A Holistic Approach to Bath Design

Designing master bathrooms that meet all of the clients’ criteria – within the appointed budget, on time, within construction constraints, all while creating their dream master retreat – can be a daunting task.

The challenges are present in both new construction and renovation projects.

Oftentimes, new construction master bathrooms are large in square footage, but poorly laid out. We are faced with plans featuring huge, oversized two-person bathtubs and small showers. Minimal space is devoted to the all-important vanity component of the room.

In remodeling projects, we are challenged with small, uninspired three-piece bathrooms placed in a corner of the master bedroom or serving both as a hallway bathroom and a master bathroom. These old bathrooms simply focused on providing the minimal space needed for the anticipated personal hygiene functions of the room. In many of these old bathrooms, there are small, dangerous bathtub/shower combinations. Today’s clients want to transform these rooms into a welcoming spa-like retreat that is comfortable and safe to use, both for their hygienic needs as well as for their “retreat” expectations.

For both new construction and renovation projects, there are three areas of the bathroom that have client-specific requirements.

• While many adults prefer the toilet to be in its own compartment, this seems to be less of a requirement for younger couples.

• Regardless of age, two adults sharing a space often have very different ideas about what their vanity center should look like and how it should function.

• Designers across the country tell me consumers are willing to give up a bathtub all together in the master suite; their focus is on a well-designed, oversized shower.

Based on my recent experiences designing master bathrooms, there are three strategies that might help you manage the space, the client and the budget when tackling these bathroom challenges.


Perform a Whole House ‘Inspection’

All too often, the designer and client stand at the doorway of the existing small bathroom and assume the dream bathroom is just not possible. I suggest that you take another strategy: a whole house “inspection” strategy. Go on a search to find space that can be repurposed, refocused or rearranged to serve the bathroom’s needs without compromising the other living areas.

Here are the details of this strategy:

• Make sure the prospective client understands that, when you visit the home, you would like to survey the entire level of living surrounding the bathroom and learn how the family uses these others areas. Reassure the consumer that you are not immediately planning an expensive construction project. You simply want to be familiar with all surrounding spaces. Having these insights and dimensional details will help you consider ways to rearrange adjacent areas, leading you to several viable solutions.

• Pay close attention to the following areas:

  1. The hallway leading to the bathroom;
  2. Bedroom spaces sharing a wall with the bathroom;
  3. Closet areas in the bathroom, in adjacent bedrooms, or those sharing a wall with the bathroom.

• When you arrive at the home, work in a clockwise fashion as you sketch the entire living area, noting each room’s purpose – and take photographs. It’s just impossible to remember the details of adjacent bedrooms, entry hallways, window placement, air conditioning ducts and the like.

• Plot the existing plumbing supply, drain and vent system for the bathroom under redesign, so you are aware of any constraints that may impact your creative solution development. This same detailing is needed for the HVAC system and the hot water supply fixture serving the bathroom.

• If the master bathroom under development is part of a master bedroom, discuss with your client how they use the sleeping portion of the master suite.

  1. Do they have a large television and armoire now that might soon be replaced with a flat screen television attached to a wall? This can free up a lot of floor space.
  2. Is there furniture located in the sleeping area that is never used?
  3. Is there an interest in equipment that currently is not in the master sleeping space: a small morning kitchen, a piece of exercise equipment, a yoga mat that you should be aware of?

I’ve discovered that if I carefully gather information about how adults use the bedroom space, I can often find creative ways to make this sleeping area smaller, or to reorganize or relocate closets within that sleeping space that frees up square footage adjacent to the bathroom. Moving closet area walls (that have typical wood framing with a drywall finish) to other parts of the sleeping zone is generally practical and affordable.

As you present your ideas, stay positive! Use words like “prioritizing,” “trade-off” or “first choice.” If your client is unsure of a suggestion you have verbally discussed, take the time to draw simple floor plan options that demonstrate your design concept. Include the sleeping area and/or other existing furniture in your options so the client clearly understands the solution you are proposing.


Pay Attention to Your Client

Pay careful attention to what the client wants in the new bathroom. Sometimes, we designers plan a bathroom that we think is ideal without quite completing an in-depth “due diligence” study of how our client would really like the room to work.

• How do they want it to work? How the bathroom functions related to water activities, storage requirements and mechanicals (HVAC/lighting) should be very personal. Additionally, it’s important to find out whether they want to be totally “connected” to their life in their bathroom, or completely “disconnected” (telephone, television, music, WiFi, etc.)?

• Regardless of age, carefully describe the safety aspects you will incorporate in the bathroom to ensure a comfortable and safe environment. I consider no-skid floor materials, attractive grab bars in the bathing/showering area and a bench or footrest in the shower to be mandatory design solution elements.

• How should it feel? Does the consumer want a place to escape to – or a place to party in!

Following are some questions I always try to ask.

• What are the priorities for the new “adults-only” area?

• What are the clients willing to trade? A bigger bathroom for a smaller sleeping area? A more luxurious dressing room in place of a rarely used chaise lounge corner?

• How would they like these areas to relate to one another? How do they feel about walking through a bedroom zone to reach the closet or the bathroom? Regardless of how the spaces function now, how would they like them to function?

• Would they like to get fully dressed in a closet (this means a place to sit down), or are they happy to gather their clothes from a closet zone, bring them into the bedroom, access undergarments from a traditional dresser, and then complete getting dressed in the bedroom? The line between dressing/sleeping/relaxing combination zones vs. a separate dressing room and a separate sleeping room is important to understand.

• Just how much “togetherness” is desirable? If two adults share a bathroom, do they use the space concurrently or sequentially? How do they feel about a toilet that is exposed to the master bathroom vs. being in its own compartment? Do they share the same values about neatness and organization in their vanity area, or would they be happier if they had separate stations?

• What type of grooming and hygiene supplies do they each maintain? Just as we oftentimes open the doors in an existing kitchen and study the contents as we plan the kitchen’s storage system, it’s critical that we have a sense of the amount of cosmetics, grooming aids and hygienic products the individual adults would like to have a storage spot for.

• What are the entertainment requirements of the bathroom space: charging station, speakers for their music system, television(s)?

• The all important question: “Is there to be both a bathtub and a shower?” In addition to learning if both must be featured, you need to know how many people will use one or both of these fixtures together.


Visually Expand the Space

Lastly, appreciate how a bathroom can appear bigger when we focus on products and design details that increase the visual space of the room. Even when existing bathroom spaces are expanded by the careful reorientation of adjacent rooms or functions, the size of the room can still prove challenging.


Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two design education textbooks. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies.