Design Notes: Bathroom Design

Bathrooms are one of those rooms where what you see most often is what I call "aspirational design": designing a space for how you wish you live rather than how you really live.

I choose not to spend money on a life I don't actually live. That is different for everybody: plenty of people buy large gorgeous homes with "gourmet" kitchens that they primarily use for heating up frozen foods. It feels wasteful to me to spend that kind of money on a space I really don't use, but everybody makes their own choices, and I can only understand my own feelings, and not theirs. It may be worth it to them, and that's fine. I'm positive that some things I spend money on feel wasteful to other people (hello, plane ownership!).

I say this because I'm about to talk about how I like to design bathrooms, and this is not going to work for everybody. I have all kinds of "Bathroom Design Mistakes to Avoid" or "Dream Bathroom Features" books and articles that I actively disagree with in my library. It's about what you want and what you are willing to pay for. And this is different for everybody and that is OK.

On that note, I'll talk about what kind of relative costs things have, though I can't be too specific because a) costs really do vary quite a bit, even in the same geographic area, and b) one decision may make something else more or less expensive, and I don't know the totality of your situation.

So here are some things I keep in mind when designing a bathroom:

Line up fixtures on one wall

This is purely about cost savings. Your plumbing will be cheaper -- and plumbing is very expensive -- if all your fixtures have their supply and drains on one wall. It doesn't aways work out. In a really large bathroom it doesn't make much sense. But you will see this in tract houses and secondary bathrooms all the time: fixtures lined up in a row.

Hide the toilet

I dislike walking into a bathroom and seeing the toilet immediately. It feels very exposed, like if somebody accidentally opened the door on you you'd be right there. Also, most toilets are pretty ugly, and who wants to look at that?

I tend to try to put the toilet on the other side of a vanity, or behind the swing of the door, or in a separate compartment altogether. Even if the compartment is only separated by a half wall, it is much cleaner looking.

I also try not to have the toilet right next to a tub that will be used for relaxation. Because who wants to lie in the tub, relaxing, and look at their toilet? Not me.

Some parents will tell me that they like having the toilet nearby while washing kids for dealing with what lots of kids do in bathtubs (fun!), so in bathrooms intended for kids, I'll put the toilet right by the tub. This is also good in small bathrooms without room for a freestanding bench to use while drying off: it gives you a place to set your towel or sit down.


For bathroom cabinets, I like plywood boxes (your other option is particleboard, not solid wood, unless you intend to build them yourself) and solid wood doors (MDF has issues with moisture, and doors get scratched up all the time, so the door will see moisture soon enough). A door opening to the space under the sink is ideal for dealing with plumbing issues as you will have plenty of room to work; there are other options like drawers with a cutout for the trap, but they're not as easy to work around if something goes wrong.

Drawers make for nice storage of small things -- a lot of bathroom storage is small things -- and in the top one you can do a shallower drawer and install the mandatory GFCI outlet at the back, so you have a hidden charging place for shavers or things. (Or you can do this in a taller cabinet for electric toothbrushes.)

There is no getting around the code requirement for a GCFI outlet within 36 inches of every sink, so consider that as you design.

I hate double vanities

I get the reason for them, but when I'm in the bathroom, I do not want anybody else in there with me. And I don't need two sinks at a time. I would rather have one generous sink (face-washing can cause a lot of splashing) and plenty of room on the countertop.

Obviously people differ on this one. Some couples don't use the bathroom together but each want their own sink. It's really a personal preference thing. But I hate them.

Doubling the number of sinks in a vanity costs more (for obvious reasons: plumbing plus fixture costs), but it also uses up storage space, because sinks have depth. Depending on the sink you may lose the upper 4-10 inches of the cabinet where the sink is, and all the space where the trap for the sink drain will go. That's not nothing.

You may be a minimalist in the bathroom, but most people are not; the challenge is usually finding storage for all the items people want and need for grooming and so forth, and want to store in the bathroom. So I would far rather ditch the extra sink and use the space for a stack of drawers.

Accessible showers

I'm not a fan of the tub-shower; I think the tubs tend not to get used, and you lose a lot of the floor space in the shower to the curved edges. The exception is families with little kids, who seem to prefer tubs for bathing. I do a lot of tub-showers in secondary bathrooms. Tub-showers also more slippery than a shower with a mostly-flat floor, though that is not an issue when you are mostly using it for bathing kids.

What I like is a nice, curbless shower. A curb makes a step you have to get over to get into the shower, which is fine if you're able-bodied, but at some point in your life you will get injured, or sick, or old, and getting over the curb into a shower becomes daunting.

Combine that with a shower bench (either built-in or moveable) and a properly installed grab bar (they're not towel bars; grab bars have to be installed into the framing, and you may need to remove part of the wall and add wood blocking to do it right), and you've got a bathroom that will be usable no matter what.

A lot of people don't like curbless showers because they don't like even coming close to admitting to being mortal human beings. It's hard to plan for aging or injury when you are able-bodied. It forces you to think about things that are not fun to think about.

I'm not one of those people. Where I can, I design a good accessible shower and incorporate as much universal design as possible.

Hidden benefits of the curbless shower: you can mop the bathroom floor into the drain smoothly, making mopping less about pushing dirty water around on the floor. Win!

Glass shower enclosures

Tempered or laminated glass shower enclosures -- you can do clear or frosted, though I generally prefer clear -- take up less space in a room than curtains do. That's because they are only as thick as the glass, where shower curtains wave in folds, and take up a lot of space visually. The glass also will let you see the tile behind it, which is nice if you paid a lot of money for good tile work and want to appreciate it all the time.

Ideally your shower would be large enough to not have to have a door (unless you want a steam shower enclosure), so all you would have is a partition. But if you need a door, you'll need room for it to open fully. Shower doors have to open out (so if you collapse in the shower you don't prevent rescue workers from helping you). But you need space to get in the shower to begin with, so I find that is not a huge issue.

Towel racks

You should consider towel storage early on in bathroom design. I'm very fond of towel warmers, though that might not be your thing.

A normal towel warmer will really just make your towels dry and take the edge off the cold towel feeling; that's the purpose our towel warmer serves, and it does it well. Really nice ones will make your towels feel warm, too. Those will cost more money. The best ones are plumbed into a whole-house hydronic heating system, so you're not using tons of electricity, but our small undersized one doesn't use as much as a 60 watt light bulb. Energy use is definitely a tradeoff.

(I also use ours to dry exercise clothing after washing for use the next day; it speeds the process up and as a bonus they are nice and warm at 5 am.)

For obvious reasons, you can't put an electric towel warmer in the shower, and while I have lived in apartments with the linen closet in the shower, I don't recommend that, either. The most obvious place for towels to go is on the shower enclosure, but that puts towels front and center in your bathroom, which is not very pretty, either.

Simple towel storage would be on a blank wall, maybe the half wall you've used to hide your toilet, or right across from the opening of the shower door. Or you could use a piece of furniture, but I'm not a fan of approaches that require you to wash towels after one use because there is no place to hang them to dry. (Yes, people actually do this; please don't.)


Natural light is terrific in a bathroom. It's not necessary: your local codes may vary, but in general bathrooms are allowed to have artificial lighting and ventilation.

But let's ignore that; I prefer a window in the bathroom. The only exception would be a bathroom like our powder room, where the window would open right onto a porch that would look right in the room. Nope nope nope.

I generally prefer to keep showers and baths away from windows, because even though the views are nice, that works in both directions, and also any window in a bathing area has to be safety (tempered or laminated) glass, so you could add a pile of money to the cost of your bathroom just to replace the glass in your window.

I'm especially fond of skylights in bathrooms, because they add lots of light but maintain privacy. Also, at night they go dark and make your bathroom more moody and romantic, if that's your thing. You can put cove lighting inside the skylight opening to light it up at night if the black hole bothers you.


I like two sconces at the vanity, at either side of the face. This is a more flattering light than overhead, and you need nice lighting when you are naked and vulnerable. You can do a hidden light strip around the room for ambient lighting, which is nice. Other than that, one overhead light and one light in the shower (or over the tub/shower combo) are enough; this is not a surgery. If you are going to be doing elaborate makeup application, do more sconce lighting right at that area and have it switched separately. Also for makeup, add some uplighting, like an LED strip, to even out the light over your face.

In California, all lighting in bathrooms has to be high efficacy (or on a motion sensor). That means LED, for the most part, since fluorescent isn't all there. For small fixtures, go for GU24 sockets, so you can swap out the bulbs easily; there are some nice new bulbs for GU24 sockets coming on the market soon. A regular twist fixture with compact fluorescents does not count as high-efficacy, because they know you can swap out for incandescent fixtures when the inspection is over. You are not fooling anybody.


They are now required by the code in California (your mileage may vary), but bathroom fans with humidistats are a great idea and worth every penny (yes, of course they cost more). The way they work is that there's a sensor in the fan that turns it on when the humidity in the room is over a set amount (most are adjustable). That means that the fan runs until the humidity in the room goes down to an appropriate level, rather than turning off when you leave the room and just dumping moisture into your house every time you shower (moisture is the enemy of houses, especially modern ones).

I like to install the fan over the shower, and my boss prefers to put it over the toilet. But I'm more concerned with moisture than with smells. A properly sized fan will take care of either. You can have more than one.

It's actually worth replacing your existing fans with humidistat fans, especially if you are in a newer house.

Heated floors

The single best place for heated floors is the bathroom. This is where you are most likely to have bare feet. Tile floors, especially, can be incredibly cold (I recently went out on our tiled side porch in bare feet and it was like ice daggers in my feet). These are worth it. Just don't install them too close to a floor-mounted toilet (they will heat up the wax ring).


The code mostly only requires waterproofing 4 inches up the wall, which is INSANE. I run waterproofing all the way up to the top of the shower. That may feel like overkill, but overkill is worth it in this case. Otherwise any water that gets through your tile -- any crack in the grout, that is to say -- is potentially water in your walls. Take my word as somebody who deals with a lot of water in walls, this is no fun.

If you've decided on a steam shower, you'll need to waterproof all the way up the walls and the ceiling to make a complete waterproof surround. Steam can move through any size opening, so this keeps water condensing in your walls and ceiling and destroying this part of your house.

I'm also a fan of a complete waterproof bathroom floor (the European-style wet room), which makes cleaning up a lot less anxiety-provoking. I like floor drains, too, but cheaper and often a cleaner look is to slope the whole floor to the shower drain and use that instead.


Ask your plumber what kind of toilet they like the best. Look on forums where plumbers get together and talk shop. They will inevitably know the best toilets for reliability.

Look: I love a nice clean design and a pretty look. I get the aesthetics argument. But the primary function of a toilet is not about looks at all, and toilet failures make you sad and unhappy with your house. Choose a toilet that will not fail on you. Usually you can choose from among a few designs in the recommended category, so choose the best of those. Don't start with design and try to make it work.

Spend a lot of money on your toilet.

Sinks and faucets

Do not spend a lot of money on your sink. The basin part, that is. Go crazy on the cabinetry, and the faucet (my rule is to spend your money on things you touch the most), but cheap out big time on the basin. There is almost always a good looking basin that is under $100. It's a sink basin, it serves exactly one purpose in most houses.

I don't even do the sink stopper any more. They just get clogged up with hair and toothpaste, and who uses them? If you do, go for it, but I know hardly anybody who fills their sink with water for anything but cleaning it.

I like wall-mounted faucets (for everything, really) because stuff doesn't accumulate around them. (Similarly, I'm not a fan of the fancy basin sink that looks like a bowl on a countertop -- there's an awkward joint there that gets gross.) Choose a faucet that feels rich to you from a good line. You are going to touch this all the time.


There are two kinds of temperature-controlled valves for showers. These are basically to keep you from accidentally scalding yourself if you hit the water wrong; they won't let the water get over a certain set temperature.

I prefer thermostatic valves, where you have one knob for temperature and another for volume. The first time you set the temperature is trial and error, but after that you just leave the temperature knob where you want it and turn the water on and off and it goes right where you want it automatically. Once you try it you will wonder why anybody would use anything else. The old-style pressure-balancing valves will feel practically uncivilized.

In addition to a fixed overhead shower head, I like a handheld sprayer. This helps you clean awkward places, of course, and also permits you to use your shower for things like spraying down children or dogs who have gotten dirty and need a good rinse.

In California, showers are limited to 2 GPM per set of controls (and many inspectors interpret that as per shower), so those lush surround-spray shower things are just not doable. There is a pretty significant drought going on, despite recent rain. I just don't see the point, myself. If you want to be surrounded by water, take a bath. If you're too cold in the shower, consider radiant heat in the walls (it's a thing!).


Speaking of.

If you want a bathtub, go to a showroom and try out bathtubs. Do not choose based on appearance; go try them out and see what size you want. At the showroom (don't just go to Home Depot; they are cheap for a reason), the salesperson should be able to guide you through where the water will be. Get in the tub. Lie down.

I say this because I see people fall in love with the look of a tub and then the water is too shallow, or the back is the wrong shape. If you're going to spend money on a tub, know what you are getting.

The only exception to this is that if you're putting in a secondary bathroom that will be where you bathe kids, rather than where you go for relaxing soaks, go for a tub with lower sides for access and give up on being able to soak in it comfortably.

If you want a free-standing tub, place it so you can clean around it easily, because you would not believe what accumulates there.

For built-in tubs, I prefer an undermount tub with a countertop surround, for a clean look. I don't like the caulk joint on overmount tubs; it always looks a little cheap. Or you can get a tub with an integrated apron, which can save you some money on tile or finishes on the side of the tub, for not much more.

To save money on a tub -- they are quite expensive -- look for used fixtures. In many places there are reuse stores where you can buy used fixtures, which can be a nice way to get a vintage look for less money. There's also ebay or Craigslist. It can be harder to get something really contemporary that way, because those are usually too new to be ripped out and sold on the secondhand market, but you may be able to get scratched or dented tubs or rejected tubs (usually because people ordered and then discovered would not fit in their house -- measure carefully).

Buying used is not your only option for a vintage look: many people think "they" stopped making old-fashioned fixtures, but in fact many vintagy styles are still available. You have always been able to buy a new clawfoot tub, for instance, though I have had people tell me "they just don't make them any more" (yeah, that is not true) (I didn't even sort those links; those are just some of the first ones that came up looking for clawfoot tubs; I could give you dozens for new and reproduction clawfoot tubs).

In general I prefer a separate tub from the shower, see above about tub-shower combos. I find that for myself, I don't use a tub that I shower in as a tub very often, because showering makes the tub dirty, and I don't want to have to scrub off soap scum before my relaxing bath. With a separate tub, I can just rinse the dust out (bathrooms generate an amazing amount of dust). I'm also liking having the tub in the shower right now, which you can see in the new bathroom on our renovation plans. Make it a steam shower and you can have a real spa experience.

I'm sure that this was not everything I consider when working on a design; usually I will throw out a few quick layouts and then refine each of them for a couple of days here and there while working on other aspects of the design. When I'm working with a client I will go back and forth with them about what they like about each design, and combine them into one. When I'm designing for myself it usually comes together faster because I am actually inside my own head. I always run designs for our house by Noel because a) marriage takes work, people, and b) he has a lot of good insight into design and the layout of space.

Coming up: some related links.

posted by ayse on 01/13/15