Master Bath Strategies

To create a winning master bath with limited square footage, assess the space, identify the client’s functional, aesthetic and stylistic preferences, and focus on incorporating unique and spectacular design details.

authors Ellen Cheever | May 31, 2017

All too often, designers across the country tell me that, when offered a master bathroom project, the clients’ dream of an adult oasis is limited by the existing bathroom space and their unrealistic budget. While this may be the reality we all face with our “post Great Recession” clientele, let me suggest you not spend your energy complaining…but be energized by the challenge presented to you.

Several strategies can help you create an exciting solution for a master bath space that must be completed within the confines of the available square footage. And, while they may not all fit within the client’s budget, these strategies will at least help you justify a recommendation to increase the initial budget!

While these solutions do work for over-the-top, once-in-a-lifetime projects, they’re also effective for smaller master bathroom undertakings.


Begin the planning process with a thorough and accurate assessment of the existing space. That also means identifying the client’s functional, aesthetic and stylistic preferences.

I know we all think we already do this…but re-evaluate your effectiveness as an information-gathering specialist. Take the time – carefully and calmly, with purposeful attention to their answers – to ask personal, probing questions about how the adults use the space. Organize this information-gathering process so it provides an opportunity for you to offer “what-if” unexpected solutions for the clients to consider.

Do not limit this information-gathering stage of the design process to just asking questions: Add a little showmanship. Suggest anything from adding a fireplace that does not need to be vented, to a glass panel separating the shower and the bedroom which (by the touch of a button – or a tap on a phone) turns from clear glass to frosted. Maybe an unusual storage solution that might be perfect for the space will delight and surprise the owners.

Today’s consumers – notably younger ones – are uncertain about why they should invest in the design fees charged by better designers: Can’t they just find all the solutions online? If you can impress, delight and reassure a prospective client of the value of your creative ideas, you’ve doubled the impact of the information-gathering process. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether the prospective client buys the idea; rather, it’s crucial that they buy you because you had the idea.

As you visit the jobsite and inspect the space occupied by the current bathroom, be an observant detective. Can you “steal” space from adjacent areas: a closet, a guest bedroom, a hallway? How about from the master bedroom’s sleeping space? Make sure your preliminary dimensioning includes all adjacent spaces.

During this stage, don’t forget to ask if they have magazine tear sheets, Houzz files or Pinterest boards they have collected or created reflecting the look and sense of style that appeals to them. This will save you time, which is one of your most precious commodities in today’s business design world. Find out:

  • Are they dreaming of a bathroom that invites outdoor nature into the space, with large windows or an access door? Or, is complete privacy a key request?
  • Is a spa-like setting on their list, or is a utilitarian, no-nonsense bathroom with a health club vibe top of mind?
  • Is the bathroom little more to them than a hygiene space – or do they imagine it might be an adult retreat for them: a cocoon surrounding them with serenity and safety away from an overwhelming public and/or private family life?

I have found that investing more time as I gather information and demonstrate my design competence saves a lot of time in the design process and in future presentation meetings. And, it reassures the prospective client that I am “worth” the fees charged and/or the ultimate contract price my firm will require for the completed project.


Another strategy involves offering options to your clients. Never assume that there’s only one perfect solution for a bathroom under development, or one investment figure the clients will accept. Consumers want to know that you are a designer who is relentlessly pursuing perfection…just for them! They want to know that you’re not just creating a bathroom – you’re creating a space invented just for their way of life.

At the recent Architectural Digest Design Show in New York City, one appliance manufacturer labeled this “Purposeful Design.” This manufacturer introduced a new dishwasher with a well-designed third rack, focusing on creating a “my way” space. It struck me that today’s clients want us to design a bathroom “their way!” I believe we can accomplish such personalization by being at ease and engaged in a fluid, open, energizing conversation, rather than a static designer’s presentation of “the solution” we want them to accept at the price we expect them to pay.

When developing options, let me suggest a couple of “do nots” that are sales stoppers!

  • Do not only offer options that reduce the investment figure for the bathroom of their dreams. Couple “trade-down” with “trade-up” ideas.
  • Do not abandon the words luxurious, personalized or special when offering less costly approaches to renovating the space. Do talk about:
    • An alternative idea
    • A different focus for the space
    • A more modest solution
    • A more balanced design idea

We must remember: While you and I may be struggling with finding ways to reduce their dream bathroom investment from $60,000 to the investment figure they have set of $45,000 – it’s hard for a consumer to consider a $45,000 bathroom to be the “budget solution!”

  • Do not assume that the consumer will compromise beauty for functionality when considering bathroom design options. While many consumers might be primarily focused on grooming and hygienic solutions, most are also interested in the drama of the space. So, offer options that span the scope from totally utilitarian to dream-like.
  • Do not limit your ideas to hugely different bathroom options. Think about offering small options to demonstrate how you are focused on personalizing the room.
    • Simple changes in the storage cabinetry: Be imaginative with interior organizers and electrical outlet locations. How about that under-the-counter-surface charging point?
    • Different toilet features: Incorporating a toilet with a bidet function is of great interest today. Or, just focus on how the toilet looks: the streamlined look of an enclosed trapway, for example. Or, the actuator control on top of, side of or face of the tank to make access easier.
    • Alternative ideas for the bathing pool: free-standing bathtubs with free-standing bathtub fillers compared to those snuggled against a wall with a more traditional filler, or a free-standing bathtub engineered to receive a deck-mounted filler (big money saver!).
    • Investment saving options in the shower are valuable to share: patterned tempered glass rather than treated clear, frame rather than frameless enclosures, elegant grab bars that double as storage shelves in place of niches recessed in the wall, a free-standing bench in the shower rather than a built-in ledge.

Now, you might be thinking, where am I going to find the time to come up with all of these options? My first suggestion is: Step away from the computer (or the drafting board)! We all know that, to be creative, you first must be well-versed in all of the product options available to you (that means establishing a good partnership with your plumbing wholesale specialist), have all of this information gathered accurately and have a detailed plan of the existing space in front of you.

However, the ideas really come to you after all of this preparation: so print off that CAD drawing and – using tracing paper – ask yourself, what if I moved the toilet? What if I didn’t do a free-standing bathtub? What if I separated the vanity lavatories, rather than keeping them together? What if I moved the entry door?

Quick, freehand sketches will free up your mind and move you out of the discipline of accuracy that dictates our work within a computerized design program.

Here is another way to jump-start your creativity. Take 30 minutes and visit websites of respected plumbing fixture and fitting manufacturers: Their photographs will give you great ideas. If you enjoy well lived-in spaces glorified in printed publications, flip through a magazine.


Another strategy is to include at least one spectacular detail as a stand-alone option.

Build drama into your plan – with wonderful, personalized attention to the details. These details do not have to be extravagant. Demonstrate your independence – present thoughtful design solutions, not bullied by the expected. Here are a few ideas.

  • Design the mirrors and lights so they are magical. Use surface-mounted or recessed decorative, shallow cabinets (what used to be called medicine cabinets). Consider shallow, wall-mounted cabinets hung on each side of the vanity.
  • While most consumers appreciate housing the toilet in a separate compartment, there may not be space. Learn from the hospitality industry. Use frosted glass walls to take the place of traditionally framed partitions. Perhaps a tall cabinet can stand next to the toilet, shielding it from view. This is a great way to save a huge amount of floor space.
  • Rather than building in your cabinetry, become familiar with beautiful stand-alone furniture-type vanity cabinetry. These pieces are typically “off-the-floor” vanity designs with furniture legs of different styles. Or, combine your functional built-in cabinetry with an elegant furniture piece to enhance the space.
  • Create a unified wall behind a vanity. Cover it in a material of interest that creates a canvas, then organize and coordinate all the dissimilar elements hung on that wall section.


1970s Remodel

Case study #1 began as a traditional 1970s master bathroom with small shower, linen closet, enormous bathtub platform with bathing pool for two and uninspired double-bowl vanity.

The first option featured the shower tower that the client had seen at a showhouse (see Case Study #3), as well as a toilet in a traditional private room with a pocket door and two separate ‘his and her’ vanities, each one detailed separately. A free-standing bathtub designed to have the bathtub filler on the deck eliminates the need to support and plumb for a separate free-standing (beautiful – but very expensive) bathtub filler fixture. A 6″x12″ honed marble floor in the same (polished) stone used in the shower, with decorative picture framed back wall detail, completes the plan.

The client loved the plan…yet, after much discussion, both the clients and we (the design team) questioned the value of this solution. Neither client bathed, so we felt the bathtub focus was off-target. We also worried about the popularity (translation: resale value) of a free-standing bathtub when the house went on the market in 5 (-/+) years. Additionally, this solution closed in the space: Would a prospective buyer think the bathroom was small because of the toilet compartment?

So we went back to the drawing board/computer. Our final plan for the space included the following:

  • Double-bowl vanity design, reused but refreshed with separating cabinet electrified for grooming storage, and a stepped-out center cabinet to add detail to the vanity. Note the stone platform under the center cabinet: We always suggest this extra expense to protect the cabinet finish from deteriorating from cleaning products. Typically, prospective clients appreciate this level of
    detail in our planning process.
  • An acrylic bathtub that included its own deck, allowing stone to only be used on the wall cap and the bathtub backsplash.
  • Ceramic non-slip Carrara marble-inspired tiles selected for the floor, combined with the authentic stone shower interior.
  • Such a good solution: the three-way marriage of function, beauty and conservative investment.
  • Shower accent detailing simplified into a more tailored ‘racetrack’ stone back/side wall pattern, a special grab bar/storage shelf.

  • Private toilet room eliminated: a tall cabinet conceals the toilet.

  • The entire space retains its gracious, open sense of space.

  • That single moment of drama that delighted the client was the elegant crystal semi-flush light fixture installed above the bathtub.  Whenever I am suggesting a special focal point such as this fixture, I do not take the client to the huge lighting store and ask them what they like. Rather, I select three to five fixtures and share these options with them, always with one being my recommendation.

Photos: Daniel Jackson, Architectural and Food Photographer, DE; www.danieljacksonphoto.com

Photos: Daniel Jackson, Architectural and Food Photographer, DE; www.danieljacksonphoto.com




Condominium Comode

Another case study presented an interior condominium bathroom with an awkward shower, a concealed dark cavity for the toilet and two lavatories placed way too close together in one cabinet.

The solution included the following:

  • Bathtub replaced with a large shower and two separate vanity areas. The woman of the house has a larger vanity housing an off-center sink/mirror/light location. A tall adjacent storage cabinet houses a hamper. The husband has a pedestal sink with integrated counter space and a 24″-wide recessed cabinet.
  • A larger open wall space for the client’s art piece.
  • Two full walls covered in 13″x36″ textured tile so that the shower enclosure is integrated into the open space.
  • LED lighting used to eliminate heat build-up in this interior concealed bathroom.
  • The combination bidet/toilet fixture is part of the new open bathroom plan. Special Note: This combination toilet/bidet fixture has a sensor-operated automatic opening seat: It opens when anyone walks through the bathroom – not simply when a person approaches the fixture to use it.  Therefore, know the sensor’s range before specifying such a fixture in an open space.
Photos: Peter Leach, Peter Leach Photography, PA; www.peterleachphotography.com

Photos: Peter Leach, Peter Leach Photography, PA; www.peterleachphotography.com



Materials Mix

This bathroom in Case Study #3 was in a home selected for the 2016 Wilmington Junior League Showhouse. Our goal was to demonstrate our firms’ design abilities with an unusual solution and an eclectic mix of materials:

The dramatic black with glittering gold quartz material on the vanity top and the ‘shower tower’ design solution was critical to the design Joe Giorgi and I created.

A tower of quartz provides wall space for the shower fittings, with glass windows on each side.

Photos: Daniel Jackson, Architectural and Food Photographer, DE; www.danieljacksonphoto.com

Photos: Daniel Jackson, Architectural and Food Photographer, DE; www.danieljacksonphoto.com



Bathroom/Closet Suite

In Case Study #4, the existing master bathroom/closet suite incorporated too many small, single-purpose spaces. The bathroom was opened up by replacing the two vanities with one vanity that contained two sinks. A smaller, more accessible tub was installed, accented by decorative columns, along with a shower with stone bench and hand-held showerhead.

The special design detail created just for this client was the custom-framed mirrors over the vanity. I often have my frame shop create custom mirrors for me, allowing me to offer an affordable, perfectly sized, ‘one-of-a-kind’ design detail to my clients.

Photos: Peter Leach, Peter Leach Photography, PA; www.peterleachphotography.com

Photos: Peter Leach, Peter Leach Photography, PA; www.peterleachphotography.com


By doing this, even skeptical clients will say “Yes to the (Dress) Bathroom” you creatively design…just for them. ▪

Editor’s Note: The baths shown in the featured case studies were designed by Giorgi Kitchens & Designs (www.giorgikitchens.com) and Joseph Giorgi, Jr., CKD, Pietro Giorgi, Sr., CMKBD and Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS, Ellen Cheever & Associates, www.ellencheever.com

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