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So What's the Plan?
Designing and renovating a bathroom requires a grand strategy; here's how to devise it.
Let me tell you about the last bathroom I ever remodeled in which I quoted a fixed price up front.
The project involved a beautiful stucco house with a red-tiled roof, owned by a colleague of my wife. My partner Mike, and I had built a screened-in porch for her the year before, and the homeowner was so pleased with our work, she called us back to redo her bathroom. No problem for us; after all, we like to think of ourselves as full-service renovators. As with all bathrooms we had worked on, we knew this one would involve quite a number of contractors from various trades, from plumbers to electricians, so we diligently figured this in to our contract price of $18,500. Although there was nothing particularly fancy about this project, it did involve stripping the old bathroom down to the studs and starting over, including new fixtures, new tile floors and wainscoting, and even a new window.
I had to admit, the bathroom came out like a dream. We even tended to the small details, such as pulling out the large cast-iron radiator that was taking up space and replacing it with cast-iron baseboard heat, which made the room appear bigger. The homeowner was thrilled, so Mike and I packed up our tools and headed home. It wasn't until we started writing checks to pay all those various contractors that we realized we had a problem. We paid the electrician, the plumber, and the tile setter, a nice guy named Phil who did terrific work. Then we discovered that the $18,500 bathroom we had just installed had actually cost $26,300--and that Mike and I would bepaying the difference. It was then that I formulated my cardinal rule, which holds true to this day: You will exceed your budget on a bathroom renovation, no matter what.
Bathroom design is one of the trickiest of all, and not just because the budget is so hard to control. Nowhere else in the house is so much going on in so little square footage--from sinks and toilets to tubs and showers, and places to store and dry towels and clothes. Even the dirty laundry heaps up in here. Think for a moment of what else the bathroom holds: magazines and books to peruse, in what has become the twenty-first-century "library"; cosmetics and colognes; mirrors, medicine cabinets, wastepaper baskets; spare linens and towels. This room is part attic, part utility room, and all under intensive use. In addition, homeowners now look to the bathroom in the master suite as a place to unwind from the stresses of the day, as if the deteriorated conditions found in the average bathroom wouldn't compound the stresses of the day. On top of it, this is the harshest environment outside the Amazon jungle: It's subjected to daily dousings from steamy water, which makes the entire room humid and damp. Yet we all want everything to feel fresh and look pristine.
How do you get that? By going beyond the basics of decorating to focus on the underlying systems and structure that make a bathroom durable. To create a bathroom that feels fresh, that soothes the senses, and that maintains household harmony by providing a place that family members can use efficiently and in close proximity, you have to think about it from top to bottom and then again from bottom to top. This doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune for a full renovation to improve conditions, but you do have to think beyond decor to get to the vital organs of this most vexing of rooms.
Let's begin our tour of bathroom renovation by focusing on design basics before we work through the major aspects of renovation in the chapters that follow.
Designed to Please
Bathing has a long and rather weird history. Back in the days of the ancient Greeks, in the city of Sparta, the idea for a bath was decidedly, well, Spartan. A warrior would stand in a small basin and have his slave douse him with cold water (think Kirk Douglas). We've evolved from that, fortunately--beginning with the wise decision to bring the bathing ritual indoors and add hot water to it. The first bathrooms became popular in the mid-1800s, and helped give Millard Fillmore a claim to fame. His accomplishments as president may be forgettable, but he deserves special credit as the first one to have a bathtub in the White House. Everyone else slowly followed into the twentieth century, but it wasn't until the post-World War II building craze that bathrooms as we know them--plentiful, uniform, and convenient--began to appear in houses.
If there's any part of a home that's completely personal and a perfect canvas for a homeowner to express his or her individuality, it's the bathroom. For some, it's simply a basic necessity, not a luxury. I constantly hear people asking questions such as, "I'm tired of cleaning the old grout, what can I do to fix it?" These are people who do not want to hear about what shade of marble was recently discovered in a mine in Brazil this year that would be perfect in a lavish master bathroom suite. Instead, they want to know the basics about making a small room look and work better. Regardless of the goal, however, the essential rules of bathroom design are the same, whether it's a small room that needs updating, or a large one that involves a major renovation. Understanding what goes on in this room will help you make efficient use of your dollars, whether you have $1,000 or $100,000 to spend.
Per square foot, a bathroom has more equipment than any other room in the house. It is pricey acreage, and every inch counts. At the same time, bathrooms today are being asked to do more: accommodate more people, give them more privacy, provide generous storage, and include luxury amenities such as steam showers and whirlpools. Squeezing it all in is no easy task: It's like piecing together a puzzle, and sometimes you have to draw it a hundred times to get everything to fit. But whether the puzzle is a compact powder room, a kid-friendly family bath, or a spa-style master retreat, the approach to solving it always starts the same way. First, consider who will be using the space. Next, think about the number and style of fixtures you would like to incorporate in the plan. And finally, work out where those fixtures can be placed.
Let's walk through the major types of bathrooms to find the plan that suits you best.
The Half Bath
My friends Mike and Judy just remodeled their kitchen, and the result is beautiful. But what catches everyone's attention is the new powder room. True, it's as tiny as anything could be, but instead of an ordinary sink, they have a ceramic bowl custom-made by an artisan. The water spills out into a bowl that is blue, with silver flecks, and the effect is mesmerizing. Whenever we visit them, my four-year-old daughter inevitably disappears. I know right where to find her, however. She'll be standing in the powder room, watching the water splash into the bowl she loves.
Most people try to spruce up their powder room by adding tiny little hand towels and oddly shaped balls of soap to show off to their guests. A better approach, I think, is to use the room as a showcase for some clever piece of design--such as my friends' sink, or some other architectural detail. Small and intimate, this is a room that can have enormous appeal. Yet with only two fixtures--the sink and the toilet--it is a room that practically designs itself. Minimum dimensions are amazingly compact: You can fit a sink and a toilet into less than 20 square feet and still satisfy the prying eyes of the local building inspector. If space is tight, you can have a small sink attached directly to the wall, rather than a larger pedestal sink. You can also save space by using a round, rather than elongated, toilet.
A half bath doesn't need much in the way of storage or counter-tops, since no one is likely to set up camp there for long. There are some practical considerations, however, starting with the entrance. If possible, the door should swing into the room rather than out, even though that will eat up floor space. A door requires at least its own width in cleared floor space in order for it to swing open, and additional room to maneuver it so that someone inside the bathroom can shut the door without having to stand on the toilet to clear some space. Don't laugh; I have seen situations where this is the case. An in-swinging door also avoids the problem of where to "store" the open door, rather than having it dangle open and take up space in another room or hallway. If the space is too small for an in-swinging door, add a sliding-pocket door instead, which allows you to keep the door open without blocking the hallway.
The Family Bath
The family bath is a serious workspace. It's got at least three fixtures, including the toilet, sink, and combination bathtub/shower, and is also the central depository for toothbrushes, towels, medicine, and all kinds of grooming gear. Whereas no homeowner wants to share the master bathroom with the rest of the household, the opposite is true for other bathrooms--particularly those for children. Since bathrooms rank as expensive renovations, creating one to serve two or more family members can offer significant savings. The key to making a shared bathroom work lies in what architects call compartmentalization. Rather than having a single room filled with a tub, sink, and toilet, the fixtures in a shared bathroom should be in separate places to make it possible for someone to use the sink while someone else is using the toilet. While you're at it, adding two sinks and two areas for brushing teeth and grooming will make the mornings move along much more quickly when children are involved.
At the same time, a separate toilet stall (often called a water closet, or a WC) can open up a room to more than one user at a time without sacrificing privacy. Such a space should be at least 36 inches wide and 66 inches deep for maximum comfort. Another option is a stall with half-height walls, which feels less cramped, lets in more light, and eliminates door-swing issues. Bathing is the last piece of the puzzle. Remember that regardless of size, a bathtub needs at least a 12-inch clearance from any adjacent fixture and 36 inches of cleared floor space for someone to get in and out easily. If you're looking to conserve floor space, a shower stall takes up about half the area of a tub, although you'll have to account for door swing if you're not satisfied with a shower curtain. If you opt for a shower, choose a stall that is at least 36 inches square; anything smaller will feel claustrophobic.
One of the things you need to do in a family-friendly bath is make sure your children can actually reach the sink. In general, I'm a big fan of vanity sinks that are installed at regular kitchen countertop height, of about 32 inches, but that's because I'm 6 foot 3 and my wife, Mary Beth, is over 5 foot 10. Our kids are not that tall, but someday they will be. Rather than add lower sinks and counters for them, I've solved the problem a different way. For my youngest daughter, Mallory, I built a solid bench that sits firmly on the floor without wiggling. When she wants to brush her teeth, she slides it out from beneath the sink and stands on it. This way, everyone else in the family can use the sink, too, without feeling like they are living in Munchkinland.
One other factor to consider with a family bath is noise. Put a bathroom between two bedrooms and someone will always be waking up someone else when they use it. A solution to this is to use clothes closets as sound barriers to separate the bedroom from the bathroom. This should help muffle the din and allow everyone a peaceful night.
The Master Bath
One place homeowners tend to be willing to spend more renovation dollars than anywhere else in the house is a master bathroom. This is the main domain, after all, the place where the masters of the house start each morning and end each evening.
A half century ago, the average household would have been well served by a single, 5-by-7-foot bathroom. Functional? Surely it is, but it's not in keeping with today's families. No longer are bathrooms basic, functional rooms--especially those in the master suite. Now they include chairs or chaises for lounging and reading, dressing areas adjacent to walk-in closets, and, in some cases, a TV and a stereo system. We're seeing things added to bathrooms that Mom and Dad in the '50s and '60s never dreamed of: dressing rooms, walk-in closets, steam showers, soaking tubs, even refrigerators. This is no longer a room where you take a bath or a shower and run. It's a room in which to relax, where all kinds of activities can take place, from reading books to making phone calls.
A family bathroom focuses on utility, but a master bathroom is about comfort and relaxation. A master bath is no longer a compartment. It's really more like another room in your house. And, like a room, it requires space: at least 80 square feet for a toilet, sink, shower, and an extravagance such as a spa and/or whirlpool. Even in a large space, the layout is very important. A separate shower is essential for quick washups on busy mornings; a tub becomes a beautiful focal point for the room; and two sinks are a must, and should be separated by at least 3 feet so that you don't bump elbows with your mate. Also, the mirror behind the sink should be somewhat larger than life--the bigger the better, particularly if two people are going to be jockeying to use it. The most critical placement of all, however, is the toilet's. To be honest, it's not at all pleasant to sit on one that faces the center of an enormous space; you feel too exposed. It's better to create privacy by tucking the toilet into an alcove--or, better still, in a small room with a door. Storage becomes crucial as well, to help organize linens and towels, as well as dirty laundry.