Design Your Bathroom Using a Six Step Process

Step 1 – The Study of Space:

Space – How much can I have? The next step is to find out more about the space that is available for this new bathroom. Is it restricted to the existing bathroom footprint? Can you remove the linen closet and use that space in a different way? Do you really use the whirlpool tub? Can you use an adjacent closet, a coat closet or part of the adjacent bedroom? Empty nesters may be very willing to give up a bedroom to make a new master bath. Master baths with all the amenities can take up a lot of space in a hurry. Look at all the options. Be creative and think outside the „box“.

Now look at the room(s) available. Are there windows that will dictate the design? Is there a finished or unfinished basement below? Is there a crawl space below? How much access is there to the plumbing and electricity and HVAC? What is above? An attic, or a finished room? In a two story home, it is likely that the baths are stacked. Note this and start to think about the waste lines and supply lines (waste lines are by far more important and more difficult to re-configure). What walls do you think the waste lines are coming down? Are the walls thicker than the normal walls in the house?

Other questions to ask yourself are whether the existing configuration is a good one. Does it fit your new needs? Is it safe, efficient, attractive, comfortable, inviting? How much natural light is there?

[Tip: An easy way to get light into a bath with little or no natural light is by using a light tunnel. Velux Sun Tunnel skylight and SolaTube make easy ones to install and they work fantastically. Of course you’ll need attic space above the room in question.]

If you are going to use an adjacent room, then you need to look at what is bearing on the wall(s) to be removed. If they are bearing, then you will have to put in a beam to support the load. Most of my clients would rather see no evidence that a wall has been removed. In other words, they want a flush ceiling, which means you have to cut the joists apart and install an in-ceiling beam. It’s not that hard, but there is a definite technique to doing this. I suggest you use a qualified remodeler to do this.

In summary, you are looking at how much space is available, the existing configuration, the design restriction that openings or other physical objects place on your design, how the existing mechanical parts are run and your access to them, and the bearing points that may come into play with your design.

Step 2 – Function:

Ask yourself, „How do I want to use this space?“ What do you need in this space? How would you like the room to function? How will the bathroom be used? Who will use this bathroom? How many at one time? Who wakes up first? Is there a need for privacy? Does one partner get up earlier and let the other sleep? Does the room require better than normal soundproofing? Do the water closets (toilets) need to be separated? Is there a need for door(s) on the water closet(s)?

Are the kids going to use this room? How old are they? Are they neat or a bit scattered? Is a tub a necessity in this room? Will a person need to dress in this room? Should a walk-in closet be attached to this room? If so, who will use the WIC the most? Is accessibility a primary concern? Are there any special needs that should be addressed?

As you write down the answers to some of these questions, you are beginning the design. As many designs as I have done, my clients have always been very involved; usually to the point that they are designing the bathroom themselves. Use these design tips as your guide. Gather all the pieces of the puzzle. Place everything in the best position. Create the look and feel you want. When you are all done, contact a trustworthy contractor to make sure that the design is feasible, within your budget, functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Step 3 – Budget:

Why do you need to have a budget? It costs what it costs, right? Nope. Part of your research has to include what you may possibly spend for this project and what is included. This will require some conferencing with a potential contractor. Don’t think you can figure this out by yourself, because you’ll be off by a wide margin. I’ve met lots of people who have tallied up all the materials, thrown in a few dollars for labor and think that is all there is to it. The contractor knows all sorts of things that have to be done that you couldn’t guess. That’s why they are contractors. Don’t forget that they do this for a living, so they have to be paid for their work.

Bathrooms are expensive. The second most expensive room after kitchens. Your potential contractor (PC) can at least give you a range that he or she can pull from their past jobs. Do this early in your planning. It would be a huge waste of time to do all the planning and design, only to find out that this project, as designed, is way out of your budget.

After your PC, who has listened to what you expect from your bath, has given you some examples and ranges of price, you have to decide whether to move ahead or not. In reality, the job as you want it, will cost a finite amount, and there is no escaping it. There has to be some degree of trust as you discover these realities. It’s kind of a give and take. Neither you nor the PC will want to show all your cards. The PC can’t possibly know what the final cost will be, and doesn’t want to make a false guess, and you won’t want to tell him how much money you have. When the contract is signed, that will be the moment of truth.

Remember that the design and your material choices will be a major factor in the cost. The finishing touches can be a large part of the cost of the project.

Phil Rhea, a noted remodeler and speaker for the industry told a story of a visit with a potential client. When asked what an addition costs he said, „I can build you an addition for $1,500 or I can build you one for $250,000. I can build your job for whatever you want to pay, but you’ll only get what you pay for.“ In other words, he was telling them that he can build a dog house or a really good addition, but he needed to know what they were willing to invest in the project.

And your remodeling costs are investments that will give you years of pleasure as well as a return on your investment. A well designed project will give you a better return on your investment. Unlike cars, or boats or RV’s, which depreciate rapidly, investing in your home will give you a positive return on your investment. So spend your time doing the research. Remember how much time you spend when you are planning to buy a car or a product. Those are small investments compared to what you may spend on your home.

Let’s summarize what you have done so far. You have earmarked the available space and how it will be used. You have come up with a budget range for the project. You have started to „paint a picture“ of the new bathroom and it is getting exciting. Now onto Step 4.

Step 4 – The Layout:

Configuring the bath – So far you have thought about the available space. You also know who is going to use the room and how it will be used. And you have come up with an approximate budget. Now its time to think about the layout of the bathroom, or the configuration of everything that you plan to put in your bathroom. In this fourth, and very essential step you will list all of the items you want in the bathroom, and roughly where you would like them. Items such as the soaker tub, the toilet, the walk-in shower, the sauna, the sink(s) and other fixtures such as lighting and faucets.

The layout consists of these five parts:

1. General Rules of Thumb

2. Accessibility

3. Configuration

4. Accessories

5. Lighting.

(1) General Rules of Thumb – First you need to put the toilet in the most inconspicuous location. When you walk in the bath, (or someone else does), the first thing you see should not be the toilet. This is especially true in powder rooms, where those not familiar with the home will be entering. Put the toilet behind a door or a knee-wall about 48″ high. Allow at least 36″ – 42″ width for the toilet area. An absolute minimum should be 32″ wide. If you are limited by space in front of the toilet, consider a round bowl; otherwise use an elongated bowl. Kohler sells a wonderfully efficient unit that is a Class 6 and uses only 1.28 gallons of water per flush.If you have a large room, you may want to build a separate room for the toilet. Some master suites even have two separate water closets. Use windows or sun tunnels to bring in daylight at a minimum cost. For your shower, allow as big a space as you can. There are hundreds of ways to configure showers. Even so, pay close to attention to water usage and other expenses such as tile quantity and those fancy valves and diverters. Let me give you a water usage example: If you use 4 body sprays at 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm), one overhead shower head at 2.5 gpm, and if two people take a 15 minute shower each, you will use 375 gallons each day. That will give you pause won’t it? If you go this route, enlarge your supply lines to at least 3/4″ pipe and buy a bigger water heater. The smallest shower I would recommend is 3′ x 3′. 3′ x 3′ Neo Angle showers are sold as a unit, and are handy in small baths or bathrooms that are rarely used. A good starting point is a 4′ x 3′ shower. A 4′ x 3-6″ shower would be even better. You could also install a tub shower, where the tub doubles as the base of the shower. It is a good idea to have at least one tub in a house for a variety of reasons. I like larger tubs for this purpose such as the Kohler Bellwether K-876. They are a little bit wider and have higher sides. Adding a curved shower rod even gives you more room. Moen has an easy-to-install model. When placing the shower valve(s), see if you can put it on an interior wall rather than an exterior wall. Less chance of freezing. If you can access the valve from the other side of the wall (such as in an adjacent closet) it is even better. It is cheaper and easier to repair sheet rock rather than tile when a repair is needed. Also consider putting the shower valve near the entrance to the shower so you don’t have to enter the shower and get wet when you turn the water on. The valve doesn’t have to be right under the shower head. Make sure that light is plentiful. Keep the floor space as open as possible so the bathroom is easy to navigate. Use tall cabinetry instead of framed linen closets because they take up far less space. The tiles on the floors should have a minimum coefficient of friction of 0.5. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, recommends 0.6. Use a tile baseboard rather than wood baseboard. Much easier to maintain. When painting the walls, use a high quality paint. The walls get a lot of moisture, usually daily. I like to use semi-gloss on the bathroom walls because it holds up well. Be aware that a semi-gloss has quite a bit of sheen, so it won’t suit everyone.

(2) Accessibility – Whatever your age, make the bathroom and its fixtures easily accessible. Make your doors 32″ wide or more, and keep the floor plan open. Making your shower curbless costs a little more (custom showers), but they are a joy to use. And if you ever need a wheelchair, no further modifications are needed. Eliminating the door will make the shower much more accessible and saves money on a major item. Do some research on Universal Design, which promotes accessible design for everyone, regardless of age. Use grab bars in all your showers and tubs. Grab bars make a lot of sense. If you are retrofitting grab bars and can’t put the wood blocking in the wall, which you need to fasten the grab bar, Moen has a really clever grab bar you can install right in the tile. It uses a fastener called SecureMount. They also have some of the best looking bars in the industry with matching finishes and styles.

(3) Configuration – Configuration is dictated mostly by what space you have and the locations of doors and windows. Leave at least 18″ from the center of the toilet to the nearest bathroom fixture or wall. Code requires a minimum of 15″ from the centerline of the toilet to an obstacle, a bath fixture or a wall. If you have an older home you may have a window above the tub. You can replace the window with a good quality vinyl window that can withstand the moisture. Tile around the window. Or cover the window with a piece of tempered glass, either frosted or clear. If you have room, install a linen closet or tall cabinet. If you don’t have enough room, use nooks, hooks and shelves for towels and linens.

(4) Accessories – Accessories are items such as towel bars, toilet paper holders, and medicine cabinets. Usually you’ll need about two 24″ towel bars, a small hand towel bar, a towel ring, one toilet paper holder, a robe hook or two. Medicine cabinets that double as mirrors can be very useful too. I like the Kohler Archer K-3073 that has a front mirror, a mirror on the backside of the door, and a mirror in the back of the shelves. With two of these installed with doors open, you can look at yourself from all sides. Heated towel bars are a luxury, but such a nice one. Some of the larger ones can even add a little heat to the room. Choose your accessories during the design process. This is necessary because you need to put wood blocking in between the studs in specific locations so that the accessories can be easily and securely fastened. Blocking needs to be done during the rough-in (the first phase of building). 2Ă—8’s, 2Ă—10’s, and 2Ă—12 scraps makes good blocking.

[Tip: Make a diagram or „map“ of your bathroom when all of the blocking is in place. Instead of the height above finished floor (AFF), it is best to measure off the ceiling, since the finished floor may not be installed yet. Don’t measure to the center of the blocking, but rather from the top to the bottom, so that if a location preference changes, you will know how much latitude you have. Measure from an adjacent wall from one end of the blocking to the other end and note this on the drawing. Also make sure that you photograph your rough-in thoroughly. You’ll find this to be a real life saver someday.]

(5) Lighting – Lighting is very important in the bathroom. You need to see where you are going, and you need to see yourself clearly to carry out the usual everyday bath tasks such as shaving, applying makeup, grooming and showering. Besides being very practical, lighting can also be quite beautiful. Well designed lighting can create a variety of effects using different kinds of fixtures. The simplest way to add some zest to your bath is to install dimmers on the lights, my favorite being the Lutron Maestro. Be sure that you put a dimmer on your „entry‘ light, so when you enter the bath in the morning it doesn’t blind you.

[Tip: I usually put the shower light on the first switch you come to as you enter the bathroom. The shower light is usually out of the way enough so that it doesn’t blind you in the morning. Or you can even use it as a night light.]

It is unfortunate that some of the most functional light fixtures for applying your makeup, are downright ugly. You’ve seen them in theatrical makeup rooms where the lights are on both sides of the mirror and above the mirror. This is about the best way to position makeup lights. Many times I put two attractive sconces on the sides of the mirror and a 4″ recessed low voltage in the ceiling. Although this is not the best solution, it works fairly well. Be sure to put a dimmer on the recessed light to you can control the amount of shadow that it throws on your face. For all your lighting needs, you will hard pressed to beat the selection and service at Southern Cabinets and Lighting. Be sure to allow space in the ceiling for a good exhaust fan, such as the ultra-quiet Panasonic WhisperCeiling exhaust fan. Install one or more vapor-proof recessed lights in the shower area. If you have a large bathroom, put some lighting near the door and over the toilet. If you build a linen closet in the bathroom, put a light in it with a switch near the door to the closet. Check codes for the proper type of light fixture. We usually use a fluorescent bulb.

In summary – You now have a general checklist of items you should consider as you plan your bathroom layout. Most of it is just common sense. Some of it comes from experience and research. Look over your progress now that you have completed 4 of the 6 steps. It sounds like you are all done by now, but there’s more to come. In Step 5 we’ll discuss material selection. With what you are about to spend on a bathroom, material selection will play a big part in the price of the bathroom and it durability.

Step 5 – Selecting products for your bathroom:

Product selection – Now you’ve completed 4 of the 6 steps to designing a great bathroom. Your design is almost done. It’s time to select the specific products and materials that you are going to use in this project. Your contractor can be a valuable resource. Especially if they are design-build contractors that specialize in this process during the design. They’ve probably built a lot more bathrooms than you have. Look at their pictures and ask questions about the products used. Go over your pictures once again and start making a list of materials and products that you are interested in.

Research and read reviews – The best place to review products in on the web. You can do a search on virtually anything and find it. Read reviews. is a good place to read reviews. Some sites allow people to place comments. You can „grab“ pictures and information off the web with a handy program call Snagit. Collect these in a folder on your computer. Visit showrooms so that you can get the feel of products. Pour over brochures. Talk to co-workers. Visit your friends that have had work done recently.

Choosing a product – How do you determine what a superior product is? One major factor is whether the product is a good value – meaning it is the best product at the best price point. If it is durable, it may have good value. It may be a good value if it is well known to your contractor and their tradespeople. If you choose something too exotic, or unknown, it may be difficult to install, and if a repair is needed, it might prove to be difficult. For instance, some foreign plumbing fixtures, although gorgeous, may take a long time to get replacement parts if needed, possibly months. There are some very worthy American companies that have great products, such as Kohler, Moen, American Standard and Delta.

Cabinets – The most common bathroom cabinet is the vanity. Most vanities sold today are 34 1/2″ high, which ends up with a finished height, when the countertop is installed, of 36″. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s most vanities were 32″-34″ high. (For a height comparison, your kitchen counter is probably 36″ above finished floor or AFF.) Cabinets also make wonderful linen closets. They take up less space than a built-in linen closet and add a better look to the bathroom. Classic Cabinetry is an excellent source for your cabinetry. Another very nice look for your bathroom is an antique replica vanity. These can be purchased at a very reasonable price now and look great in powder rooms.

Use your space wisely. Add open shelves in wall cavities. Carefully design your storage in the walk-in closet or linen closet. Chattanooga Closet does a wonderful job with their designs and installation.

Consider how long it will take to get your products. Do they fit in your time schedule? A missing part can stop a project dead. How long will the cabinets take to get? Are all your products coming from providers that have a good service track record? Trust your contractor on some of these points. In the end, it is he or she who will have to deal with this, and stay on schedule.

Now that you have a list, check it to see if fits in your budget, ships in a reasonable amount of time, and has positive reviews. If it does, keep it on your list. If not, steer away from it and look at other options.

Let your contractor help you – A good contractor will have gone to many trade shows and attended multiple seminars to learn all they know. They should only give you a few options for each item needed in your bathroom. Any more than that is just confusing. They will know what works for them. You then have to assess whether it is good for you. I can tell you from experience, that if you go out and buy all your products without consulting with your contractor, there are going to be problems. This is something that we avoid as much as possible, because we know the consequences.

In summary:

  • Make a list of products that need to be selected.
  • Make a list of optional products.
  • Determine where will you find these items.
  • Determine if you will shop for an item with the contractor or by yourself.
  • Make a product selection sheet or web page that can be shared.
  • Determine the dates that the products need to be ordered?
  • Determine who will order them.
  • Set a date when the items will be needed on the job.

Step 6- Building The Bath:

Ready-Set-Remodel – You are ready. You are set. It’s time to build that bathroom. Step 6 is about the actual building of the bathroom or the process that you can expect when you build your bathroom. Your planning and design work are going to pay off. It will be a lot easier to build your bathroom because of your diligence.

Every contractor has a different method of building, yet they will all follow some basic steps. Some companies have a pre-construction conference (PCC) before the job begins. That meeting may be just you and your designer or your contractor, going over for the umpteenth time all that is involved in the project. Most will conduct this meeting at your home. They may bring in the lead carpenter, or even the subcontractors. Each company does this differently. Some don’t do it at all. The PCC should include a review of the final contract, and points that aren’t in the contract, such as paint colors, location of the portable toilet, notes about your pet(s), starting hours, your routine, or noting some bushes or furniture that may require special protection. Be sure to get a copy of the PCC after it is transcribed.

Finally the long awaited day arrives. It is time to start the project. Your contractor may set up a job sign, with your permission of course. Next, it is time to protect your property from dust, and dirt and traffic wear. And there is going to be a lot of this. Your job may last from a few days to over a month, depending on the complexity. And that’s a lot of in-and-out traffic. Mentally prepare yourself because this is a total disruption of your usual routine.

Dust protection may include floor runners or carpet mask (adhering plastic runners), plastic set up at doorways, painter’s plastic on beds and furniture. Don’t forget to cover the clothing in your closet. This can be a costly oversight. The dust will get in there, even with the door closed.

Ask for a schedule of the job, so that you are prepared for the different phases. The schedule may be detailed or very basic. Realize that this schedule will change on a daily basis. That is the nature of remodeling. The schedule at least gives you an idea of when something will occur, and defines the different phases.

It is a good idea to set up a message center at your home, or a collaboration web site such as Basecamp. You have spent a long time planning this project, and it is important to keep the paper trail going all the way to the end of the job. Stay in touch with your contractor, realizing that he or she has other irons in the fire, so to speak. Nevertheless your job is very important, so you need to keep the line of communication open.

Your job may be run by the owner of the company or one of their lead carpenters. You may even have a job supervisor that keeps the job organized. Be sure that you are clear who is responsible for the job at this point.

You have hired a contractor that you trust. Now let them build your dream bathroom. This is the reason for all the planning and design work. It will all come together. The first phases will make it seem like they will finish the entire bathroom in a few days. Don’t be deceived by how fast the demolition goes, or how quickly the job is framed and roughed in. When the sheet rock finishing starts, the job will seemingly come to a screeching halt. That’s just the way it is. The finishing of the sheet rock will take about a week, during which time, not much else will be done. Then a first coat of paint on the walls and maybe some trim. The finish work has begun. Finish work takes a long time. A custom tile shower may take 3 days or more. Hopefully your vanities and cabinets arrive on time, along with your fixtures. If you have granite counter tops, there will be a delay. They can’t measure the tops until the cabinets are in, and then you have to wait 3-7 days for the installation of the tops, depending on the granite company they use. The sink fixtures can’t go in until the counter tops are installed. Everything has to be done in a certain sequence. Be patient. Soon it will be over and I assure you that it will be worth it.

In closing, I hope you have enjoyed these design ideas and that this process leads you to a better bathroom design. Be sure to take daily pictures of the job site. Keep notes. Communicate with your builder. Get a written warranty. Write a testimonial for the contractor, telling them how much you appreciate their hard work. Most of all, enjoy your new space that was once only a dream.

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