More in Small Bathrooms

Making the Pieces Fit

Some help with solving the bath design puzzle

Bathroom Puzzle
Photo by Brian Vanden Brink
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Per square foot, a bathroom has more equipment than any other room in the house. It's pricey acreage, and every inch counts. At the same time, bathrooms today are being asked to do more: accommodate more people, give them more privacy, provide generous storage, and fit luxury amenities such as steam showers and whirlpools. Squeezing it all in is no easy task. "It's like piecing together a puzzle," says This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. "Sometimes you have to draw it a hundred times to get everything to fit."

But whether the puzzle is a compact powder room, a kid-friendly family bath, or a spa-style master retreat, the approach to solving it always starts the same way. First, consider who will be using the space. Next, think about the number and style of fixtures you'd like to accommodate. And finally, work out where those fixtures can be placed.

While there's usually more than one solution to any bath design challenge, here are some basic strategies for planning a bathroom that works.

Per square foot, a bathroom has more equipment than any other room in the house. It's pricey acreage, and every inch counts. At the same time, bathrooms today are being asked to do more: accommodate more people, give them more privacy, provide generous storage, and fit luxury amenities such as steam showers and whirlpools. Squeezing it all in is no easy task. "It's like piecing together a puzzle," says This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. "Sometimes you have to draw it a hundred times to get everything to fit."

But whether the puzzle is a compact powder room, a kid-friendly family bath, or a spa-style master retreat, the approach to solving it always starts the same way. First, consider who will be using the space. Next, think about the number and style of fixtures you'd like to accommodate. And finally, work out where those fixtures can be placed.

While there's usually more than one solution to any bath design challenge, here are some basic strategies for planning a bathroom that works.

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The Half-Bath: A showcase for style

 

The Half-Bath: A showcase for style

Family bathroom floor plan
Illustration by Ian Worpole
"Zoning" a shared bathroom creates separate areas for more private functions. Don't neglect storage needs; this bath has an ample closet opposite the sinks, and room for shelving next to the toilet.
With only two fixtures to accommodate, half-baths (often called powder rooms) practically design themselves. Minimum dimensions are amazingly compact: You can fit a sink and a toilet into less than 20 square feet and still meet building codes. Half-baths don't need much storage, natural light usually is not a priority — a window may even detract from privacy — and less counter space cuts down on clutter.



But there are some practical considerations, starting with the entrance. If possible, the door should swing into the room rather than out, even though that eats up floor space. (A door requires at least its own width in clear floor space in order to swing open, with additional room to maneuver so someone inside the bathroom can shut the door without having to stand on the toilet.) An in-swinging door also avoids the problem of where to "store" the open door. If the space is simply too small, consider a sliding pocket door, which allows you to keep the door open without blocking the hallway.

Specially designed fixtures can also conserve precious space. Small pedestal sinks, corner sinks, wall-mounted basins, and round rather than oval toilets take up less room than their conventional counterparts.

Because it's the bathroom most often used by guests, a half-bath is a chance to showcase style without sacrificing functionality. "It's typically where you'd want the most architectural detail," says Chris Dallmus, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, architect and a frequent consultant on This Old House projects. "A powder room is an opportunity to do something that's small and intimate but at the same time has sex appeal."

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The Family Bath: High-traffic and kid-friendly

 

The Family Bath: High-traffic and kid-friendly

Master bath floor plan with five fixtures
Illustration by Ian Worpole
With a tub, shower, toilet, and double vanity, a master bath is the utmost in luxury. As the room expands, so does the need for natural light. Windows make bathing more pleasant and also help to ventilate humidity and odors.
The family bath is a serious workspace. It's got at least three fixtures (typically toilet, sink, and combination bathtub/shower) and is also the central depository for toothbrushes, towels, medicines, and all manner of grooming gear. The minimum floor space for a three-fixture bathroom is about 40 square feet.



The key to solving the family bath puzzle is determining how many people will be using it at the same time. "I have two kids, so in my house, using the bathroom is almost a community event," Dallmus says. If the family is lining up every morning to get in, consider separating the toilet and shower from the sink area, a technique known as zoning. "Someone can be in the shower, a function that demands more privacy, and they can be cloistered off behind a wall or pocket door," Dallmus says.

Similarly, a separate toilet stall (often called a water closet or WC) can open up a room to more than one user at a time without sacrificing privacy. Such a space should be at least 36 inches wide and 66 inches deep for maximum comfort. Another option is a stall with half-height walls, which feels less cramped, lets in more light, and eliminates door-swing issues. Sinks — what type and how many — pose the next question. For a family, double sinks can be handy, but to be really functional they require 6 feet of counter space; anything less and you'll elbow your neighbor while brushing your teeth. If you prefer the look of pedestal sinks, bear in mind that you'll have to account for storage needs elsewhere.

Bathing is the last piece of the puzzle. Remember that regardless of size, a bathtub needs at least a 12-inch clearance from any adjacent fixture and 36 inches of clear floor space for someone to get in and out easily. If you're looking to conserve floor space, a shower stall takes up about half the area of a tub, although you'll have to account for door swing if you're not satisfied with a shower curtain. If you opt for a shower, choose a stall that is at least 36 inches square; anything smaller feels claustrophobic.

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The Master Bath: A private retreat

 

The Master Bath: A private retreat

While a family bath focuses on utility, a master bath is about comfort and relaxation. "A master bath is no longer a compartment," says Dallmus. "It's really more like another room in your house." And like a room, it requires space: at least 80 square feet for a toilet, sink, shower, and luxury feature such as a whirlpool bath — but bigger is better.



Master baths are frequently integrated into master suites, which might include a sitting room and walk-in closet or dressing room. In addition to being functional, those spaces help to buffer the sound of water running and cabinets opening and closing. "You want to protect the sleeping person from activity in the bathroom," Dallmus says.

Because space is usually abundant, the number and location of fixtures are a matter of personal preference and practical plumbing guidelines. Dallmus gives special consideration to the placement of the bathtub: Because the tub doesn't occupy much upper-wall space, it can be used as an opportunity to add windows, bringing in natural light, improving ventilation, and allowing bathers to take advantage of views.

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Clearances and Standard Dimensions

For comfort, safety, and accessibility, bathroom fixtures require additional clear floor space, as shown in these industry-recommended minimums. Check building codes for specific clearance requirements in your area.

Sink: 15 inches from center adjacent wall or fixture

Toilet: 15 inches from center to adjacent wall or fixture

Tub: 12 inches to adjacent wall or fixture

Shower: Door requires at least its own width in floor space

 
 

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