Sunday, April 21, 2013


The Story:

The bathroom is most likely the smallest room in any house.  These days, however, this tiny room of necessity comes with great expectations. I could not begin to count the number of TV interior designers who quote the clich√©,” Kitchens and bathrooms sell houses”.  Something about that statement doesn’t quite ring true to me. After all, if the bathroom is what sold the house then why do I know so many new homeowners (including myself) who are renovating their bathrooms? I do admit that a well-appointed, clean, and stylish bathroom is appealing to most people shopping for a home. But the truth is, that when you are looking at what’s available on the market the perfect bathroom is relatively hard to come by. I think the statement should be revised to say, ”Location, space, structural soundness, and price sell houses and a nice bathroom doesn’t hurt.”

All joking aside, there are so many factors to consider when buying a house that many times the non-public spaces, like a master bathroom, take a low priority as long as the sink, toilet and shower work. If we can entertain our family and friends in stylish living spaces and the price is right, most of us choose to back burner our own personal spaces and comforts for the time being in hopes of renovating at a later date. This was the case when my husband and I bought our new home in Pittsburgh two years ago. Coming from our custom-built dream home in Cincinnati we had a long list of must haves. But as we explored what was available in the higher priced housing market, reality set in. It soon became apparent to us that we weren’t going to get everything we wanted or were accustomed to and that we were going to need to make some tough choices.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that happened to all of us that changed our expectations of the 
bathroom over the years. When I was kid, my parents had a very tiny master bathroom with just a shower, toilet, and a single sink without a vanity. My three siblings and I shared a small tub bathroom in the upstairs hallway. Although we were far from it, we thought we were rich because many other people we knew had only one bathroom for the entire family. In fact my Aunt and Uncle had six children and only one bathroom. Eventually my uncle added an open shower and toilet in the basement but my cousins refused to use it because of the unfinished creepiness. Back in the day, a kid could wait for the bathroom quite a while depending on his or her alpha status among siblings!

In that same vein, the first home that my husband and I built actually had a master bathroom that was, believe it or not,  smaller than my parent’s. But again, we were looking for advancements in other areas of the house and didn’t rank our private comforts as high on the scale as the public spaces.
Just as many brides have bought into the industry hype that has driven the cost of weddings into near or over six figure price tags, the phenomena of HG-Reality-TV has convinced us all that we can’t live without double vanities, heated floors, and whirlpool bathtubs. Believe me, I am no better than anyone else and have bought the swampland hook, line and sinker! When we built our second house the master bath had most of the bells and whistles you could think of including a custom stained glass window, TV, and in wall stereo speakers. I loved it!  It was very spacious, in fact, so much so that I remember having a house warming party shortly after we moved in. I was giving the girlfriends a tour of the house when we all piled into my bathroom. One of my friends joked, as she looked around at the seven ladies holding glasses of wine and said with a laugh that the bathroom was “large enough to have a party in it”.  

Regardless of the hype, there are many wonderful things to be said about a spacious well-appointed master bathroom. Double vanities are convenient for couples that get ready together at the same time each morning and a whirlpool tub can be very relaxing and stress reducing at the end of a hard day. Not to mention the added benefit to your marriage when you don’t have to exercise your alpha status over your husband just to brush your teeth. The master bath is a room that we all use daily and the design of the space can affect our mood and attitude. Good design choices can make it a place of uplifting enjoyment instead of a place that starts us out each day with frustration. 

Moving to Pittsburgh, after forty-six years of life in Cincinnati, presented many challenges for me and the master bathroom was just one on a long list. However, the biggest benefit of the overwhelming relocation process is that it has forced me to re-evaluate priorities in my life and my interior design. As I have sought to create a new home for my family that meets our needs physically and aesthetically, I have learned to filter some of the hype, mix in some reasonable comforts, and create convenient spaces that function well and fit our life and budget. The master bath in our new home was far from a dream but we practically opted to tackle other key projects first. After all these years I found myself "waiting for the bathroom" once again. But unlike my years of standing in line as the youngest of four siblings, my newly renovated master bathroom has proven to be well worth the wait.

Design Topic of the Week:
A Cinderella Story: Master Bath Renovation

The master bathroom in our Pittsburgh home was in spotless condition when we moved in two years ago . The house was only eight years old and the en-suite looked like it was practically brand new. Well.....brand new that is, if we were living in the late 1980's. It was very apparent that the home's builder was still holding on to some sort of "Hunt Club" fantasy when designing the interior of the house in 2001. The long double vanity had a hunter green countertop with molded sink bowls.  In fact the built-in soap holders that flanked the basins were a bit reminiscent of ashtrays. The counter height was so low that at five feet, two inches tall I literally had to bend in half to brush my teeth, not to mention the discomfort for my husband who stands at six foot, one. All the fixtures and metal trims were a shiny polished brass, including the shower enclosure. The walls were painted in a dark, "paper bag" brown topped with an acanthus motif wallpaper border. Dark stained wooden blinds covered the large window and when the blinds were shut as they usually need to be for privacy, the room was dark and dreary.

"Before" photo of my master bathroom
As I mentioned earlier, there were many projects to tackle in the new home and since the master bath was in good condition, had nice square footage, and was functional we opted to move any renovation plans for the space far down on the list of priorities. However, I did find myself avoiding the space as much as possible. Quick in and quick out. Too much time spent in the room left me feeling fairly disappointed and longing for my old home. I could see the potential that existed but knew that renovating was not in the cards for the near future. For now Cinderella would be stuck in the background while her ugly stepsisters soaked up all the money and attention.

Fortunately or unfortunately there was intervention from above. Not in the "spiritual" sense but in the "major leak in the ceiling sense." We woke one morning during a storm to the sound of something dripping in our bathroom and it wasn't the faucet. Water was falling from above the vanity and the soggy ceiling was cracking in several places. After four weeks of more storms, three visits from two different roofers, removal of a large section of drywall, and several home-spun experiments with my husband standing on a ladder with a garden hose, we finally determined that a leaky upstairs window was to blame. A small sliver of a crack in the mitered corner of the vinyl window trim was the culprit. So almost 3 months and a tube of caulk later the problem was fixed. However, the summer of bountiful rain had left my pristine but dated bathroom a little worse for the wear. Knowing that a major drywall repair was in our future we decided to move the bathroom renovation off of the back burner and to turn up the heat.

Although I would have loved to gut the entire room by this point, we just couldn't afford to start from scratch.  My husband and I realized that this renovation was a bit beyond our time constraints and skill set. We were going to need some professional help which would affect the price of the project. Several compromises would need to be made to accommodate this. 

The tile wasn't exactly what I would have chosen for myself but it was in good condition and was neutral and non-intrusive in color.  Because of the design of the shower, replacement of the tile would have been involved and expensive so I opted to work around it instead. Ideally, I would have also replaced the massive whirlpool tub with a smaller free standing soaker because the deep ledge at the end of the tub deck was an inaccessible, dust collecting, wasted space. When exploring the options I quickly realized that the cost of replacing the tub would add thousands onto our bottom line so once again I sought out design ideas that could incorporate this existing element.  The low vanity, massive green counter top, and dated brass shower enclosure were the main sources of our discontent so we decided that they would need the most attention and the lion's share of the budget.

Besides being sub-standardly low in height the extremely long double vanity ironically held very little storage. The drawers were too small to hold a hair dryer, there was no upper or medicine cabinetry, and there was no linen closet in the bathroom. The taste specific hunter green countertop with its built-in ashtray like soap dishes didn't help either. The dark color showed every bit of tooth paste, shaving cream, and soap residue. It required constant cleaning but always looked dirty even after only one or two uses. Researching several design plans that worked with our basic plumbing layout, I finally decided on two separate 36 inch high vanities that would be separated by a furniture-like bank of drawers toped with a tall cabinet. 

For the countertops I picked a low maintenance natural granite that doesn't require sealing. The color and pattern of the granite hides dirt and coordinates well with the existing tile. The under-mount white porcelain Kohler sink basins add brightness and are also easy to clean.

To solve the dust-collecting tub deck dilema, a hutch was built from the same style cabinetry to hold extra towels and decorative accessories. The oversized base drawers are great for holding larger items like my hair dryer.

The cabinetry was not custom but my carpenter added a few inexpensive custom touches that elevated the quality of the look. He created custom kick plates that gave the stock cabinetry a furniture style. I also had him add a flat board to the top of the upper cabinets and finish them out with moldings. This way I had a solid platform on which to place decorative items with out the objects sitting below the line of the crown molding.

Because there were hints of bronze and metallic gold in the existing "fleur de lis" tile border, I didn't think that silver fixtures would work very well in the room. Instead I chose to go with antique bronze when replacing the dated polished brass. The look of the dark bronze is both updated and historical all at the same time.

The original bathroom had an immense plate glass mirror with unflattering and inadequate overhead light fixtures that cast shadows down on the face making it difficult to see when putting on make-up. Extra can-lights were added to the ceiling and sconces were placed on each side of the separate cherval-style mirrors that hang over the individual vanities. The lower placement of the sconces gives front light to the face and is great for make-up application. I was not very impressed with the sconce lighting that I was finding in our price range at the local home improvement stores. It was all too unimaginative for my taste, so I branched out from the indoor lighting and found these small outdoor lantern sconces. The vintage bubble glass works well with the historical bronze fixtures and their style adds unexpected interest to the bathroom. The price was very good too.

The frameless glass shower enclosure went a long way in bringing this bathroom into the new millennium.

Personally, being somewhat claustrophobic, I have never been a fan of doored toilet rooms. In fact, if I had my druthers, I would have removed the door and part of the wall to open up the little closet-like space. However, I know that many buyers really like the idea of this added bit of privacy and taking out the wall would have required additional tile work and expense, so I had to find another solution for my fear of small closed spaces. Changing the solid door to one with frosted glass still serves the desire for privacy while letting in just enough natural light to keep one from feeling entombed.

When doing a partial master bathroom make-over, the decorative finishings and accessories can really go a long way in giving the room a high-end renovation feel. Just like nice shoes and jewelry can make a bargain basement dress look couture, the right accessories can take your corner cutting renovation to the next level. This relatively inexpensive chandelier purchased at home depot adds eye catching bling to this bathroom. 

This tailored straight-line-sewing window treatment in a cabana stripe is actually stapled on to a two by four piece of wood and is screwed to the wall. The decorative gimp trim adds a bit of sophistication. The soft aqua color works well with the bits of green found in the existing tile border and lends a pop of color to this light and bright room. I made this treatment for under $40 from out door fabric. 

Tip: Out door fabrics come in many colors and patterns and are relatively inexpensive. The treated fabric holds up well in high moisture areas and it's a beautiful and practical choice when making window treatments for a steamy bathroom.

I found the two vintage landscape pictures at a local antique store. I was specifically looking for square framed artwork to hang over the rectangular mirrors and fill space on the tall walls. When I saw the perfect aqua matts on these twin companion prints, I thought that I might finally be getting some real intervention from above....the dry kind.

A few pieces from my antique compote collection, a couple of mercury glass objects from Home Goods, and discount store apothecary jars filled with colorful contents found at Pier 1 complete the accessories and make the bathroom feel just as important as any other room in the house. If space allows, placing an ottoman, chair, or bench by the tub can also help to make the utilitarian room feel more like a comfortable living area.

Even though I wasn't able to afford every bell and whistle this time around, I am just as pleased with my new bathroom renovation as I was with the custom built bath in my old home. Re-prioritizing can be an extremely enlightening process. When we can't have everything we want, we are forced to focus on what we actually need. When our true needs become the center of our attention we tend to make better choices in life and design. Many times this added scrutiny actually assists us to better meet our real needs and helps us to find greater satisfaction and comfort in the end. Cinderella's Fairy Godmother worked with what she had to create a beautiful coach and some dashing footmen. There might have been an old pumpkin and some scampering rodents underneath but skill and a little magic got Cindy to the ball. Likewise a good interior designer can make magic in any room even if the budget requires working with what's on hand. When renovating your bathroom, concentrate on prioritizing your needs and allot the budget accordingly. Tackle the biggest sources of concern, work around the rest, and throw in a little bit of magic in the form of accessories. Keep this in mind and your renovation can be it's own Cinderella story complete with a "happily ever after." 

Thanks for stopping by! 

Dont forget to check out my Designerelish Crock Pot and Designerelish Pantry pages for more great design ideas to use in your own home.

Drop in next week when the design topic will be 
Using Space Wisely: A Closet Make-Over

1 comment:

  1. When buying or renovating a home, the bathroom is greatly considered nowadays. Most especially by couples since they share this room in privacy. Like how me and my wife prefer to have our own vanity cabinets so our stuff won't get mixed up. What you have here is a great example of a bathroom deluxe in space and fixtures.

    Chase Conely


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