Today's Baths Need New Shower Shapes

In the bathrooms and suites we are designing today, the showers are expanding in size, options and importance. When space allows, we plan for a separate tub and shower, but when it's less generous, many of our clients opt to eliminate the tub and use the available space to grow the shower. In my office, customers and even some production-builder clients are planning showers that approximate the 5'x8' space that once housed the entire bathroom. It seems a good time to look at the changes in the shapes and details of showers.

Better hotels, with both public and private in-room baths, are also great sources for design ideas. In fact, at a recent kitchen and bath show, I was talking with a veteran designer who pointed out that, while he attends the show for the education, people and product updates, he often gets his best bath and shower ideas in the hotels.

There are several lifestyle trends that are both influences on our design and sources of ideas for our new showers. As we move through the age boom and appreciation of universal design increases, our showers are becoming larger, incorporating seats and handsprays, as well as beautiful grab bars that enhance the design. Thresholds and doors are often eliminated.

As a response to the trend of more open social spaces in the home, the bath is becoming a more private sanctuary, with the shower as the ultimate comfort and luxury for its owner.

We all have a healthy respect for the problems that can occur when water is not properly managed and contained. Because of this, some designers and many builders will stick to the "tried-and-true" traditional box in this case, the traditionally shaped shower and threshold. However, the evolution and sprawl of the bath suite, and particularly the shower, offers us the opportunity for design that is literally outside this box. Following are a couple configurations for showers that have worked for us, as well as some thoughts and cautions on shower design to help ensure a happy marriage of imagination and function.

The serpentine shower design (see Figure 1) allows for an open entry with no threshold and no door. It is beautiful to see and, when done correctly, friendly to those of us who use mobility aids. The ideal minimum size for this shower is large 78"x78" as this allows for minimum widths of 36" for any passage spaces. It includes a waterproofed wet area that helps contain the splash from the shower, and it doubles as a drying-off area. When possible, the wall opposite the shower head can be extended (12") to create a built-in bench that can be used in the shower, as well as to sit on while drying off. If this is not possible, fold-down or free-standing seats may work best.

This shower also includes controls that are off-set for easy and dry access at the entry to the shower, and a handspray located in that same area or the spot most appropriate for the user. Three-quarter-inch plywood before the wall board provides support for the custom locations for grab bars. The lengths of the shower wall and the parallel wall at the entry can be adjusted as desired to ease entry by cutting down on turning.

In addition to the center-shower drain, a trough-style drain that separates the shower from the remaining wet area can be used to collect any water that escapes the shower (see Figure 2). The bottom of the trough slopes to a standard 2" drain. We have the best luck custom-fabricating the trough and the covering grate, as we have not found a good solution in prefabricated products.

The trough and other flush, no-threshold showers require team work with the architect and builder/remodeler early in the design process. As in any shower, the floor is pitched slightly toward the drain. One of our builders provides for the needed floor pitch by recessing the shower area using 2"x8" joints in the recess and 2"x10"s in the rest of the space. Another uses a similar downsizing with floor trusses. In a remodeling project on concrete with no opportunity for recess, the new bathroom floor can be built up at the entry requiring a door that does not swing into the space to allow for the recess. Mud-set tile is sloped up at the entry, leveling off in the main part of the room. A "speed bump" at the shower threshold can begin the pitch to the drain.

Double Entry
Another design that works well for us in more generous master baths is the double-entry or walk-through shower (see Figure 3). This design reinforces the separation of spaces when two people share the bathroom, particularly when the space allows for this shower at one end of the tub. Although the size can be adjusted, when designed 84"x48", this shower can include a variety of combinations of showerheads, hand-held sprays and body sprays. An extension of the tub deck serves as a bench, an optional glass or other partition might further contain water, and, again, this shower works well with a flush threshold.

These configurations just touch on the endless possibilities in custom shower design. Today, there are prefabricated shower bases in many sizes as big as 60"x60", and with flush or no threshold. Innovations in products such as the steel frames for benches or shelves and the ready-made, cement-board niches for tiled walls take some of the guesswork out of the installation. Unique shower shapes are showing up in prototypes and standard products at K/BIS, indications that manufacturers are looking to respond to this trend toward the larger and more luxurious shower.

I've always liked the distinction between art as lovely to look at and design as the marriage of that beauty with function. With all of this to choose from, it's up to us as designers to make that marriage work.