Reflections on a Bathroom Renovation

(I really, really want to say “Restroom Renovation” just for the alliteration, but I know this article will be more relevant to people searching for “bathroom renovation,” so I’m stuck with this title!)

We had our house’s main bathroom completely renovated last month.  We are thrilled with it and learned some things in the process that we want to share with anyone contemplating a major renovation.

We lived with a bathroom we didn’t really like until it was wearing out and falling apart so that we felt completely justified in starting from scratch!  We highly recommend that approach because it makes the new stuff even more exciting and luxurious by contrast!  It may actually be more environmentally friendly to renovate less often using conventional materials than to rip out stuff that’s still good to install a bunch of “green” materials.  Of course, the best option would be to wear out everything and replace it with the most recycled, chemical-free, resource-conserving stuff available, and we freely admit we did not do that.  We bought all water-saving fixtures, but we found that some of the other “green” stuff was very expensive and/or our contractors told us they’d had bad experiences with it.  Our goal was to build a durable bathroom so we can avoid the waste that comes from replacing things frequently, and we just didn’t worry much about the environmental impact of building it.

I’m a former architecture student, and my partner Daniel is an artist, so we had lots of ideas about how our bathroom should look and function!  We had been talking about it once in a while ever since we bought our house 8 years ago, and we got more serious about collecting ideas for the bathroom a full year before we started the project.  In addition to some “bathroom ideas” books and magazines, we spent a lot of time looking at The Not-So-Big House series of books for concepts that make rooms in general feel more spacious, comfortable, and well-crafted.

This project was surprisingly healing for me because it enabled me to use some of the genuine skills I learned in architecture school to create a space that actually got built and that is comfortable and pleasant to me.  As I worked out the bathroom design and its implementation (we had to change some things as we went along), I found myself remembering the good and valuable parts of what I learned about Concept: Know what your Concept is, be able to express it in one sentence, and think of it every time you’re not sure what to choose.  Concept is what holds your design together to create a cohesive experience instead of a hodgepodge of pretty stuff.  All major decisions must align with the Concept.  Daniel and I started out wanting a bathroom that’s sort of like being in a natural place, outdoors but sheltered.  We also wanted a skylight because our bathroom has no exterior walls and therefore no windows, so we wanted natural light.  Daniel was very keen on having stained glass between the shower and main room.  As we began thinking about the visual effect of the skylight and about possible color schemes, our Concept solidified into a sort of atrium/courtyard, with sand or stone below and sky above but also a connection to the house.  Therefore, we chose sandy-colored, stone-like tile and pale blue walls, and we installed a new architectural feature that looks like an original part of our house.

Let me explain that last part in some detail, not so that all my readers can do the exact same thing in other kinds of houses, but to show how we worked the inspiration into the real thing: Because we were removing a dropped ceiling from the bathroom and adding a skylight, the height of the room was going to increase, but we didn’t want it to feel tall and drafty or make the room seem narrower.  One way to reduce vertical vastness is to have an enclosure whose entrance is very person-sized.  One way to avoid narrowness is to create a lot of different, interesting lines of sight.  The bathroom books showed us that an arched opening to the tub/shower is a fairly common idea (that is, we could afford it!), and our 1920 Arts & Crafts house has arches between living and dining rooms and between dining room and kitchen.  So we measured those arches, made scale drawings, measured the tub opening, and designed an arch that, although it’s a different size than either of the downstairs ones, has similar proportions and shape.  The lowest point of the opening is near head height.  That means there’s a lot of wall between the arch and the ceiling, so we put some little windows into that wall, exactly the same size as the small panes across the top of our living room window and with the same type of framing.  We put stained glass “in” these windows (more details below), but they still let light through the wall so that both the shower and the space outside it (less than 4 feet wide) feel spacious.  The shower with the curtain closed is like a little room, whereas the space outside it (where you enter the bathroom) is a space of its own, kind of like a sidewalk between a porch with windows above and some fuzzy pastel trees–oh, those are the towels.

For a project of this scope, we needed a general contractor.  We’d only worked with specialty contractors (plumber, electrician, etc.) before.  We chose our contractor using a processthat worked well for us with those specialists:

  1. Ask around for recommendations.  Call those contractors to come over and meet us, look at the house, and give an estimate.  (Anyone who quotes a price for a complex project without actually seeing and measuring the site is immediately out of the running because that approach tends to result in a lot of extra charges being tacked on and/or important details being neglected.)  When all of the recommended contractors are too busy or don’t bother getting back to us,
  2. Look in the Yellow Pages and the Pennysaver (local free classified ad newspaper) for contractors whose ads mention our specific type of project and free estimates.  Call them, as above.
  3. Have at least two contractors visit and give us an estimate.  Make sure to ask about any unusual aspects of the project.  In the case of the bathroom, we wanted to add this archway and unusual windows, add a skylight, and maybe put in a few other flourishes, so we asked about the feasibility of these.  We also wanted to hear professional opinions about seamless shower walls vs. tiled walls.
  4. Watch and listen carefully to each contractor.  Does he sound like he knows what he’s talking about, thinking through parts of the project as he’s looking at our house and naming products/strategies he would use?  Does he study our house carefully and point out details that will affect the project?  Does he seem to be making empty promises about giving us whatever we want, while not quite listening to our specifics or understanding problems we’re trying to solve?  Did he forget his measuring tape, ladder, estimate form, or other crucial supplies?  Does he offer references we can call to ask about him?
  5. Discuss our impressions of the contractors and compare the estimates.  Sometimes we choose not to take the lowest price if we have a strong feeling that the low-priced contractor seems questionable.  One trick that’s worked well for us here in Pittsburgh is to choose the most “Pittsburghy” guy–a sort of gruff yet friendly person with the local accent, who gives the impression of having poked around every basement in town–they seem to be most expert at understanding local houses’ quirks, getting quality supplies at good prices, hiring reliable people (often their relatives!), and doing seriously durable work.  We have learned NOT to bother with firms that run big, splashy ads or have “If you know your party’s extension…” voice-mail systems or otherwise seem large and impersonal; they will forget who we are or who’s doing our job, rather than taking personal responsibility for getting it right.

The contractor we hired for the bathroom (and new roof) was J&M Remodeling, 412-462-8776.  They were very close to perfect, and we plan to work with them on our future home improvements!  We did have a few problems with things they didn’t communicate to us well enough or with enough advance notice for us to handle them well without feeling all stressed-out, and I’ve heard many people complain about that general sort of problem with other contractors, so I’m going to go over some things that are useful to know if you are having a total bathroom renovation!  J&M did tell us many of these things up front, and they made up for the worst stresses by buying us pizza!

Don’t underestimate the dust!!!  If you’ve never lived in a construction site before, you might figure there’ll be some dust from the demolition of the old bathroom and then, like, a little sawdust and stuff as they’re building, but it’ll only be in the bathroom and right outside the bathroom and along the path to the door.  No.  Listen to me.  They are going to build you new walls out of drywall that they nail onto the studs, and then to turn those into nice smooth walls they will fill every nail hole and every crack between panels with “mud” and sand it with a power sander, three times, creating billows of fine white dust that will settle onto every exposed surface of every object in your entire house. I’m serious.  This was our upstairs bathroom, and the door to our downstairs “bathroom” (more like an enclosed back porch with a toilet in it) is 37 feet from the foot of the stairs, and the door was closed, and there were two sets of plastic curtains in between, yet there was enough dust on the floor in there that I could feel and see it on my bare feet!  Here are our tips for dealing with the dust:

  • Plastic curtains.  Buy a lot of big sheets of plastic at the hardware store (as well as using whatever old shower curtains, giant bag that your mattress came in, etc. that you happen to have) and hang them over every doorway that the contractors will not be using, including those with doors in them.  Make two layers that overlap in the middle.  Tape the top and sides securely to the walls with wide masking tape.  Cut the curtains a little too long, so that a few inches lie on the floor; this prevents dust from floating under them.  If you have an open-sided staircase, curtain off the side, outside the banister.
  • If anyone in your family has asthma or other serious breathing problems, find them another place to live until the sanding is done!  We don’t have any chronic breathing problems, but I imagine this amount of fine particles could kill a small child with asthma!  We developed congestion and sore throats from the dust.
  • Stay out of your home as much as possible while the sanding is going on.  Not only do you (probably) not have the high-tech dust masks the contractors do, but the air compressor that runs their power sander is REALLY LOUD!!!
  • If you have forced-air heat or central air-conditioning, turn it off until the sanding is done and you have wiped dust off the vents and everything near them.  Otherwise the system will not only blow even more dust into other rooms but also get that dust all through your ducts where it will blow on you later.  Cover with plastic any vents in or near the renovation site.
  • Keep your computers turned off and covered with plastic until the sanding is done and you have dusted the computers and their immediate area.  You don’t want the computer’s ventilation system to suck in dusty air and cover the circuit-boards with fine particles.
  • Cover with plastic all items that are difficult to dust.  For example, a framed oil painting that isn’t under glass is hard to dust safely.  Plastic shopping bags work well for covering small items.
  • Put kitchen counter-top items away in the cabinets, inside the dishwasher, in big plastic storage tubs, or in plastic bags.
  • Put toothbrushes, contact lens supplies, and other essential bathroom items in a plastic food storage container whose lid seals tightly, and take them to the kitchen (or other bathroom, if you have one–ours doesn’t have a sink).
  • After work has ended for the day, wipe the plastic curtains with wet paper towels to remove as much dust as possible so that it doesn’t fall on you when you walk through the curtains.  Also wipe banisters and other things you tend to brush against as you walk through the house.  Cleaning of other surfaces can wait until the dusty phase is over.
  • Towels hanging in the kitchen or other bathroom will need to be changed daily.  Paper towels won’t solve this problem; put away the paper towels to protect them from dust.
  • Avoid eating in your home while the sanding is going on, and avoid preparing much food in your home until the whole sanding phase is over!  Eat in restaurants, coax people to invite you over for meals, or eat take-out in a room far away from the renovation.  Wash dishes at night after the contractors have left; clean the dish drainer before you start, and put away the dishes immediately.

Be prepared to live without your plumbing for a while.  J&M gave us a very clear explanation of the timetable: They would shut off water to the whole house during demolition because we did not have valves to shut off water to the bathroom only.  They would then install those valves and restore water to the rest of the house by the end of the first day.  They would install the bathtub by the end of the second day so that we could take baths, but we’d need to be careful not to get water on the unsealed walls and floor, and there would be no door on the bathroom, and it might be pretty cold in there since the ceiling would be open to the attic.  It would take another week to ten days for them to finish the tile so we could use the shower at all; there would then be additional steps of sealing after which we’d be unable to shower some nights, but we could wait until morning or use the tub.  The sink and toilet would be installed at the very end of the project, about two weeks.  I don’t know if all contractors have the same timetable, but the other who gave us an estimate had a similar one.  Plan for disruption in your daily hygiene routines.  If your house has just one toilet, you may need to stay someplace else for a while!

Buy your supplies early.  One thing that sold us on J&M was that they did a “day of planning” when we went to Home Depot with the contractors and bought almost all of the supplies to be used in the project.  Daniel and I had scouted it out in advance and chosen some of the things we wanted, found other areas where we needed advice, and determined that Home Depot did not have any light fixtures or cabinets we liked.  In the store with the contractors, we got advice on how to choose a toilet, how many tiles to buy, why tub drain sets vary so widely in price, and so forth; they learned more about our ideas and preferences, which helped them figure out how to do some of the unusual stuff we wanted.  We learned that the big home improvement stores are accustomed to people returning extra, unused supplies, so it’s no big deal if you buy something you turn out not to need.  By choosing everything at the beginning, we found out what gaps we needed to fill and could put our remaining energy toward shopping for those things (we found light fixtures and medicine cabinet at Lowe’s, and the contractors built some gorgeous shelves for the place where we’d planned another cabinet), and the contractors felt confident that we had parts that would work together and had every part there when they were ready for it.

Keep an eye on the project while the work is being done.
  There are people who have major renovations done while they are on vacation.  After this experience, I wouldn’t!  No matter how much planning you do, there will be decisions that need to be made as the work progresses, and if you’re not available the contractors will have to make those decisions for you.  For example, our contractors decided that our bathroom’s light switch was too close to the shower for safety and needed to be moved to the hallway wall just outside the bathroom door, where there was already a switch for the hallway light.  They were in the process of wiring it such that the two bathroom lights (over the sink and shower), the bathroom vent fan, and the hallway light all would have switches in one switchplate.  Because Daniel was home at the time, he noticed what they were doing and intervened so that we got the bathroom switches in one switchplate which matches the bathroom tile and the hallway switch in its plain white switchplate moved over a few inches.  This was extra work for the contractors, but it means far less confusion for us and our guests: It’s easy to see that these 3 switches go with the bathroom while that other one is something else.  There were many such little decisions, and they were much easier to make in person than they would have been by phone, if the contractors even had called us rather than just doing it the “wrong” way.

Plan every detail, but be flexible!  Some of your plans may need to change when you find out what is underneath the surface of your old bathroom, when the contractors point out practical considerations you overlooked, or when you see the room coming together and change your mind about some of the final details.  We had an example of each:

  • When the contractors tore out our dropped ceiling, they discovered that our bathroom had been built with a skylight and the original skylight well (the walled tunnel from ceiling height to roof height) was still there!  It was very exciting to realize that we were actually restoring part of our house’s original design rather than adding something new!  At that point, we decided to put the skylight into the existing well, rather than tear out that wood framing and build a new well so that the skylight could be in the exact place shown on our drawings.
  • I mentioned above that we wanted stained glass in the little windows between the shower and the rest of the room.  The contractors explained that shower steam would condense on the glass and drip downward, and this would damage the drywall of the arch, causing it to crack and peel within 3-6 months!  That wasn’t acceptable!  We discussed various options, admitted it might not be feasible and dropped the issue for a few days, and then discussed it again each time somebody had a new idea.  Finally it was agreed that Daniel would build a lightweight metal frame to hold the entire sheet of glass, and the guys would hang it from the ceiling just inside the windows, such that any drips fall into the tub instead of the drywall.  I used some of the skills I learned in perspective drawing classes in architecture school to determine the correct height for the glass so that we see as much of it as possible through the windows but don’t see its edges.  It turned out very well!  From inside the shower, you see the whole pane of glass and the frame that’s holding it, but you do also see the light coming through the window frame.
  • We were puzzled about how to get enough towel racks and hooks into our smallish bathroom, which had insufficient hanging space in its old configuration.  At the beginning of the day of planning, we asked the contractors for ideas, and one of them said, “You guys are thinking too hard about this.  Buy some racks and hooks, and you’ll figure out later where you want them.”  This turned out really well!  When the tile was in place and the door was back on so that we could see exactly where the available wall spaces were, Daniel and I took the hooks out of their packages and held them against the walls and decided where we wanted them.  We could not have planned it so well on paper!  (We wound up with only hooks–they’re more space-efficient than a bar–and returned the bars.)

Be up-front about your schedule.  J&M worked really hard on this project, 8-12 hours a day, 7 days a week!  We had naively assumed they’d work approximately during business hours.  We needed to tell them that our kindergartner has to be at school at 8am and therefore has to get ready for bed at 8pm, so we needed to be able to get into his room (the door is right outside the bathroom so was often blocked by tools) by 8:00 and have no loud noises after 8:30.  Although Daniel works from home most of the time, when he was going into the office he had to coordinate with the contractors so they could get into the house when they arrived.  It is stressful having people you barely know disrupting your home!  It helps to be really clear about when they’ll be there and when you need to use certain rooms.

Don’t assume that any part of your home or yard will be unaffected by the construction! 
I never guessed that they would cover my flowerbed with a tarp and throw my old toilet on it, put a gigantic air compressor in the middle of my bedroom and run a hose from it across my desk and out the window, or cut wood for shelves in my laundry room!  All of it made sense; I just hadn’t expected it and felt very invaded as a result.  Expect total chaos and put your normal home life on hold, and you may take it better.  Set aside space for

  • Storage of your new fixtures and supplies until they’re ready to be installed.
  • Tools.  A bathroom is pretty small, and once it’s gutted there isn’t anyplace to put anything except on the floor.  It isn’t realistic for them to carry each tool in from the truck and back again every time they use it, so they’re going to have a big pile of tools outside the bathroom.  Doors to other rooms that are near the bathroom door may be blocked.
  • Trash.  I guess if you live in suburbia, contractors can just park a dumpster in your driveway.  We live in a row house with a tiny yard and no off-street parking.  At first we were able to claim only enough nearby on-street space for our contractors’ truck, so when they began demolishing they had to put all the debris in our front yard.  When another parking space opened up, they put their orange cones in it and went to get the dump truck to hold the trash.
  • Workshop.  Tasks like building shelves or stripping and repainting a door need to be done in a more spacious, well-ventilated space than a bathroom!  A garage is the obvious place, but we don’t have one, so this sort of thing happened in our basement or front porch.

I’m extremely grateful that we were able to do this project while Daniel was under-employed and working from home because it is so useful to have somebody at home not only during construction but also before and after!  He hung up all of those plastic curtains.  He did a lot of the shopping for incidentals and things we couldn’t get at Home Depot.  He was home when the skylight (ordered online) was delivered.  He’s still cleaning up, two weeks after the project was completed, because he has to dust every single object in our cluttered house, we moved a lot of things to strange places in a hurry to clear space, and we’ve had a lot of other things going on!  I appreciate all his hard work very much . . . and gee, am I glad to be the one who has a job in a nice, quiet, heated, non-dusty office to which I’m able to escape every weekday!

Our new bathroom is beautiful and functional and well worth the aggravation and expense.  It works for me!  If you’re planning a renovation, I hope some of my advice will work for you, too.

What?  You want to see pictures?!  You think just because we’re on the Internet, you’re entitled to ogle my bathroom?!  I’m not that kind of girl!  If you want to see my bathroom, become my friend (no, not a Facebook friend, a real friend!) and I’ll invite you to the party we’ll have when we finally get the house all cleaned up, which we are not going to call a Bathroom Warming Party because that sounds gross!  Maybe a Renovation Celebration. . . .

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

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