Renovating a Bathroom
Ten Important Elements of a
A little planning along with a thoughtful
selection of fittings and fixtures can make a big difference
It's one of the first rooms we see in
the morning and one of the last rooms we see at night. It's
certainly among the most private rooms in the house, and the
finishes, fixtures and mechanical equipment required by even a
simple bathroom place it among the most expensive real estate in
the house. Given the intimate nature of bathrooms and the
frequency with which they are used, I think their design and
detailing should also impart a measure of emotional well-being
to their users. In this spirit, I offer ten suggestions for
making a good bathroom that can enhance some of your everyday
1. An entrance
Except for the so-called
master bath, most bathrooms serve several users and need to be
placed in a location central to these users, usually halfway
between the private parts of the house and the more public
parts. Don't have a bathroom with multiple-door access.
Instead, create an entrance with a space outside the door --
maybe an alcove off the hallway that gives some privacy from the
main rooms or circulation area and with a little room inside the
door before reaching the bathroom fixtures.
Too many bathrooms are
simply hallways with the fixtures lining one side of the hall.
It is hard to make a pleasant room of that shape. First, a good
room is roughly square or rectangular with length-to-width
proportions not exceeding 2:1. In almost every good room, there
is a clear central space, a center with smaller spaces like
alcoves around the edges. A bathroom can be designed using these
principles in miniature. There can easily be a central space
that contains the entry, with some elbow room for washing and
drying off and with alcoves around the edges for the toilet, the
shower or the tub.
3. A good
Natural light and a view
to the outside are important in the bathroom. Our first
understanding of the weather and the general look of the day
comes in the window. Ideally, windows are on at least two sides
of the room to provide even daylighting. If privacy is an issue,
make multiple windows face a courtyard garden, perhaps with an
outdoor shower. If you have room for only one window, place it
where it illuminates the portion of the room that you see when
4. From the
least intimate places to the most intimate places
Another principle that
applies to residential design in general and to the bathroom in
miniature is "the intimacy gradient." Just as you locate the
bedrooms the farthest from the front door, you should locate the
most private part of the bathroom the greatest distance from the
entry to the room. The most private part varies from family to
family, with the toilet being the most private for some and the
bath for others.
In a small space such as a
bathroom, it is difficult to get a direct view to the outside
from each space. But it is possible to borrow the view across
another space or another fixture. A shower is a good example. It
needs to be enclosed with water-resistant materials. So a window
in a shower with an exterior wall, particularly a beautiful wood
window, is not an ideal candidate for part of a shower
enclosure. There are a number of positions that the shower can
take in the bathroom that will allow for a good view through a
clear-glass shower door.
attention to vertical and horizontal dimensions
Certain minimum clearances
around bathroom fixtures are required by every building code. My
own experience is that you need about 36 in. of elbow room at
the lavatory to use it comfortably. Its counter is typically
between 31 in. and 34 in. high. The rule: You want the water to
run off your wrists, not your elbows. A double-lavatory
arrangement is mostly ornamental unless it has 6 ft. of counter
Common heights of bathroom
fixtures and fittings above the floor
|6 ft. 7 in.
6 ft. 6 in.
A toilet compartment is tight at the
code minimum of 30 in., about right at 36 in. and a waste of
space after that. In fact, after 40 in., you lose touch with the
walls on each side and the sense of enclosure they provide.
Although the minimum dimension for a shower stall is 30 in., it
must also have no less than 1,024 sq. in. of finished interior
area. This amount is really minimal, and I wouldn't recommend
less than 36 in. square, or a 30-in. by 48-in. rectangular
shower if you can find the room.
The standard length for a tub is 60 in., and many are 66 in. and
72 in. long. If you get a deep, rounded-back claw-foot type, you
can easily be comfortable with a 54-in. or a 56-in. long tub
unless you're taller than 6 ft. I recommend, however, that you
make an honest evaluation of whether you really ever use a tub
and consider instead putting money into a nice shower.
Just as any good room benefits from a
variety of ceiling heights, so does a good bathroom. Make the
ceiling highest in the center, and lower it around tubs,
showers, toilet alcoves and window seats.
Any small room like a bathroom can
benefit from the visually expansive effects of horizontal lines.
This is often seen in traditional bathrooms as a strong cap on
top of wainscoting. The lower part of the wall is done in a
water-resistant finish such as tile or enamel paint and is
capped by a strong horizontal band with plaster or wallpaper
above. This horizontal band combined with a baseboard and
sometimes a crown molding at the ceiling adds horizontal lines
that visually enlarge the perimeter of the room.
Two vertical dimensions are often the
subject of discussion and sometimes construction changes. The
first is the height of sconces. I prefer a framed mirror above a
lavatory with sconces on the side because they give the best
light to the sides of the face and fewer shadows in the facial
recesses than light from above the face. The height I use for
sconces is the height of my client.
The last vertical dimension is one of
those little details that gives me problems near the end of a
project: the water supply to the toilet. Place it high enough,
including the escutcheon, to be out of the baseboard. I've found
that 10-1/2 in. is enough to clear all but the tallest
baseboards and still leaves room for a flexible connection to
the toilet tank.
There is probably nothing
nicer than ceramic tile in a bathroom. Properly installed, it is
a cleanable, water-resistant surface for floors, walls and
shower enclosures. If a whole wall need not be water resistant,
ceramic tile can also make a beautiful wainscot. On floors, it
can be colder on the feet than other materials, such as wood,
but a simple area rug or a more expensive heat pad under the
tile can easily solve this objection. Too much tile can change
the acoustics of a room, and you should keep to softer materials
on the ceiling and a portion of the walls (or have lots of bars
for big fluffy towels).
I have used wood floors in many
bathrooms, and with today's tough floor varnishes, they can hold
up well to a modest amount of water as long as it is not allowed
to sit on the floor for a long period of time. It seems a little
uncomfortable putting a toilet directly on a wood floor, so I
use a transition pad made of a scrap of granite or marble for
toilets on wood floors.
Another attractive, traditional bathroom-floor material is
linoleum. It is nothing like today's vinyl plastics. Again,
proper installation is important for resistance to water.
The only wall surfaces that truly need to be water resistant are
the shower walls. There are a variety of useful materials
ranging from one-piece molded enclosures to wall-size sheets of
materials to individual pieces such as tile. In every instance,
installation is critical, particularly at joints, to the
ultimate success of the material.
It is helpful to have an easily cleanable surface around the
lavatory on the countertop and on the walls immediately around
the sink. Ceramic tile is a good choice. Natural stone, polished
and sealed concrete, and other nonabsorbent materials work well
on both surfaces. On walls, a good-quality enamel paint on
smooth plaster makes a cleanable, water-resistant finish.
8. Fixtures that
To me, good-quality bathroom fixtures mean
enameled cast iron for tubs and china for lavatories. I recently
remodeled the two bathrooms in my 1929 cottage. After 70 years,
it was finally time to replace the original enameled cast-iron
tubs. Cast iron and china are still so commonly used that the
price difference between these quality fixtures and bargain
fixtures is modest.
Good fittings such as faucets and tub/ shower valves, however,
are noticeably more expensive than run-of-the-mill fittings,
sometimes as much as triple the cost. I use them, however,
whenever I can afford to put them in the budget because over
their life, they are still a bargain when compared with average
fittings that last a far shorter period of time. I also have to
admit that there is no other faucet that gives me the pleasure
of use as a classic Chicago (847-803-5000;
www.chicagofaucets.com) or Rudge (Waterworks; 800-927-2120;
www.waterworks.com) faucet. For finishes, stay with
tried-and-true nickel or chrome without the plastic coatings.
Someone's going to have these faucets in 50 years if you make
the correct choice.
One piece of equipment that has improved during the past few
years is the exhaust fan. They are clearly quieter than five
years ago. Companies such as Broan and NuTone (800-548-0790;
have ceiling-mounted, barely audible exhaust fans. Speaking of
noise reduction, the newer "coexcel" ABS plastic drain pipe
seems to be quieter than the older ABS. But nothing can replace
cast iron for quietness in a drain pipe that comes down the wall
of a first-floor living space. The slight increase in material
cost is more than offset in the long run of the life of the
Light fixtures, towel bars, medicine cabinets, furniture,
switch-plate covers, shower doors -- there are hundreds of
opportunities to make decisions about these kinds of details in
a bathroom. My advice: Keep them simple and straightforward. Buy
good quality that will last a long time. Keep them related to
each other in design and materials, except for the occasional
humorous surprise. Look for timeless qualities. Choose things
that you want to live with. There is no reason you can't enjoy
even the most mundane item in your bathroom.
10. The lost art of
The previous suggestions will help you to make the
ordinary bathroom that you use several times each day a
pleasant, enjoyable place. Sometimes, though, you want to go
beyond that and experience the real pleasure of bathing. The
deep relaxation of hot water, the peaceful pleasure of bathing
with family or friends, and the therapy of quiet immersion in
water are all aspects of the art of bathing. The oversize master
bathrooms in the pseudomansions of the late 20th century only
hint at this fundamental human need. The essence has been lost
in the cheap materials typically used to build them.
To re-create this experience requires a deep, profound
examination of the history and tradition of bathing and the
environment needed to support it fully. My sense is that the
quality of the room as a space--with places to sit around the
perimeter, with good natural light and with good connections to
a private outdoor space -- are paramount to creating this