Bathroom designs range from supremely simple to devilishly complex, but even the most rudimentary three-fixture layouts can involve a lot of thought and can benefit from a little imagination.
Like kitchens, which also have a lot of large, heavy, immobile elements, bathrooms need to be right from the beginning. A world of annoyance awaits you if, for instance, the tub is positioned so the door hits it every time it's opened.
Putting new baths in old houses can be tricky. The space may not be ideal, and there are plumbing imperatives that have to be taken into account.
Fortunately, bath fixtures have come a long way in design terms. Among the wide variety are styles to fit in spaces that would have been impossible a few years ago.
Sinks, vanities, toilets, tubs and showers are all made to fit in corners. Pedestal sinks can go in corners and showers can go right in the middle of the room surrounded by a clear glass enclosure. Whirlpool baths fit into smaller spaces, and tile surrounds can be designed to fit a variety of tub/shower shapes.
There's no reason the room has to be square or rectangular; curved or angled walls can be dramatic design solutions.
There's also no reason the room has to be dark. Somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten that bathrooms don't have to be dark spaces lighted only by electricity.
Solid walls can be replaced with glass block to share light from an adjoining space; clerestory windows can let in light from a hallway or adjoining room; or roof windows can open the space to the sky. The old-fashioned solution was a transom window over the door, providing both light and ventilation. A modern update might use new or recycled stained glass.
The only thing that can interfere with your design is the plumbing. When you're designing a bath, keep in mind that:
*Plumbing codes mandate minimum distances between and in front of fixtures. Your layout will have to take those distances into account.
*Codes also mandate that drain pipes drop 1/4 inch per foot of run.
Depending on how far the pipes have to go, they may drop below the level of the floor joists. That may not matter in a basement or crawl space, but on a second or third floor may require lowering a ceiling or building a bulkhead to accommodate pipes.
*All bath fixtures need to be vented through the roof. Again, that may not matter much on a top floor, but could cause problems on a lower floor.
*Floors have to be strong enough to support the weight of a fully loaded bathtub or whirlpool bath -- and that includes the weight of the occupants. Especially if you're putting a bath in a space not originally designed as a living space, you need to make sure the joists are strong enough. In an attic, for instance, the joists may be smaller than on other floors, and sometimes are set on 24-inch, instead of 16-inch, centers.
*Basement bathrooms are sometimes a problem because the plumbing seems especially likely to back up. They can work, but the pipes need to run below the floor (which could mean tearing up a lot of concrete). The main drain may run across the basement wall and leave the house at or above the basement floor level. Changing it may be very difficult and so expensive it's not worth doing.
*Bathrooms are noisy. You can wrap plastic drains with fiberglass batts to lessen the noise, but you may want to position closets as buffers.
The basic costs of plumbing will be about the same whether the space is well designed or poorly conceived. The reward for good design is a bath that works so well you hardly notice the mechanics.
Next: Case histories in bath design.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.