Space Planning for the Bath

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There were many new, interesting bathroom fixtures and fittings at the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show this past April in Chicago. After enjoying all the various product innovations, I realized space planning innovation was not as evident at the show.

Indeed, most baths continue to be laid out with the fixtures placed against the walls of the bathroom space. While this may be a requirement in minuscule powder rooms or hardworking hall baths, designers should embark on a new creative journey when they organize space in a master retreat.

It’s always a good idea to brainstorm about new and intriguing ideas for placing each of the primary fixtures in a master bath retreat: the water closet, his/her vanities, the bathing pool and the shower. Designers need to move beyond “hugging the walls” ­– even in moderately sized baths – by considering unusual placement ideas, and looking at planning tools which will help them evaluate new ideas.

To assist me in sharing design ideas about ways to “think outside the box” when creating bathroom plans, I have included a selection of Kohler Designer Series Rooms created by celebrated designers in our industry. The KOHLER Store in The Merchandise Mart in Chicago worked with six noted designers ­– Laura Bohn, Ray Booth, Clodagh, Christopher Coleman, Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz and Brian Covington – in the creation of unique concept plans for bathroom environments. Kitchen and bath designers may find inspiration through these portfolios, as they provide a “jumping off” point when thinking of new and unusual solutions.

Before thinking about new bathroom planning ideas, it’s important to note the extraordinary differences between conceptual bathroom planning and kitchen planning.

Kitchens are typically combinations of similar materials that are connected in long, functional elements. Even in an unfitted kitchen, there’s a great deal of organization and similarity in product (or at least sizing) between the various cabinet/furniture elements in the space.

Bathroom planning is quite different: Dissimilar elements are installed adjacent to, above or below one another. There’s never the visual space impact of wall/tall cabinets, making the room “feel” smaller than its physical size. The entire bath plan (if you use clear glass for a shower enclosure) can be viewed from enclosing wall to enclosing wall.

The bathroom also differs from the kitchen in that it has very specific fixtures that have minimum and maximum floor space requirements for accessing or using these fixtures. For those unfamiliar with these, or those who would like a quick refresher course, the new NKBA Planning Standards can be accessed at

Here are the minimum and maximum dimensions designers need to plan around for toilets, bidets, vanities, tubs and showers.

¦ Minimum one-person standing room in front of a fixture is 21" from the face of the fixture to any obstacle opposite it.

¦ Recommended one-person standing room in front of a fixture is 30" from the face of the fixture to any obstacle opposite it

. Most designers plan a bathroom by taking the room and using all the wall space for the fixtures, leaving a somewhat large square or rectangle in the center of the space. I’d like to challenge designers to change this approach. Think, first: What might “happen” in that center space? Some very interesting bathroom plans can be created when designers move the most massive of structures – the bathing pool or the enclosed shower – to the center of the room, or jut it out into the room, placing it 90 degrees at the back wall to create narrower walkways around these fixtures. Designers trying this might create a more interesting bath while providing more wall space for the family to personalize their bath.

Here is a very successful way to approach the conceptual design phase of the bathroom layout process:

¦ First, identify the size of the shower, the vanity configuration you’d like to include and the tub that will probably be specified (is it a bathing pool for one, or a soaking bath for two?).

¦ Next, draw the fixtures and the required surrounding minimum or recommended floor space and then create scale templates.

¦ Starting with a blank piece of paper with the perimeter of the room drawn to scale, move your templates around the space. Such an approach will free you of the constraints of a scale ruler or computer screen to start with.

The Water Closet

Conventional master suite design today automatically calls for placing the water closet (with or without a bidet) in a walled-off compartment enclosed by a privacy door. When space is limited – or the client’s wish list is long – make sure that this toilet placement is critical to the consumer.

If two adults share the space but are rarely in the area at the same time, visually shielding the toilet from view might accomplish everything that family is hoping for.

Additionally, the designer will save an enormous amount of floor space that is lost in these small compartments, not only by the framing space required for the wall, but by the minimum volume of such a compartment which is 60"x30", or the recommended size of 66"x32" (according to the NKBA Bathroom Planning Guidelines 2006).

If shielding the toilet from view (not completely separating it) is right for the users, consider these layout ideas:

¦ Build a half wall to conceal the toilet, with a decorative glass panel or other architectural detail used to complete the visual barrier.

¦ Pull the tub or shower away from the wall. Then place the toilet in the space from the bathroom wall to the partial wall of a shower or tub enclosure.

¦ Keep the toilet in a corner, but let a wall of the shower shield it from full view.

¦ Create a compartment for the toilet and bidet by placing it in one corner of the bathroom, shielding it from view with one full wall of the shower and one full wall at the end of a tub.

With any of these unusual installations, think through the following:

¦ Where are you going to place the recessed or surface-mounted toilet tissue holder?

¦ Does the consumer want some type of built-in magazine rack, or a decorative basket on the floor?

¦ What side of the toilet is the flush lever on? Will it be accessible within the plan under development?

¦ Is the toilet a low-profile unit or one with a full tank? This will impact the wall height.

¦ Does the fixture have one of the new combination comfort seats that may require more width than you’re accustomed to?

The Vanity

It’s also a good idea to take a new look at vanity cabinetry.

The concept of “vanity furniture” is very popular with consumers today. In addition to unfitted furniture, one of the biggest changes over the past five years in master suite planning is the reintroduction of decorative pedestal sinks that are then combined with well-organized furniture for the bath.

However, cabinet specialists are still planning wonderfully detailed, organized, continuous elevations of cabinets for the bath. Forward thinking designers are becoming familiar with the furniture options available today. For a client who’s looking for “something different,” this is a great way to make the master suite (remember, the clients consider it “their” master retreat) very special – and in a way that is just for them.

Here are a few ideas:

¦ Instead of two sinks in a long, uninterrupted countertop, consider one pedestal (for him) with a recessed medicine cabinet or an apothecary (mid-height) cabinet next to it. Then, plan a much larger vanity for the “her” part of the space.

¦ Plan interesting artistic decorative pedestals for both the he/she areas of the space, flanking them on each side with furniture. Or, plan a 90-degree return of regular cabinetry with the counter space and storage slightly apart from the lavatory area.

¦ Move that vanity away from the wall! Remember the concept of the tub or shower in the center of the room? Can the vanity be on a back or side wall of a centered tub or shower? Securing the mirrors may be a challenge – but such an intriguing use of floor space might be just what the client’s looking for!

Another option would be to have the vanity run parallel to the walls of the bath so that its structure conceals a toilet compartment sandwiched between the wall and the vanity backing.

A third option would be to let the vanity “float” in the center of the room – all on its own. This is not only dramatic, the idea is very functional, as well. I once created a trough sink with faucets on both sides and featuring Hafele full storage systems at each end of a sculptured bathroom vanity island for a DuPont Surfaces exhibit. That concept was translated into reality for a family’s master suite along the New Jersey shore.

The Bath Tub

When deciding where to place tub, I ask designers to compare it to other areas or fixtures in the home:

¦ Should the tub be like a fireplace? The key question to ask is just how often and by whom is this tub really going to be used. For a lone bather, it makes sense to be sure the bather is not reclining in the new tub with only the toilet in view. Create a vista. By the way, don’t forget the television: Your client may enjoy taking a bath and watching TV – I know I do!

¦ Should the bathtub be a cocoon for introspective moments of privacy, or like a convertible with the user’s attention focused on the view? Tucking a tub between walls with a low ceiling and beautiful tile mural is great for the person interested in that “cocoon” feeling. Placing a tub in the center of the room next to a beautiful window – or any location where the bather can interact with his or her world – is far better if the consumer thinks of the tub as a great ’50s convertible.

¦ Should the tub be designed like a kitchen peninsula, island or hood? There’s just no doubt about it: Oftentimes, the bathroom features an almost “radial” balanced panel with the tub holding center stage. I’ve seen several delightful baths where vanities flank each wall with the tub coming out in the center in this type of shape. When thinking about that tub location, remember the need for counter space and some minimal storage.

¦ Freestanding or minimal platform tubs are very popular today, not to mention another great space saver. However, you need to plan somewhere for a soap dish! You could also try an étagère cabinet (an open display space) with one shelf within reach of the bather. A seating cube close by with a lid that reverses to a tray, or a small decorative table for that candle, glass of wine, telephone or favorite book, is also a fine addition.

¦ People who enjoy taking a bath need accessible specialized storage when they’re in the water. I recently saw a great example in a relatively minimal platform, where the end of the platform pulled out so the bather could access candles and matches, a neck pillow and the books she was saving just for those quiet moments in the tub.

The Shower

Lastly, let’s think “outside of the box” about the shower.

Clear glass and frameless shower enclosures give the designer a unique opportunity to feature a huge “power showering” facility – in a space that might not be all that large. Now, a word of caution when thinking about clear glass: We’ve become accustomed to suggesting to our clients that they “squeegee” the glass every time they use the shower. What a bother! Learn from your shower door source about new glass technologies that offer your client a glass surface resistant to water spotting and, therefore, much easier to use as a surround for the everyday shower.

Think of the shower enclosure as a box you are free to place anywhere in the space, rather than an enclosure that’s against a long wall or between walls.

¦ The shower can be a completely enclosed, free-standing cube with a control tower/panel on one side. The shower may span the space between the wall and the back of the tub.

¦ The shower may have three glass sides and one wall that’s 42" high, housing a vanity, storage cabinet, meditation bench or other special area on the back.

¦ The shower, by the way, doesn’t have to have any glass around it if the entire room is protected and then tiled. Much like a boat “head,” the entire bathroom can also be the shower. If waterproof materials are on all surfaces and an adequate drain and floor slope is planned, the shower can be integrated into the bath without the confines of any type of enclosure.

After enjoying these avante garde bathroom designs sponsored by The KOHLER Store, I hope you are inspired to think a little differently about the space study you’re about to create for a master suite. In the final presentation, a more traditional approach may be selected. However, before you and your client reach this decision, think through more unusual placements, ensuring that, whatever the solution is, it’s the best one for your special client.