A space will never be physically larger than its actual footprint. But designers often use their creative minds to incorporate design techniques and elements that make a space feel and function much bigger than it is.
This month Kitchen & Bath Design News asked several designers to share their thoughts, and projects, about living large in a small bath.
Designer: Alisa Hofmann, Design Set Match, Oakland CA
Size of Space: 7’x9’
Design Goal: One of the homeowners has multiple sclerosis and is expected to be wheelchair bound within a year. Hofmann needed to redesign the space – the home’s only bathroom – within the same footprint and into something that could be accessible for his needs.
Design Solutions: Hofmann started the process by removing the tub and replacing it with a curbless shower. She equipped it with amenities that will simplify use for everyone, such as a teak shower seat that can be raised and lowered based on need and niches at two different levels to provide easy access to shampoo, etc. A bi-fold door helps facilitate traffic flow through the bathroom.
The 36×60 shower is a bit wider than the tub it replaced so Hofmann chose a shallow vanity – just 12” deep – and a semi-recessed sink. “We’ve taken up as little space as possible so he can still move around easily,” she says. Drawers on one side of the vanity and a pull-out on the other provide easy access to contents. “No reaching is required,” she says.
Additional Small Bath Design Tips: When you include a shower pan, keep it the same color as the floor tile, unless vision problems with the client are a concern. “Visual blocks make a space feel smaller,” Hofmann says.
Consider a tile size other than 12×12. “Our brains are familiar with that size and can subconsciously calculate the size of a room,” she says. “Instead, choose an overscaled tile, such as an 18×18 or 12×24, or something that is smaller [than 12×12]. When you take away the scale of things we look at every day, our brains don’t calculate that size as quickly and the space will feel larger.”
Choose a wall mount faucet. “It can save a few inches where a faucet would otherwise sit on the counter,” she says.
Small Bath Myths to Dispel: You need at least one tub in your home. “Most people take showers, even those with kids figure out how to shower their young ones,” she says.
Small baths require a pedestal sink. “You can still have a vanity in a small bath,” she says. “The extra storage space minimizes clutter, and clutter makes the space feel smaller.”
All master baths need two sinks. “Even if a small master bath has enough space for two sinks, the extra sink takes away elbow room and makes the space feel smaller,” she says.
‘Must Haves’: Hofmann suggests an electrical outlet near the toilet. “Even if a client doesn’t want to include a bidet seat at the time of the renovation, it costs just pennies to put the outlet in now versus later,” she says.
Another must have is a two-in-one showerhead where a handheld shower is included with the main showerhead. “It’s perfect for a tiny space where you don’t have room for any extras,” she says.
Other essentials include recessed cabinets with electrical outlets and medicine cabinets with integrated lighting.
Photo: Treve Johnson Photography
Designer: Julie Palmer, president, Charlie Allen Renovations, Cambridge, MA
Size of Space: 5×7
Design Goal: These clients wanted a first-floor bath that was as close to a full bath as possible to serve the needs of an aging mother who was living in the home.
Design Solutions: The small space didn’t allow for a tub so Palmer opted for a pre-fabricated, angled shower. The clients had acquired an inventory of antiques, and they wanted to highlight at least one piece in the bathroom. “This small piece fit perfectly,” says Palmer, who adds that in this particular space it is a better option than a built-in. “It can be a temptation in a small bath to put in lots of built-in storage. But that can take up a lot of room, and it can end up feeling a little closed in. We certainly could have included a built-in here that was taller than the antique piece we used, and which would have provided for more storage, but it would have overwhelmed the room. Storage is a key for small baths, but you want it to be on scale with the room.”
Additional Small Bath Design Tips: Incorporate elements from the rest of the house. Heat is also important, in particular radiant heat or a radiator that is recessed into the cavity of a wall.
Recessed built-ins, especially above a toilet, can gain extra storage space when needed. “Keeping things neat and tidy is key in a small bath,” she says. “The more you can put away, the cleaner the bath looks, and therefore, the bigger it appears.”
Small Bath Myths to Dispel: You need lots of storage. “A medicine cabinet and/or an over-the-toilet cabinet can provide all the storage really necessary in a bathroom,” she says. “An adjacent closet for towels and other items is fine, since we really don't need that much to be stored in the physical space. A hook on the door allows you to bring a towel into the space when you need it. If no closet is available nearby, a basket on the floor for towels tucked under a wall-mounted or pedestal sink works well.”
“Must Haves’: Palmer recommends a pedestal or console sink. “Vanities take up a lot of space,” she says, “especially visual space. While the footprint for a vanity and pedestal may be similar, a pedestal is light and airy, which helps the space look larger. You can always add a basket on the floor, or a recessed cabinet to make up for any storage space that is lost by not having a vanity.”
“But don’t buy a pedestal or console sink that is too small,” she cautions. “Make sure it has enough deck space to function. Choosing a wall-mount faucet can give you more room on the sink ledge.”
Proper lighting is also essential, according to Palmer. “The brighter the room, the less cramped it feels,” she says.
Photo: Shelly Harrison Photography
Ivonne Ronderos, principal, DKOR Interiors, Aventura, FL
Size of Space: about 350 square feet
Design Goal: Since this space is a cabana bathroom, Ronderos collaborated with her design team to give the space a connection with the outdoors, as well as to make it feel soothing, “as one might imagine a spa would feel,” she says.
Design Solutions: They designed the tile to give the illusion that this small bath was larger than it actually was. “By wrapping the floor tile into the shower, up the shower wall and onto the ceiling, we created an effect that made the bathroom feel wider,” she explains. “Rather than break up the sink and shower areas, we combined the two. Also, only wrapping a portion of the ceiling is important, otherwise, the ceiling will feel too ‘heavy’.”
The other challenge associated with this particular bath was how to address the window above the toilet, which only allowed for a 12” to 14” wide mirror. “With the ledge-wrapped carpentry piece that looks like a reverse ‘C’ – which also follows the path of the material that is wrapped in the shower – we encased the mirror and window to give the illusion that the vanity area is longer,” she explains. “Also, since there was no space on the sink for accessories, this ledge became the perfect place for the soap pump, etc. Using neutral tones in the small space also helps it feel larger.”
Additional Small Bath Design Tips: If the vanity area is small, extend the mirror beyond the sink space to enhance functionality, as well as broaden the feel of the space, she suggests. Additionally, neutral tones and accent tile on a wall that is not disrupted by a door or large architectural element will ‘enlarge’ the room. “This way, the accent color is on the ‘visually’ largest wall,” she says.
“Wrapping a material, whether it is tile or even just a paint color, is always fun and out of the box,” she continues. “But again, it is important that the wrapping has a purpose and isn’t a full wrap so the space does not get claustrophobic.”
Adding a unique design element to the space allows guests to focus on the element rather than the size of the space. “But like all designs in any space the key is restraint!” she stresses. “If all elements in a space compete, they won’t get noticed. One or two design elements that complement each other will be more impactful that five design elements… quality over quantity.”
Small Bath Myths to Dispel: Not everything has to match exactly. “There’s a fine line between pieces complementing each other and matching,” she explains. “For example, in this bath we introduced different tones of green from the accent wall, rather than using the exact color. This actually creates more depth and interest. We achieved the same effect with the variety of taupe colors through the tile, accent color and wood veneer tones.”
‘Must Haves’: Get creative with storage, she encourages. “Use hidden/concealed storage as much as possible,” she says. “The less clutter, the larger the space will feel.”
For baths that require a shower curtain, use an extra-long curtain and hang it near the ceiling, she advises. “Just like the great trick with drapery, the curtain starting at the top of the ceiling will make the space feel more grand,” she says. “Finally, use larger scale tiles on the floor to create less grout lines, which will clutter up the space.”
Photo: Alexia Fodere
Bryanne Prichett, BRY design, Austin, TX
Size of Space: 8’x10’
Design Goal: This space – which previously was a small, uninspired hall bath and part of an adjacent bedroom – is a husband’s master bath. He wanted a soaking tub, shower… and TV.
Design Solutions: The client insisted on including a tub, as well as a shower, which meant Prichett had to look for something other than a standard-size tub. “I included a Japanese-style tub, 40x40x32, which he loves!” she says.
The designer changed the width of the window to gain enough space for the shower, which is about 54”x54”. The TV, another request from the client, was concealed in a built-in cabinet above the toilet. Additionally, an outlet in a small cabinet built into the wall near the sink conceals his toothbrush to keep clutter at bay.
Additional Small Bath Design Tips: Keep tub decks small if space is at a premium and remove any extra ‘lines’ that impair your vision, such as framed shower walls and tile lines that harshly contrast with walls. “I also try to keep colors lighter as a whole to keep the space from closing in,” she says.
Small Bath Myths to Dispel: “Just because a bathroom is small doesn’t mean you can’t have it all!” she says in reference to tubs, TVs and high-end finishes.
‘Must Haves’: Built-ins are a great space saver, says Prichett. “Shower niches built into the wall keep the shower tidy and add more open space,” she says. “I also do built-in niches/cabinets – with electrical outlets – in walls near the sink to hide unsightly cords from electric toothbrushes, razors, etc. These items can always be charging, but fit nicely in the wall.
“If there is room, I also include cabinet towers on top of countertops,” she continues, “especially when there are wasted corners on L-shaped vanities.”
Photo: Bryanne Prichett
Fardid Biglar, BiglarKinyan Design, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Size of Space: 6×9
Design Goal: Since this bathroom was located in the basement, Biglar wanted to remove the stigma associated with subterranean spaces. As such, he focused on creating a visually rich space. “To make it feel more exciting to use, I played up on various senses… for example, the feel of a raised wood floor, marble pebbles, etc.” he says.
Design Solutions: Biglar used a number of techniques to achieve his goal, including layering textures, establishing a focal point and extending materials beyond existing boundaries. “We utilized some smooth elements with those that have a bit of pattern or texture,” he says, adding that he took into consideration visual weight as well. “You can highlight what you want people to see… identify the focal point. This creates depth. In this bath, the wall with the mirror has a lot more texture than the other walls. When you walk in, your eye goes to that wall, rather than to items that are closer. It gives the illusion that the space is deeper than it actually is. By stretching the textured material into the shower space, it also makes the space feel wider. The use of glass helps as well.”
Additional Small Bath Design Tips: Don’t incorporate too many design elements. “That can break the coherence,” he says, adding that it also weighs down the space. “When you have a small space, you don’t want to break it up too much… rather just enough to establish a focal point. Reducing the number of materials also makes the space easier to digest… making it more peaceful and serene. Limit the number of materials to maybe three or four.”
Incorporate unifying elements. “Small bathrooms are great spaces to be bold, but don’t completely deviate from the style of the rest of the house,” he says.
Utilize bumpouts to gain function. “Consider pushing vanities or the toilet tank back,” he says, adding that even 6” can offer a lot of storage. “You can generate extra floor space and gain storage or countertop.”
Small Bath Myths to Dispel: Small bathrooms don’t have to feel small, and they don’t have to be plain. “Make it special,” he says. “And look for opportunities to generate more function, without weighing it down.”
‘Must Haves’: Good lighting is critical, so is adequate counter space, storage and beautiful finishes and details. “Choose fixtures that have clean lines and aren’t fussy,” he recommends. “Easy-to-maintain finishes are also important because in a small space, every bit of it will be used. Also, remember that you are a lot closer to finishes and elements. Make informed decisions regarding things like tiles and how they’re composed, cut and installed. Every bit of construction matters because you are so close to everything. Finally, don’t be scared to splurge on luxury finishes… it won’t impact the budget as much due to the small square footage.”
Photo: BiglarKenyan Design