The Many Benefits of Barrier-Free Showers

Explore the nuances of and best practices for creating these trending shower spaces
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Sponsored by Infinity Drain
By Jeannette Fitzgerald

Designing a Barrier-Free Shower solution

Now that we know why barrier-free showers are exploding in popularity and the types of space where they are found, let us explore how the designs are developed.

One of the most critical objectives to achieve when creating a barrier-free bathroom that will perform as expected is to make sure that the floor heights between the shower (wet area), outside the shower (dry area), and the next room have smooth transitions. Of course, the way the area is waterproofed can pose a major challenge to achieving even floor transitions and a successful barrier-free design.

Step 1: Specify Where the Drain Will Be Placed

The location of the linear drain is another important decision to make when creating a barrier-free shower space. The most popular placement seen in linear-drain applications is to run the drain along the longest wall in the shower compartment, which is oftentimes the wall adjacent to the showerhead, but there are several other options that can be considered and a few common industry terms that will help an architect communicate where the drain should be placed.

Wall-to-Wall Installation

When talking about a linear drain installation, the phrase wall-to-wall indicates that the channel runs the total length from wall to wall, or the full length of the area. This type of installation is aesthetically pleasing as it creates a full and continuous run through an area. Functionally, a wall-to-wall installation prevents water from pooling in the corners of the shower and is an excellent drainage solution for a barrier-free shower when placed at the threshold of the shower.

Flush-to-Wall Installation

Another popular place to install a linear drain is flush against the shower wall. In this position, the drain is normally placed along the back wall of the shower enclosure or the sidewall where the shower head may be located, and water is directed away from the entrance/threshold. This approach removes the need for tiling between the drain and finished wall. It also provides a cleaner visual aesthetic, reducing the number of different layers present on the shower floor.

At the Shower Threshold

When the project calls for a barrier-free shower in a bathroom that wishes to maintain the traditional balance of dry and wet space, it is common to place the linear drain along the threshold of the shower to act as a floor drain for the entire bathroom area. In this scenario, a good wall-to-wall fit is critical so that water cannot flow around the drain and into the dry side. With this type of placement, it is recommended that the dry side of the bathroom be waterproofed and pitched slightly toward the drain.

When Renovating

When the barrier-free shower is being installed during a renovation, options for where the drain can be located may be restricted by certain site-specific conditions, such as the position of the existing waste line and floor-height limitations. For example, when removing a tub to create a large shower enclosure, the location of the tub drain may influence where the linear drain will be installed based on the existing waste line. Remember that, depending upon which way the floor joists are running, it may be possible to relocate the waste line closer to the finished wall.

In a wall-to-wall installation, the linear drain runs from wall to wall, the total length of the room.

Step 2: Determine the Appropriate Waterproofing Method

The second step in designing a barrier-free shower space is determining the method that will be used to waterproof the bathroom.

Traditional Waterproofing Methods

Traditional waterproofing methods rely on the application of several layers of various materials to create a watertight solution in a tiled shower. The waterproofing effort begins with the installation of a mortar bed that is sloped toward the weep holes in the clamping floor drain. A waterproofing membrane, often called a pan liner, is then placed over this mortar bed layer and clamped into the drain.

Pan liners can be fabricated from metals, such as lead or copper, or a thick and flexible membrane often made of vinyl or rubber. In some regions of the country, specifically in Southern California, installers will also hot mop the installation. During hot mopping, layers of asphalt and roofing felt are applied on top of the pan liner to create an impermeable layer. Pan liners are not designed to take the direct application of ceramic or stone tile, so a second mortar layer is laid on top of it, and then the tile can be installed.

Accommodating all the different layers included in a traditional waterproofing installation requires a significant buildup of the floor height in the waterproofed area. This makes it difficult to deliver a dry/wet room where the floor heights are equal between the dry and wet areas, which is what is needed to create a barrier-free shower area.

This floor height demanded by traditional waterproofing measures also makes it challenging to create dry/wet and wet areas during renovations because there can be limited floor height available.

Where traditional waterproofing methods rely on a significant buildup in the floor, more modern waterproofing methods employ a liquid or fabric membrane that saves floor height.

Modern Waterproofing Methods

As the demand for barrier-free showers grows, new waterproofing methods are emerging that make it easier to create a level dry/wet floor. These more modern waterproofing methodologies employ either a liquid membrane or a fabric membrane as the waterproofing barrier. The liquid membrane has a yogurt-like consistency and is painted onto the target surfaces. When it dries, it hardens into a rubberized layer. Liquid membrane can be painted onto benches, niches, and even the dry area of the bathroom to create a wet room. The fabric membrane is a nonwoven fleece fabric that is applied to the sloped mortar bed using thinset.

Both the liquid and fabric membranes can have tile directly applied to them instead of requiring the secondary mortar layer. The benefit of these new materials is that they save floor height in the waterproofed area and makes it easier to deliver dry and wet floors that are equal in height.

Another difference between traditional and modern waterproofing is the tradesperson responsible for the installation. While plumbers have installed traditional waterproofing systems, the modern solutions are being installed by tile setters.

Stainless-Steel Shower Bases

Another innovation making it easier to deliver beautiful barrier-free showers is a stainless-steel shower base. This one-piece stainless-steel solution arrives to the job site ready to install and features an integral drain, pre-sloped floor, and is coated with a surface primer so it is ready for tile installation.

This component dramatically reduces that amount of time required to install a new bathroom shower and reduces the need for coordination between the trades. Here is a quick step-by-step explanation of this streamlined installation process. Adhere the base to the subfloor, then level and attach it to the plumbing. Complete the framing around the shower base and secure it directly to the framing. Backerboard is then mounted to the framing and seated on the flange of the shower base. Liquid or fabric waterproofing is applied over the backerboard down to the shower base. Finally, natural stone, glass, porcelain, or ceramic tile is applied to the walls and shower base.

“Waterproofing methods continue to evolve from the traditional to more time-saving solutions that eliminate steps and opportunities for mistakes. Stainless-steel shower bases are the innovative next step in this evolution that makes the installation process easier and the end-result stunning,” explains Jonathan Brill, president of Infinity Drain.

A stainless-steel shower base is an innovative new waterproofing solution that saves time and makes barrier-free showers easier to install.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in May 2021