Curbless Showers: Safe and Stylish

By: Sandy John

If you watch home renovation shows (don’t we all?), you’ve seen some stunning open bathrooms featuring huge curbless showers. While they are on trend, curbless showers are also an excellent choice for older people who have mobility issues, such as trouble stepping over the edge of the tub or shower.

If you’re helping your parents update their home so they can comfortably age in place or renovating your home to accommodate aging family members, consider adding a curbless shower. Read on to find out the benefits of this style of shower as well as the things you need to keep in mind while planning a zero-threshold shower.

Interior bathroom for people with disabilities

What’s a curbless shower?

A curbless shower is exactly what the name implies. It’s a shower where there is no curb to step over or trip on as you enter the shower. The floor of the shower is at the same level as the rest of the bathroom floor, at least at the shower entry. The floor should slope ever so gently toward the drain, so the water doesn’t flow out of the shower enclosure.

Curbless showers go by a variety of names. These include:

  • Zero-threshold shower
  • One-level shower
  • Floor level shower
  • Barrier-free shower
  • Wet room

You may also hear the phrase roll-in shower referring to a curbless shower, but they aren’t quite the same thing. A roll-in shower is a curbless shower, but it’s also large enough for someone in a wheelchair to roll into and turn around in. Not every curbless shower is that large.

Benefits of curbless showers

Curbless showers are becoming increasingly popular because the design provides many benefits to people of all ages. Benefits of curbless showers include:

  • Safety. Slips and falls are a leading cause of injuries among older Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but anyone can slip and fall in the bathroom. Eliminating the shower curb makes it easier for people with mobility problems, including achy joints and arthritis, to enter the shower by themselves.
  • Privacy. When they can step into the shower themselves, more seniors can take care of their personal hygiene needs in private. However, if someone needs assistance, curbless showers are easier for a bathing helper to enter.
  • Ease of cleaning. You don’t have to lean over a bathtub and stretch to reach all the surfaces. Instead, you can stand in the shower and use a long-handled scrubber to clean all the surfaces.
  • Space. A curbless shower allows you to maximize the floor space in a small bathroom.

In addition to their practical benefits, many homeowners like curbless showers because they give a bathroom a clean, modern look and are highly customizable through your choice of tile and fixtures.

Zero-threshold showers do have a few negative aspects, although you can take steps to prevent most of these problems:

  • They cost more to install than a regular shower or shower/tub combo.
  • Proper installation is crucial to insure the shower pan drains correctly and the room is adequately waterproofed.
  • More moisture and steam may enter the bathroom, depending on how large the opening to the shower is.
Curbless shower from NKBA Bathroom designed by Janik Lemery, BID; Photography by JVL Photo.
Curbless luxury shower from NKBA Bathroom designed by Shea Pumarejo

How to choose a curbless shower

If you’re thinking about remodeling a bathroom to accommodate the needs of older people, it is possible to take the space currently occupied by a bathtub or tub/shower combo and turn it into a curbless shower. These are some of the decisions you’ll have to make about the curbless shower details.

  • Size. Local codes may vary, but in most places the minimum size for a curbless shower is 30 inches by 60 inches, which is the size of a standard bathtub. However, the College of Design at North Carolina State University suggests that if you can find even another 6 inches to add to the depth, it will be easier to slope the floor gradually to contain water. If you want a true roll-in shower to accommodate a wheelchair, the shower should be 5 feet by 5 feet.
  • Showerhead. The placement and style of showerhead must be selected with an eye toward keeping the water spray inside the shower area.
  • Doors or walls. Building the shower with walls helps to contain the amount of water that escapes but detracts from the open look many people like, unless you choose to use glass instead of a wall. Elle H-Millard, a spokeswoman for the National Kitchen and Bath Association and a Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP), told House Method that in many cases a glass wall half the length of the shower is long enough to help contain the water while leaving a large opening to enter the shower. Some people prefer shower doors to help keep the heat and moisture in the shower and out of the rest of the bathroom.
  • Tile and grout. Curbless showers can be a real design showcase for tile or stone. H-Millard recommends using smaller tiles on the floor of the shower than on the walls. That’s because smaller tiles result in more grout lines, which can make the floor less slippery. Additionally, she recommends upgrading from sanded grout to epoxy grout, which is waterproof.

Meet the Expert

Elle H-Millard is a Certified Kitchen Designer through the National Kitchen and Bath Association. She is also a Certified Living In Place Professional (CLIPP).

Curbless shower installation

There was a time when installing a curbless shower required the contractor to lower the floor under the shower to accommodate the slope for the drain. To do this, the contractor had to re-engineer the framing under the floor, lowering the subfloor and adding framing or support joists to hold the weight of the shower. On a concrete slab floor, the slab had to be re-poured to accommodate the necessary slope, which is a quarter inch per foot sloping toward the drain.

Now, a range of specialized products are available, including recessed shower floor systems that don’t require the contractor to cut into floor joists and premade shower pans designed for curbless installation. These pans are designed to provide the right slope for drainage and waterproofing.

Waterproofing the bathroom is essential in a wet room design. Because the splash zone on a curbless shower is bigger than in a conventional shower, contractors suggest that waterproofing should extend at least one foot beyond the edge of the shower on both the floor and walls. Of course, the entire shower area must also be waterproofed.

In a very small bathroom where the shower is totally open, the entire floor may need to slope slightly toward the drain.

A barrier-free shower often uses a linear drain, or shower trench drain, in place of the familiar center drain. A linear drain is a long rectangular drain covered with a grate that sits flush with the floor. Using the long grate allows the contractor to simplify the slopes needed in the shower to direct the water to the drain. Some designs add a second trench drain at the shower threshold to capture splashes.

Walk In Tile Shower

Hiring a professional

If you’re considering a bathroom remodeling that involves installing a curbless shower retrofit, H-Millard of the NKBA recommends working with a licensed contractor who has experience installing one-level showers.

A bathroom designer may also be able to help you make the best use of space in the bathroom. For instance, she said, if you use a glass barrier, you can put the vanity right up against the shower space. “There are endless opportunities for customization,” she noted, including benches, steam showers, heated floors, and customized finishes.

Before hiring a contractor to install a curbless shower:

  • Check reviews to see if previous customers have been satisfied.
  • Ask the contractor about previous projects that are similar to what you have in mind.
  • Make sure the contractor can provide proof of liability insurance.

Cost of a curbless shower

Because they tend to be a custom project, it’s hard to get a good estimate for just installing a curbless shower. One estimate for replacing a bathtub with a curbless shower stall is about $6,000.

Factors that can affect the cost of the project include:

  • How much tearout and prep work has to be done
  • Whether the contractor has to make any repairs to the shower framing
  • Whether you select a slab surround or tile
  • The size, style, and layout design of the tile you choose
  • How many drains need to be installed and what style drains they are
  • How many shower heads and fixtures need to be installed
  • What other features you want in the shower, such as a bench, heated floors, or a steam unit
  • What other changes are being made during the bathroom remodel
  • Cost of living in your area

FAQ about curbless showers

What is the minimum slope for a curbless shower?

The slope must be at least a quarter inch per foot toward the drain. This slope is recommended when the shower will be used by someone with limited mobility.

What is a zero-threshold shower?

A zero-threshold shower is another term for a curbless shower. It is a shower where there is no curb or barrier at the entrance to step over. The entry to the shower is at the same level as the rest of the bathroom floor. Zero-threshold showers allow someone who has mobility issues to enter the shower without encountering any trip hazards.

Why is waterproofing so important for a curbless shower?

With no curb to help hold the water in the shower area, a curbless shower depends on proper floor slope to direct the water to the drain. For additional protection of walls and flooring outside the shower area, the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation recommends that the entire bathroom floor be waterproofed and that contractors waterproof the bathroom walls at least 3 inches high. If there’s ever a leak, such waterproofing can prevent damage from spreading to adjacent rooms or through the floor to the room below.

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