Design Ideas for the Smaller Bath

“Storage, always an issue, is particularly challenging in the small bath. Storage can be ‘found’ by boxing out space between studs, while the design of features for vanity cabinets provides storage pockets by accessing every inch of space under the sink.”

Author: Mary Jo Peterson

Repeatedly, when I am speaking about bath design, I am asked to discuss creative ways to deal with the traditional 5’x8′ or 5’x9′ bathroom. This should come as no surprise, given that in the three years following World War II, 2.5 million new homes were built across the U.S., and that the standard was to have one bathroom, typically this size.

There were two very common layouts, the first being with of all the fixtures – and so all of the plumbing – on one wall. The second was to have the vanity and toilet on one wall and the tub/shower on the opposing wall, often with a linen closet at the head of the tub, providing storage and plumbing access. Think pink and gray or mint green and black, with chrome accessories and a clothes chute.

Although there is some appeal for this retro look, the fact remains that so many of the bath renovations we are invited to design include this original 5’x8′ or 5’x9′ space. When we incorporate the adjoining bedroom to expand the bath suite, options are limitless. But, for this column, we’ll review a few ideas that work specifically for that smaller space.

To begin with, it’s important to establish priorities and parameters with the client. Determine which items must be stored in the bathroom, such as one back-up roll of toilet paper, and which items might be stored elsewhere, i.e. the remaining extra rolls of toilet paper.

Although we are using the case where walls are not to be moved in a major way, explore the possibility of borrowing small amounts from adjacent spaces. Six inches of the adjacent closet space, when combined with the thickness of the wall, might provide incredible storage 10″ deep, plus or minus, which would accommodate most things stored in the bathroom.

Storage, always an issue, is particularly challenging in the small bath. Two things work in our favor here: the fact that medicines, paper goods, grooming products and most things stored in the bathroom will fit in very shallow-depth storage, and second, the many ways that storage accessory design has expanded.

Taking care to avoid outside or plumbing walls, storage can be “found” by boxing out the space between studs, whether for a traditional medicine cabinet or for a custom storage space. Because we no longer find the laundry in the basement, the laundry chute space can often be repurposed in this way.

The design of features for vanity cabinets also provides storage pockets by accessing every inch of space under the sink, some with GFI outlets for the growing number of small appliances used in grooming. Beyond the built-in storage features, explore the after-market accessories that might provide convenient access for the hairdryer or cord storage for charging.

Clear floor space contributes to the visual sense of the small bathroom and, equally important, improves maneuvering. A first consideration is the door-swing, which can sometimes be eliminated by reversing the swing direction (out of the room instead of into the room) or by incorporating a pocket or barn door.

The simple and most effective way to actually increase clear floor space is to replace the built-in tub with a no-threshold shower. With the huge growth of flush linear drains, this has become more mainstream and popular. Once the location of the showerhead and the direction of water flow have been determined for water containment, this design concept removes an obstacle and creates more space. While glass is a beautiful shower enclosure that enhances the sense of openness, a shower curtain improves flexibility and clear floor space because it requires no “swing space.”

In the vanity area, floating cabinetry can create both a sense of space and increased clear floor space. Rounding the vanity cabinetry and using shallow cabinets with a sink that projects out from the face of the cabinets can save floor space. While a pedestal or wall-hung sink can improve clear floor space, it is critical that there be a work surface. Extending the vanity top over the toilet tank, sometimes referred to as a banjo top, can help to expand functional surface space.

In the toileting area, the wall-hung toilet is the greatest space saver. While moving a waste line is not always practical or possible, this option can save as much as six inches in clear floor space, and it also allows for toilets at custom heights. This is a good spot for pocketing toilet paper storage into the adjacent wall when possible. A toilet that is placed between the vanity and the shower also offers improved access to the toilet and, in some cases, the toilet can be used as a shower chair.

Although attention to aesthetics doesn’t physically grow the space, there are a number of ways to visually expand the sense of space. Generous lighting, particularly natural and indirect, can enhance the sense of space. If a side panel is to be used at the shower, clear frameless glass is best for enlarging the space. Floating cabinets, use of mirrors and lighter colors, but with depth of texture, will grow the space.

Attention to the ceiling will help to draw the eye up, as will vertical lines in the design. Identifying a focal point and then directing the eye to it through the use of the design elements will also serve to expand the space.

From history with the standard design in post-WWII houses and perhaps looking forward as we downsize with age, there is a need to hone our skill set in making the most of the smaller bath. Hopefully these concepts may add to your toolbox for doing so. KBDN

Mary Jo Peterson, CMKBD, CAPS, CLIPP, is an award-winning designer whose work has earned her national recognition including induction into the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s Hall of Fame. She is certified in kitchen, bath, aging-in-place, and active adult housing design. President of her Connecticut-based design firm, Peterson has authored three books on Universal Design and is a frequent national speaker and educator.

This article was originally published at Kitchen & Bath Design.