Getting More Bathroom Space

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If it looks as if though the guy who built your home did everything in his power to make the bathrooms as small and featureless as possible, that's probably exactly what he did.
When your old house was built, 40 or more years ago, a grand bathroom was not a big selling point. Buyers wanted spacious living areas and large bedrooms, breezy porches. The bathroom was considered one of those utility areas like the laundry room and furnace room that got tucked in wherever it would fit in the smallest size that would accommodate the functions it needed to perform. If the builder had provided a grand bath, buyers would have wondered why he was wasting all that perfectly good space.
Now that the bathroom concept has changed into a spacious room for relaxation and repose, its hard to find the roominess you need in the standard functional 5" by 9" bathroom. But, if you want more features in your bathroom than the standard sink/tub/toilet, then more room is going to be required from somewhere.
You have three basic options:

Adding Space to the Bathroom


You have two ways of adding space to your bathroom: Take some space from an adjacent room or build an addition. Of the two, stealing existing space from another room is usually less expensive, so let's look at that first.

Stealing Space from Another Room

Annexing an entire room to enlarge a bath can produce dramatic results, but not everyone can grab that much real estate from an existing floor plan. If you can't confiscate an adjacent room to create your ideal bath, consider a less ambitious acquisition. Does a closet adjoin the bath? Perhaps utility space harbors idle square footage next to its lone water heater. Even small gains can transform an ordinary bath into a more inviting and functional space.

Look in the Closet

OK, no one actually has enough closet space. But if it comes down to sacrificing a little closet space for a spacious new bath, can't you do without those kayak paddles from your senior class rowing trip? Snatching an adjacent closet (or one already in the room) to enlarge an existing bath is a time-honored space-getting trick. Even part of a closet might do.
A guest room with a large closet probably does not need all that much closet space. Leave some of it for the kids when they visit, and donate the rest to the bathroom.
A large closet can even be converted into a small powder room. We have seen perfectly functional 1/2 baths in a 3' x 5' space. Small, yes, but it works.

Converting the Guest Bedroom

How many times a year do you use your guest bedroom? Three, four times? The rest of the time it accumulates clutter and serves merely as a place for you to practice your dusting skills. Who needs that spare bedroom more — an occasional guest or your busy household? Commandeer the whole bedroom for a spacious bath, or grab part of it to expand a nearby bath. You can considerably reduce the size of all but the smallest guest rooms by replacing the bed with a futon or hide-away bed, or even by bolting a Murphy bed to the wall. Stealing just two feet along a 10-foot common wall would increase the size of a small bathroom by 50%. Definitely worth doing.

Don't Spare the Stair

If there is space under your staircase, you can put it to work as a powder room. Or, turn it into storage and convert another closet elsewhere in the house.

Get Creative

We have created more bathroom space out of entry closets, breakfast nooks, mudrooms, bedrooms, under-eave spaces, and one sewing room. There's a good chance the necessary space is there. You just have to get creative about finding it.

Building Additional Space

If there is no economical or convenient way to snooker the needed space from another room inside the house, the only option may be to build some more space. There are two basic ways of doing so, a bump-out and an actual, full-blown, addition.

Bump-Out a Wall

If there's nowhere to go but out, a bump-out or cantilevered wall projection can provide extra square feet for a tub or shower without the need for a full addition with its expensive footings. You can gain as much as 2 feet of additional space. This may not sound like much, but it would increase the floor space in a typical small bath by 25%. Not all houses suit this option - for one thing all the floor joists must run the right way, but if it works, it's a relatively inexpensive way of gaining new space for the bathroom.
There is one other option for the right situation. A bay window, as you know, is usually a large, heavy assembly that is just bolted to the side of the house. Taking our cue from the window guys, we engineered a bump-out bay that simply bolts to the side of the house. There are weight limitations on the bay. A tub cannot be installed in the bay, it's too heavy. But, the bay is just fine for a vanity or storage cabinets. The nicest thing about a bay is that it is usually cheaper than a bump-out.

Consider an Addition

Often by far the most expensive option, sometimes an addition is the only possibility. We can build an addition for you, and design the bathroom into it, all at the same time. The nice thing about an addition is that you can build it to fit the bathroom rather than having to design the bathroom to fit the available space. The only restrictions are lot size and set-back requirements, and, of course, your budget. For more information on designing and building an addition, start with Planning Your House Addition.

Finding More Space Inside the Bathroom


Once you have gathered all the space you can from outside the bathroom, its time to look at the bathroom itself. Artful bathroom design is about packing a lot of efficiency, a sense of openness, and great style into tight quarters. The challenge is to maximize apparent floor area while accommodating the trio of plumbing necessities - sink, toilet, and tub and/or shower - that collectively demand so much square footage. You can make even the tiniest bath work hard and feel bigger, brighter, and more comfortable to use. Here are some ideas we have gathered over the years that you may find useful.

Rethink the Bathroom Door

Just about the first thing we look at is an opportunity to reverse the bathroom door. A door that opens out into the hallway rather than into the bathroom frees up a lot of space that can become useful storage, and, if nothing else, makes the bathroom seem larger. It's not always possible, but if it is possible, it's usually worth doing.
Or, how about a pocket door? Replacing a hinged door with sliding pocket door also frees up the area inside the bathroom required for the door to swing. It's usually more expensive than reversing an existing door, but where there is no room for a swing-out door, a pocket door may work. The new pocket doors, especially the commercial models we use, unlike many earlier versions, are sturdy, robust, and will provide trouble-free operation for the life of the room.

Rearrange and Replace

Reconfigure fixtures to help traffic flow and eliminate wasted space. Replace a large vanity with a shallow vanity or counter top. A vanity is typically 21" deep. You don't need that much room to brush your teeth. Except around the sink, the vanity can be as little as 12" deep. Ok, you only opened up an additional 9" of floor space, but itís amazing how much it adds that feeling of spaciousness and freedom of movement.

Replace Bulky with Sleek and Slim

Substitute sleek, slim fixtures for bulky ones. Dump the vanity entirely and install a pedestal sink, better yet, a wall-mounted sink. If your family prefers showers to baths, eliminate the tub and install a shower instead. A shower can take up much less room than a full-size tub, often as little as half.

Don't Waste Corner Space:

Corners are big opportunities. Consider corner fixtures such as tubs, showers, and vanities. Replacing a full-size tub with a corner tub saves as much as 1/3rd of the tub's floor space.

Build in More Storage

Most baths have a basic storage package: The bathroom vanity, a medicine cabinet and, if large enough, a linen cabinet or linen closet. Medicine cabinets are usually too small. In the 1940's when they became common, they were probably big enough for the Gillette Safety Razor, the Burma Shave and Right Guard Stick. Now, however, they don't even hold all the vitamins (which actually should not be in the bathroom — see Illustrated Rules of Good Bathroom Design for more information). Vanity storage is dark, inconvenient and competes with water and drain pipes. Linen closets are usually too narrow and too deep to be practical. We have never figured out why anyone ever thought a closet two feet deep and 16" wide was useful for anything other than practicing cave exploration skills.

The "Iron Rules" of Storage

Since storage usually has to be vastly improved anyway, use the opportunity capture some more space inside the bath. But, don't forget the iron rules of storage:
  1. Items should be stored where they are first used.
  2. Size storage to the things being stored.
  3. Store items in a single layer with no item hidden behind or beneath another.

Put Bare Walls to Work

Put those bare walls to work. Any wall not covered by the shower, sink or toilet is a storage opportunity waiting to be built. The space in the wall between studs is ideal shallow storage that can run from floor to ceiling. How about a floor to ceiling medicine cabinet built right into the wall? Who else even has one?
Wall cabinets are typical in kitchens for convenient storage, rare in bathrooms. But shallow. bathroom-style wall cabinets on both sides of the sink and above the toilet provide very useful and convenient storage for linens and all sorts of personal items. Corner wall cabinets that open from two sides are especially accessible and effective on both sides of the lavatory.

Revamp the Bathroom Vanity

Typical vanities are awful storage. The large space under the sink is dark, uninviting and full of pipes. Whatever gets pushed to the back is pretty much lost forever. Pull out trays and baskets are needed to make this space even marginally effective storage.
A new idea we think has a great deal of merit is a wrap-around drawer under the sink. The drawer has a cut-out that fits around the sink and compartments to hold all the things you use at the sink — brushes, pins, Q-tips, hair bands and so on. If the vanity is being custom made, the drawer are a simple addition. If the cabinets are factory-made, the drawers are simple enough to convert out of a regular drawer.

Use Toe-Kick Space

Create a space in the toe kick space under the vanity to hide the bathroom scale. Toe-kick space in a bathroom is usually completely unused, but has a lot of potential for storage. See Using Toe-Kick Space for more ideas.

Replace the Hamper

Get the hamper out of the way. We have never seen a traditional bathroom in which there was actually room for a hamper. It gets stuck in wherever it will fit — and most of the time it doesn't fit. A hamper can be built into a vanity or other cabinet, even into a wall.
One of the most creative ideas we have seen was a tip-out hamper built into the wall adjoining the laundry room. It tipped out in the laundry room to unload the clothes into the washer. How about a laundry-chute? A lot of old houses had them, and we don't understand why they fell out of favor. A small hatch in the wall of the bathroom for a chute takes up a lot less space than a hamper, and is a lot more convenient for mom come laundry day.

Consider a Power Cabinet

Another idea we like a lot and build often is a "power" cabinet. In a narrow cabinet on the right side of the vanity (left side for southpaws) we install a drawer deep enough to hold a hair dryer and add a GFI electrical outlet inside the drawer
Plug electrical appliances — hair driers, curling irons, hot rollers, electric toothbrushes — in the outlet and store them in the trays when not in use. All those electrical cords snaking across the countertop are now gone forever: hidden behind the cabinet door. An outlet can also be installed inside a wall cabinet, or, as a last resort, beneath the sink in the vanity.

Creating the Illusion of More Bathroom Space

Once you have examined every possible avenue to actually creating more space, it may be time to look at what can be done to make the available space seem roomier and make it more functional, friendly and easier to use.

Add Natural Light

Open up the room to the outdoors and let the sunshine in. Add windows if possible, and replace small windows with larger ones. We seldom see a bay, bow or box window in a bathroom (unless we put it in), yet these are very effective not only in fostering the illusion of more space, but actually providing more space — a wonderful space, indeed, for humidity- and sunshine-loving plants.
Eliminate heavy window treatments. Curtains and shutters undo all the good effects of windows. If privacy is an issue, use obscured glass or even glass blocks. But leave as much of the view as you can. Long views are another way of making a small room seem larger (see below).
If more windows is not an option, consider adding a skylight. A skylight not only lets in daylight, but can be opened to increase ventilation. However, if the bathroom is on the first floor of a multi-story house, a skylight may not be practical. In such case consider a light tube.
Light tubes are small, very reflective tubular skylights that can be installed where traditional skylights do not fit. A 14" tube, can be up to 15' long (to reach even a 2-1/2 story roof) and can snake around obstructions. A tube delivers about as much full-spectrum sunlight as a 36" x 36" window — more than enough for a small bath.

Carefully Add Artificial Lighting

Say good-bye to dark, room-shrinking shadows with well-placed and carefully designed artificial light. Even with natural light sources, a bathroom needs abundant artificial lighting. It is often most heavily used first thing in the morning and last thing at night when natural daylight is scarce in our part of the world. Bathrooms are often poorly lit with, at most, a central incandescent lamp and a vanity light of some sort — usually right overhead where it casts very harsh shadows.
The same general rules that govern the use of artificial light in kitchens (See: Designing Efficient and Effective Kitchen Lighting) apply to bathrooms. There needs to be a good source of overall (or ambient) light and bright, but not harsh, and shadowless lighting above each task area — vanity, tub, shower, and cosmetics table.
Architect and designer David Edrington prefers to light the lavatory area from the side. " I prefer a framed mirror above a lavatory with sconces on the side", he writes, "because they give the best light to the sides of the face and fewer shadows in the facial recesses than light from above the face."
For the most efficient lighting, fluorescent lamps should be used wherever possible. If fluorescents are not possible, then more efficient halogen or xenon lamps should be preferred to standard incandescent lights.

Use, But Don't Overuse, Reflective Surfaces

Reflective surfaces increase light and create the illusion of more space. Matte finished and opaque surfaces may make a small bathroom seem suffocating.
An abundance of glass together with lots of light are what makes a small room bigger. While you need to be cautious about enclosing the room in a sea of mirrors — which can be disorienting: carefully placed mirrors can greatly enhance the impression of roominess and multiply the effects existing lighting many times over.

Ban Opague Shower Curtains

One of the worse sins of bath design is the opaque shower curtain. We don't know where the notion came from that the bath tub must be enclosed in perpetual twilight — but we wish it would go away. An opaque shower curtain cuts three feet out of the room. In a 5' x 9' bathroom, that's 1/3rd of the space. And, for the curtain also generally blocks the natural light from the only window in the room. There is certainly a need for privacy in the bath, but come on, just lock the door. Get rid of that heavy curtain. Replace it, hopefully, with a full-height clear glass shower door or, at least, a transparent curtain.

Stay Away from Trends

Avoid trendy colors for durable items such as fixtures and cabinets. That au courant, gotta have "organdy rose" sink that all the interior decorators are raving about is going to be outdated within 5 years and join the legions of avocado and hot pink sinks we have removed and replaced merely because the color is so, well, awful. Put trendy colors, if you just must have them, in paint, wallpaper and accessories that can be easily changed when the color becomes dated — and it will become dated.
For fixtures, stick with white. White is just about everyone's first or second choice in fixture color, so it's hard to go wrong with white. White has been around for 150 years and has never been outdated. But, if you just must have another color, stay with the lighter palette. Avoid black, dark anything, and whatever color is shown most frequently in the designer magazines. This is the color that will soon be woefully outdated.

Create a Unifying Design Theme with Strong Horizontal Lines

A cohesive design theme that repeats color, texture, and materials will visually unify a bathroom and make it seem larger by subtly blurring the boundaries between major fixture centers. For instance, if counters, floors, shower and tub surrounds are made of the same material, such as ceramic or stone tile, your eye perceives the elements as one rather than as separate parts.
Your color palette should be light and monochromatic. Dark woodwork and cabinets close the room in. Light woods such as maple, hickory, alder or pine; or light paints make it appear larger. Abrupt changes in color from feature to feature stop the eye and break up the space visually. If there are to be color changes, they should be subtle, gradual and well blended. Using white in fixtures, tiles, flooring, and paint is a safe and sure design approach. Not only does it provide an expansive continuity to the room, but it also brightens the space and serves as a neutral backdrop for color accents in towels, vases, and bands of decorative tiles.
Strong Horizontal lines make the room larger, vertical lines make it smaller. Wainscot is very effective in visually enlarging a small room, as is a horizontal band of darker tile in a light tile wall. Pillars, columns and heavy vertical stripes in wallpaper are to be shunned like the plague.

Clear Sightlines and Borrowed Views

Architect Sarah Susanka (whose book, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, has turned upside down the way many designers and builders think about housing) argues that well-designed and carefully appointed small, human-size rooms are preferable to the oversize galleries that make up too much of our new housing. But, she says, small rooms can be confining and cell-like unless they are designed to include long, clear sight lines.
Clear sight lines are critical to creating the illusion of space. Get rid of the clutter on the floor and countertops. Stick the wastebasket in a corner, and store toiletries in cabinets and drawers — not on the counter top. A cluttered room just seems smaller. Allow nothing to interfere with clean and clear lines of sight.
Borrow long views, where possible, from other spaces or even from outdoors through a window so the room you are in seems larger because you can see far spaces outside the room. Even a small window makes any room seem less confining as well as adding natural light. But keep in mind that a good view into other rooms also generally means a good view into the bathroom from the other rooms. So there must be a balance between openness and privacy.

Select Appropriate Bath Fixtures

If you are wondering what the distinction is between a lavatory, commode, basin and sink, the answer is: not much. They all mean "bathroom sink" and are pretty much used interchangeably. A commode is typically a sink mounted on or in a cabinet. A commode cabinet is designed to look like furniture and the term commode is often used to refer to the cabinet rather than the sink itself. Lavatory and basin refer only to bath sinks. The word "sink" means all of these but when professionals use the term to describe a bath sink it typically refers to a sink not mounted in a cabinet, for example a pedestal or wall sink. However… more Ľ
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