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Bathroom remodel prepares couple for aging in place

Mary Shaw and Roy Weil of Pittsburgh converted their bathroom to a wet room.
Mary Shaw and Roy Weil of Pittsburgh converted their bathroom to a wet room.

Nearly 40 years ago, while staying at an old house in Sweden, Mary Shaw and Roy Weil got their first glimpse of what their new bathroom would be like.

“The whole room was waterproof,” Shaw said. “They provided a squeegee to clean up.”

What is unique about this Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh master bath is that the entire 10-by-8-foot space is a “wet room,” with a waterproof membrane in the floor and lower walls. That means no barriers, no shower curtains or sliding glass doors and no worries about wayward water.

To take a shower, you simply walk or roll a wheelchair up to the central wall unit that controls temperature, shower head, body sprays and a hand-held shower wand. A 5-foot turning diameter and flip-up teak seats mounted on the walls make for easy handicapped accessibility.

The slab-like sink and floating vanity are installed at heights to easily accommodate someone standing or sitting. Best of all, everything from the grab bars to the mirror are both ADA-compliant and beautifully midcentury modern, like the rest of the house.

“We wanted to make it accessible without even a hint of institutional,” Shaw said. “This is the house we will live in forever.”

The spouses, who are over 65, were named winners in the small residential category (under $50,000) of the 2013-14 Renovation Inspiration Contest, which is sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by staff members of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Design Center and Construction Junction.

Contractor Tony Tommarello and his son, Tyler, also renovated the couple’s kitchen and living room and installed a shaftless elevator and small therapy pool in an addition. But it was the master bathroom that was entered in the contest. Combining form and function, it also boasts LED lighting, a heated towel rack, nonslip porcelain tile “planks,” stylish trim that doubles as a grab bar and cool 1950s cup holders that disappear into the mirror.

Even the floating glass partition is unique; Shaw and Weil saw its decorative “shattered” edge in Emerald Art Glass’ showroom. Attaching it firmly to the wall so that water could easily flow beneath it was one of many challenges on the project, Tony Tommarello said.

“It was the uniqueness of it that was interesting,” he said. “We had never done a wet room before.”

But before the contractor could tackle such issues, he had to remove the period pink bathroom. He estimated he removed 3 tons of concrete, metal lath and fixtures that included a square bathtub set on the diagonal. Most of the pink porcelain went to Construction Junction, a nonprofit retailer of surplus and salvaged building materials. The only items saved from the 1955 bathroom were an awning window and the original Hall-Mack Concealed Lavatory rotating toothbrush/cup holders, which were installed in the new mirror.

One of the trickiest parts of the wet room was getting the slope of the radiant-heated floor right, Tommarello said. Too steep and it’s difficult for users to navigate; too shallow and water pools near the two trench drains under the shower control and vanity. The contractor is proud that the slope is barely noticeable. He and his son also widened the bathroom doorway to 35 inches and installed a sliding pocket door.

Shaw, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, pointed proudly to the sandstone sink and Vangura quartz counter top. She and her husband, a civil and software engineer for Michael Baker Corp., selected avocado for an accent wall “to pick up a greenish fleck in the vanity top,” she wrote in their contest entry.

They could not say exactly how long the bathroom took because it was part of a yearlong renovation that was mostly finished before they moved in. The couple were living “in a steep house on a steep street” in nearby Oakland when they found this two-bedroom, three-bath house. At 2,600 square feet, it was larger than their old house but much more adaptable to aging in place.

The most dramatic change was a shaftless elevator that runs from the basement to the main floor. When the unit is in the basement, the only sign of it on the main floor is the lifting column on the wall and a seam in the hallway floor.

The kitchen renovation is another example of subtle changes that make a big difference. The peninsula was extended by 1 foot and widened to accommodate three stools. Shaw and Weil are now planning changes to their house’s driveway, front lawn and exterior to make them as beautifully functional as the interior. That means the Tommarellos will be at it again. In their contest entry, the couple thanked their contractor for creating “the bathroom we have been dreaming about for nearly 40 years.”

They just might end up with a house that will serve them another 40.