuss is all about questions.

[00:13:21] So the only question that we really received from our design advisors was, “Do freestanding tubs have to be this deep? Can they still be effective if it wasn’t so deep?” And I think that’s a good question. Like, could we collaborate with bathtub designers in the future? And give them our perspectives and perspectives of these design advisors so that they could potentially design these tubs to be a little bit more shallow. Therefore, making it easier for people to transfer in and out, yet still keeping that aesthetic. 

[00:13:51] Sarah: Yeah. And I think that’s an excellent question and I think it really goes back to how people intend to use it. Is it purely for relaxation or do they need it for a shower? And can people use it for bathing? And I think getting the input of people with disabilities and a lot of variety of people who could use it could help come up with a design that is actually more usable.

[00:14:15] So in summary, the feedback received from the design advisors really highlighted the reasons why this might not necessarily be universal design. Plus their comments reiterated why this bathtub is not functional, it could be unsafe, and it’s not accessible for people with various disabilities. Therefore, we can conclude that it is not truly universal design and that it most likely wouldn’t be a good fit for people who experience life with different impairments. 

[00:14:43] So this is why we really feel like making sure voices are being heard throughout the design process so we don’t have to go back and make renovations or changes to fix something that could have been addressed in the earlier stages of design.

[00:14:56] So product designers take note!  Please design with the abilities of all people in mind, not just those who are high functioning, because we know that functioning can easily change in an instant. Consider collaborating with a healthcare professional and people who have experienced disability so that you can design the environment to work for everyone. That’s exactly what our organization has set out to do. 

[00:15:19] Last but not least, we wanted to give a big thank you to our design advisors. This wouldn’t be possible without you. We truly appreciate you allowing us to use your words and feedback to help educate and advocate for universal design and our collaborative process.

[00:15:34] We look forward to doing more of these in the future and I am super excited to hear what our design advisors have to say. We also hope that you continue joining us for new episodes of our podcast and you are learning new things about universal design and the benefits of collaboration.

[00:15:52] Have a great day.


10 responses to “015: Freestanding tubs, are they safe?”

  1. Jerri Bush-Sharp Avatar
    Jerri Bush-Sharp

    Thank you so much for your honest responses and research into this project, I can finally make an informed decision on the freestanding tub, which I have been searching for , several weeks, I appreciate all your work thanks again

  2. Sarah Pruett Avatar
    Sarah Pruett

    You are very welcome! I’m glad this was helpful for your needs!

  3. Debbie Nova Avatar
    Debbie Nova

    I am currently searching for free standing tubs. Any recommendations? I’m looking at resin tubs..

  4. Cathy Avatar

    I’m a young senior with weak shoulders and a bad hip. I am very mobile, but a bathtub needs to be wide enough that i can turn around inside it
    Before attempting to get out. 34” is just wide enough to do this if the tube is long enough, 5’6” preferably. I already have a corner jacuzzi that is outdated but works for me. Happy to find this article that validates what i already knew – i can’t get out of a free standing tub safely. I’m 69.

    1. Sarah Pruett Avatar

      I’m glad to hear this piece was helpful for you! I’m glad what you have now is working for you to be able to soak when you’d like.

  5. Diane A Avatar
    Diane A

    We rented a vacation home with a deep, free standing tub in the master bath. I am a short female, 5′ 1″, and found it very difficult to get in and out of. I am a fully functioning 70 year old, (thank God), but when stepping in and out of the tub I felt very unsafe. I slipped a little putting my leg over the edge to get out and sustained a bruise on my leg which lasted for two weeks. There were no grab bars to use. Thank heaven I didn’t fall. This told me right then and there, this is not what I ever want in my bath. Also if you were to bathe a young child in it such as my grandchild, lifting them in and out would be near impossible. In my opinion this is a serious design flaw. I have a corner jacuzzi tub in my house now which has sides of 16″ high and a wide edge you can sit on. Outdated or not, I love it and it’s staying. Besides, when my daughters come to visit with the grandkids, that is one of the things they want to do…relax in the bubbles of the jacuzzi! The kids call it “Grandma’s bubble tub!”

    1. Sarah Pruett Avatar

      Your comments are such a good example of why the design of this matters! Not only for you getting in and out safely, but helping your grandkids as well. There are just too many design problems to make it a recipe for disaster for anyone young and old. Thanks for sharing your experiences and I’m glad Grandma’s bubble tub is still doing the trick!

  6. Sarah Avatar

    Maybe they could create a tub with the ability to raise and lower a portion of the wall for people who still want deep baths and accessibility

  7. Lloyd Alter Avatar

    I just discovered this post; I am the author of the original 2020 story, and found the commentary really interesting. I just returned from this year’s interior design show, and I regret to say that in 4 years, they have apparently learned nothing.

    In the website box, I have put my 2023 version.

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