The wet room is expanding in purpose, in definition and in its incorporation into residential bath design. Current wet room trends are likely driven by our love affair with free standing tubs and the space they require, as well as by European designs and our interest in the clean lines of minimalist design.
A wet room can expand the space in a small bathroom, or create the sense of a luxury spa experience in any size bathroom. As designers, we will be guided by a number of pros and cons, and design considerations relating to the integration of a wet room in a particular space, and this column will examine some of them.
WET ROOM BASICS
So, what is a wet room and where did it come from anyway?
The formal definition of a wet room is “a bathroom in which the shower is open or set behind a single wall, its floor area being flush with the floor of the rest of the room and the water draining away through an outlet set into the floor.”
Many wet rooms today include the shower and a tub, usually free standing, behind a wall or divider, often glass, separating the wet area from the rest of the room. Typically, the floor will be pitched slightly to a flush linear drain, with open passage or a door and doorway.
Today’s wet room is frequently part of a spa experience in a luxury and larger bath, but you might be surprised to know that this was once a concept used mainly in lower budget and institutional settings to improve access.
All bath designers have experienced the ubiquitous post-WWII 5’x8′ bath, and when square footage cannot be increased, the first step toward improving access and opening the clear floor space has been to eliminate the tub and make the entire space a wet room.
If you’ve traveled through Europe, you will likely have experienced traditional bathrooms that have evolved through the addition of a hand-held spray and a floor drain to include showers where historically, the tub was the main focus for bathing and personal hygiene. This, in essence, becomes a wet room by definition – and, depending on the care given to the design details and water control, a success. As in any bath or shower space, a prime consideration must be containing the water.
BENEFITS & CHALLENGES
Having defined what a wet room is, let’s look at the benefits, challenges and key design considerations relating to these spaces.
The foremost benefit of a wet room is that it opens the space, both visually and functionally, and usually improves access for a variety of bathers. In a small full bath, removing the tub and making the entire room waterproof reduces the amount of floor space given up strictly for passage. Another benefit of this concept is that it reduces the amount of space needed to convert a powder room to a full bath in a tight space.
The main challenge when the entire room is the waterproof or wet area is keeping desired items and areas dry. Towels and the lavatory can be planned out of the water’s path. Sometimes when designing for access in a 5’x8′ bath conversion, the toilet is planned on the wet side of the curtain or screen, so that it can do double duty as a shower seat – with a hand spray, it can support personal hygiene.
Of course this means extra challenges in keeping the toilet and its paper dry. To help resolve this, there are paper holders with covers, and because they’re flexible, shower curtains can be useful.
Another challenge in this scenario is the containing of water at the threshold of the room. Although a level entry is preferred, in limited space, one solution can be to raise the threshold not more than 1/2″; planning a second drain near the entry can also help.
When there is more space available, wet room design can include a generous shower, often planned to emphasize the tub, free standing or otherwise, and to bolster the sense of a luxury spa. Depending on the design, the tub may double as a seat for showering. A disadvantage for some would be the wetting of the tub every time the shower is used. This can be resolved with a pivoting glass screen between the two or, when the shower is large enough, the user can simply direct water flow away from the tub. When the space can be planned with no threshold, the expansion of clear floor space further increases safety, flexibility and visual impact.
Whatever the size, the waterproofing for a wet room is different than the traditional installation in that it covers more area and should be continuous. One approach is to use liquid or viscous membrane and to spread it over the entire area and up the walls of the wet room. As in any wet area, non-porous and slip resistant water-friendly materials must be specified throughout. Finish materials are typically run floor to ceiling – an added expense, but another enhancement of the luxury spa feeling.
Determining whether or not a level or flush threshold is possible requires consideration of the construction of the floor and whether the slope is possible, as well as the direction of the water flow and the distance from the water sources to the wet room’s entrance. Client preferences and intended uses also contribute, especially in the related consideration as to whether the entrance will be open or have a door, and what type of door. An open passage can be a beautiful design statement, enhanced by continuous use of the same flooring throughout, but it offers no assurance that the water or heat will be retained in the wet area. Adding a door will help resolve this, and the most effective option will be a hinged door with a gasket. In addition, incorporating radiant heat can help resolve the issues relating to warmth in the space.
Incorporating a wet room into a bath plan offers wonderful design options, but it clearly requires careful consideration and installation. It’s a huge opportunity for us as designers, and hopefully this conversation has whet your appetite to dive into the possibilities. ▪
Mary Jo Peterson is an award-winning designer whose work has earned national recognition, including induction into the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s Hall of Fame and recognition as the NAHB CAPS Educator of the year for 2014. Author of Universal Kitchen and Bathroom Planning (McGraw Hill) and Gracious Spaces (McGraw Hill), Peterson is certified in kitchen, bath, aging-in-place and active adult housing design. She has over 25 years of experience, and is president of her own CT-based design firm, Mary Jo Peterson, Inc.