Fitting the Fixtures

Right now, it’s more important than ever to avoid mistakes that waste time and money – and this is particularly true in the bath. Indeed, this past year, many kitchen designers have seen an unexpected increase in demand for bathroom projects within their practice, caused, most likely, by clients delaying their kitchen projects in favor of what they perceive as a smaller project: the bathroom.

Previously, I’ve suggested how to combine interesting materials in these adult retreats. This month, we’ll tackle easily overlooked fixture and fitting details which can lead to profit slippage on the job site and project delays.

The Vanity Area

In many master bathrooms, the vanity cabinet height may be different for two adult users. This variance in counters impacts the plumbing rough-in for the faucetry, as well as countertop backsplash detailing. It can also impact design elements planned for the wall surfaces of the bathroom.

Running a continuous wainscoting material around the walls of a master bathroom can give the space a unified look. The height of such a design element is determined by the finished splash height behind the tallest vanity. When setting the dimension, it is critical to plot the line around all elevations to make sure the surfacing does not intersect windowsills, electrical switches or outlets. You need to lay out wall-mounted lavatory faucet rough-ins or glass vanity shelving in relationship to the wall surfacing decoration as well.

Mirror and light fixture locations are next. The vanity/pedestal area planning continues up the wall, placing recessed surface-mounted mirrored cabinets. There are many bathroom vanity ensembles that offer a vanity cabinet with coordinating wall units, incorporating both surface-mounted and flat mirror cabinet combinations. Additionally, single decorative mirrors are oftentimes specified above a two-bowl vanity.

Both of these scenarios require special attention to light fixture placement. Whether you actually sell the light fixtures or not, the project will be much more successful if you make sure the light fixtures are specified and placed before the mirror specification is completed.

Consider the two decorative mirror scenarios: Will you have four lights (two on each side of each mirror) or two overhead fixtures? If you are planning two overhead fixtures, visualize the fixture shape above square mirrors or oval ones. If the mirror is mounted on a recessed cabinet, overhead lights become more complex because fixtures cannot “drop” over the mirror.

Alternatively, when using side-mounted fixtures, the center of the fixture should be dimensioned as the center of the light source (bulb) within the fixture. You then convert that design centerline to the actual rough-in for the electrician. Architectural Graphics Standards lists the average person’s eye sight at being 3" below their overall height. Your client’s height should be used when centering side lights on a wall.

Designers are combining decorative pedestals or consoles with free-standing, mid-height storage cabinets or other types of built-in bathroom cabinetry. Once again, matching the faucet to the drilling of the pedestal or console table is an important place to start. Make sure your plumbing subcontractor knows the piping will be exposed behind a pedestal or under a console table. Finishing the piping and having a good looking eschution plate on the wall around the drain line is important to specify – and charge for.

On a final note – it is most important to carefully match the faucet’s shape and design with the lavatory specified. Check the shape and size of the interior bowl configuration. Compare this information with the trajectory pattern (the water flow direction as it comes out of the faucet spout). Where will the water stream hit the lavatory side/bottom? If you have a mismatch, the water will spray back on the user. Make sure the shape of the spout makes it easy for the user to get both hands under the water spray.

The Toilet Area

It’s important to know the exact dimensions of the toilet specified for a project when locating this fixture. In the past, there was very little difference in size between well-engineered toilets and entry-level fixtures. Today, designer toilets are larger in width and dimension. Additionally, fixtures that combine some type of bidet seat are typically larger in width and depth to accommodate a larger seat opening to provide a comfortable, localized washing space for the user. These toilet/bidet fixtures also require an electrical line, and may have a wall-mounted remote control that must be placed so that the user can reach it.

New on the horizon for residential use are tankless toilets. There is still a tank, but it is concealed in a thicker wall behind the toilet. The fixture itself mounts on a hanging bracket so the toilet is completely off the finished floor. Some consider this a “contemporary” fixture, but it is a marvelous solution in any bath, most notably in small spaces. Visual volume to the space is added by the streamlined fixture, fitting snug against the wall and completely off the floor. The flushing mechanism mounts on the wall, and provides access to the tank concealed behind the toilet. Long a standard in Europe, this is great new possibility for North American bathrooms. For more information, visit

The Showering/Bathing Area

In master bathrooms, there is some discussion in the design community about eliminating bathtubs in place of larger, more spacious showers. If it’s a “trade-off” situation, a larger shower may be the best solution. However, I challenge anyone to really be “relaxed” when standing in a shower or sitting on a bench, back against a straight wall in a shower enclosure.

Alternatively, I see a trend towards smaller, freestanding bathtubs, or fixtures with a more modest surround. Reducing the size of the tub may leave enough floor space for a larger shower.

Several things to consider when placing these fixtures:

  • The bathtub must be safe and easy to enter and exit. Place the fittings off-center to one side, along the front edge of the bathtub so it can be filled without leaning across the fixture. Include a hand-held shower head to make cleaning easy – and safe.
  • Determine ahead of time if the bathtub will be under-mounted or surface-mounted. This will help you match the right bathtub to the right installation.
  • If you are using a freestanding bathtub with no apron or ledge space nearby, plan a small piece of furniture for the soap dish, washcloth, glass of champagne or favorite magazine.
  • If the bathtub is used for enjoying a restful moment, make sure the light fixtures are on dimmers so the level of light suits the tasks – whether grooming or relaxing.
  • Plumbing manufacturers have done an excellent job teaching us about proper placement and water supply sizing for multi-head showers. Some additional key planning considerations include the following:
    1. If using a ceiling-mounted showerhead, make sure the ceiling is high enough to allow your clients to stand comfortably under the showerhead.
    2. When suggesting a curbless shower, make sure you calculate the drain capacity compared to the volume of water flowing in the shower when multiple heads are simultaneously in operation.
  • When planning a shower bench, make sure the material has a slight texture – it’s more comfortable for the user. For showers without a bench, don’t forget the importance of a footrest in the shower.
  • If using a chromatherapy light fixture in the shower, specify more than one to fill the compartment with light. These are all considerations that make bathroom planning more complex in many cases than kitchen planning.

Today, clients are creating master suite retreats, rather than master bedrooms with a bathroom. No longer just sleeping and grooming quarters, these new spaces incorporate a cozy sleeping area, organized dressing room and multi-zoned bathroom. Settling all the details at the planning stage is a critical element to success when planning such spaces.

Master Bath Plan Details

When choosing the toilet, ask yourself, can the user reach the toilet paper holder? Is it visible (not good) from the open door? Where does the user find an extra roll of paper in the middle of the night? It’s a great idea to include a very small hand washing corner lav in the water closet compartment – this could just “make” the sale.

With regards to the sink, how will you light it and fit a mirror in the corner, and where will towel bars go that do not interfere with this special sink?

Be sure to plan the countertop splash/mirror/light fixture relationship. A bar-type fixture is a great light fixture to use because the entire fixture height is minimal – designs that have hanging shades can be impossible to use if a mirror door must open or a surface-mounted cabinet is used.

If a fixture with an open cover is to be used, are you going to direct the light “up” so that no one stares into bare bulbs (downside is less light on the face for applying make-up), or are you going to direct them down? This decision must be made before the electrician roughs-in the line for the fixture – or extra money and job delays will occur, resulting in lost money and an unhappy client.

If budget is a concern, be careful about custom shower doors – make sure you know all the choices available. I recently priced out a neo angle door/wall system and received a $4,000 estimate from the custom shop I normally use, and a $750 price from an “off-the-shelf” provider. In some baths, the door may not be key to the design or the functional solution; therefore, maybe you can use a standard door and apply the savings to something more important to the client.

Whatever you do, don’t make the floor space too small around the toilet. Finally, realize that your clients may not want to hear your planning criteria. Just get it ergonomically “right” for the client.