Raising the Bar

Mechanical-engineering students design a better bathroom fixture.

Interior decorators hate them. Architects want nothing to do with them. Engineers hardly know they exist. But grab bars—those drainpipelike fixtures slapped awkwardly onto public bathrooms everywhere—are essential to a growing coterie of elderly and disabled people for whom access to restaurants, hotels, and shops is otherwise dramatically limited. Good thing a group of students at the City College of New York is, ahem, flush with new design ideas.

Last fall, under the tutelage of Jack Abel, vice president of the Brooklyn-based bathroom-hardware company Watermark Designs, 18 mechanical-engineering majors turned their hand to revamping the grab bar. Their task was to create fixtures that not only met the code of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but also looked like something discerning architects might specify. Over a 14-week semester, students researched, designed, and tested a half-dozen models, most now on sale through Watermark, including one that’s under consideration for David Rockwell’s new Ritz-Carlton in Cairo.

The class was in many ways about basic problem-solving: producing objects that meet strict legal and technical constraints is a hallmark of any engineering job. It was also about soup-to-nuts product design. The bars couldn’t just be functional; they had to look fantastic too, a rare consideration for students used to slaving over HVAC systems. “Most of the design classes we take end with your design landing on your professor’s desk. No one else sees these things,” says Joanna Bonfiglio, a 28-year-old senior. “We walked into this class knowing that after 13 weeks, it had to be presentable to professionals who may or may not be sympathetic to students.” Even something as banal as a grab bar can be an exercise in good, solid design.

The course, Product Development and Marketing, grew out of Abel’s own professional experience at Watermark. Representatives of two major hoteliers approached him, as he tells it, requesting “a grab bar that does not look like a grab bar.” Abel quickly realized he had stumbled on a fertile design problem and thought, Why not make a class out of it? His students weren’t as enthusiastic. With career goals in forensic engineering and aeronautics, they by and large didn’t see toilet fixtures as a fast track to Lockheed Martin. “At first I, as well as others, were disappointed,” says Daniel Shaffren, a 23-year-old senior. “We were like, ‘Uh, well, it’s what you see in a public bathroom, and you hang onto it. It’s not that cool.’” But then, he says, things got interesting.

He and his classmates started the semester by visiting showrooms for a taste of what was out there. (Not much.) Then they delved into the ADA code itself, which, many were surprised to learn, isn’t as restrictive as the many uninspired designs would have you believe. Details like the bar’s circumference, diameter, and length matter more than shape and finish. Nothing says you can’t design a 24-karat-gold, diamond-studded baton that would have embarrassed even Liberace. Most important, the bar needs to be able to withstand a 250-pound load, about the size of an adult male black bear.

That left plenty of room to experiment. One student drew up an elegant oval bar that appeared rail thin from one angle and flattened from another. Another added a toilet-paper dispenser. A third—clearly optimistic about the digital savvy of grandmas everywhere—attached an iPod holder. Ultimately, Abel and the class selected five designs based on commercial and technical viability. (The iPod holder, alas, didn’t make the cut.) They ranged in styles from a traditional circular bar with decorative posts to a minimalist rectangular bar with hidden posts.

The class sent its engineering drawings to Watermark’s factory, where prototypes were subjected to rigorous load-bearing tests. Students predicted that the bars would be weakest where they screwed into the wall. They were right. Watermark’s engineers strengthened the fixtures with stainless-steel screws that punch into wood studs and carry nearly 200 pounds more weight than standard zinc-plated screws. Freshly reinforced, the bars can easily withstand the heft of a black bear—or two.

At the end of the course, students showed their work to David Lyon, director of showrooms at the New York plumbing-supply company Blackman, and Stanley Wong, associate partner at the architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle. Wong said he would consider the students’ grab bars for a hospitality project (if only there were work!). “I prefer more contemporary designs, and there was one that was an oval,” he says. “It was tilted away from you at an angle, so the eye saw a thinner profile; you didn’t even see the mounting bracket. That was my favorite.” Curiously, the oval is the only model that didn’t go into production. Abel couldn’t find a manufacturer to generate a hollow rod at a low cost, and a solid fixture would have been too heavy to mount.

It’s all part of learning to make a commode that truly accommodates. “You have to come up with a concept and a design that’s appealing to people and that you can actually manufacture,” Shaffren says. “It’s nice to design something on a computer, but you have to realize that there are a lot of limitations that go into it.”

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