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Bathroom Basics

Does anyone really want a period bathroom? The answer is yes and no. By Hadiya Strasberg  -- See Buying Guide

Little has changed in the expectations a client has of a bedroom or dining room: In the renovation of a period home or the design of a traditionally styled new home, these rooms can accommodate historical precedent quite comfortably. Not so with a bathroom. Only with a house museum will you find architects seeking historical accuracy in plumbing. Generally, clients for both renovations and new construction want their bathrooms and kitchens to contain the maximum degree of luxury, and that means a lot of room and a lot of technology that, on the face of it, can clash with the overall aesthetic of a house.

From Outhouse to In House
Indoor bathrooms only date back to the early-20th century. When bathrooms were first moved into residences, they were small rooms usually containing only a toilet. Bathing took place in a separate room – often in a freestanding tub set up in the kitchen. In 1940, despite advances, barely half of U.S. homes had hot water, a toilet and a bathtub, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It was not until 2000 that 99% of American homes had a bathroom outfitted with a toilet, a tub or shower and hot and cold running water.

The advent of indoor plumbing is not the whole story. While bathrooms at the turn of the 20th century were generally utilitarian, in past eras bathrooms were viewed in much the same way as spas are viewed today. In 3,000 B.C.E., communal baths were built in the Middle East and Roman baths were considered a venue for leisure, entertainment and healing. Most Americans do not have bathrooms at this scale or of this luxury, but clients today look to these historical precedents for inspiration for their whirlpools, steam showers and heated tile floors.

Gil Schafer, III, AIA, a New York City-based architect who works on mostly high-end residences, finds that “bathrooms are given much more importance today than in the past. The room has become a priority and more money is allotted for its construction or renovation.” In fact, the National Kitchen and Bath Association reports that homeowners generally spend between $6,500 and $11,600 to remodel bathrooms.

Melding the Modern
 New technology and materials are not necessarily the enemies of sensitive traditional design. “People expect contemporary fixtures in a bathroom as they would up-to-date appliances in a kitchen,” says Brooklyn, New York-based architect Martin Brandwein. “A home must accommodate effortlessly the components of the 21st-century lifestyle,” adds Schafer.

“It is best if the materials are high quality, but the design is more crucial,” Schafer continues. “Whether the bathtub is cast iron or acrylic, it can always be styled traditionally or integrated in a subtle way.” In his own New York City apartment, Schafer concealed exhaust fans and stereo speakers with grilles. He also hid cabinets with paneling. Similarly, in a Duchess County, NY, house that he designed, Schafer concealed towel and medicine cabinets in one bathroom within the wall and used an antique mirror frame to cover the medicine cabinet in another. “I often do this in my designs,” says Schafer. “Every inch of storage is valuable, but you don’t want to disturb the period style.”

Another aspect that governs bathroom design in some multi-family residences is the local laws regarding accessibility. The Federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 “prohibits discrimination because of disability in the full and equal use of public accommodations,” but in some states an additional local law requires similar accessibility compliance for private residences. In New York City, Local Law 58 of 1987 covers new multi-family dwellings and the renovation of existing apartments. Brandwein says that in respect to bathroom design this affects the allocation of space between fixtures and things like the width of entry doors and shower compartments.

In Character
Regardless of the style of the home, it is important for many architects that there is a sense of continuity in the design of the interior. It is implicit that there be an overall design of the home and that each room complements the others in style, color and furnishings.

Rooms of a house need to work with one another to form a cohesive whole. However, says Brandwein, “I find that a number of clients want to go more contemporary in the design of their bathrooms in relation to other rooms. They find that a Zen-like modern simplicity in the bathroom is a refreshing contrast to the more decorated, traditional spaces in their residence. Also, a bathroom by nature tends to be more functional and unadorned than a formal dining or living room.”

Clients often request stone and mirror surfaces detailed in a clean and modern manner, but Brandwein tries to use traditional vanities and plumbing fittings to soften the bathroom. He also designs modern wall treatments to respect the Classical proportions of a room. “Though I do traditional work, I am intrigued by the combination of modern and traditional styles,” he says.

Sometimes fixtures complement those in other areas of the house, such as in the kitchen. It may be something as subtle as the finish of the faucet or hardware, but every attempt helps in the coordination of style.

When Schafer renovated his own apartment, he drew from, as he describes it, “the Classical rigor of a Minard Lefever interior of the 1830s with the glamour and mischief of a David Adler/Frances Elkins interior of the late 1920s and ’30s.” Schafer made sure that the bathroom was in character with the rest of the apartment. “I was inspired by Adler bathrooms in Chicago,” he says. “He took a historic idea then overlaid something Art Deco in the interior rooms.” Schafer followed this idea, adding an Art Deco-style sink stand with glass legs, large glass towel bars for a 1930s feel and an Art Deco-style light fixture. Nickel and glass hardware and 1-in. strips of polished-nickel inlayed in a negro marquina marble floor add to the character of the room.

While the style of the bathroom is similar to the remainder of the interior, the former is more sophisticated and luxurious. Schafer referenced the other rooms by installing similar moldings and detailing in the bathroom. The black marble with white veining that was used for the countertops is the same as that of the living room mantel.
As well as making sure to tie the room in with others, Schafer added paneling to contrast with the marble and to differentiate the room from others. “The fact of the matter,” he says, “is that the bathroom is a space that has grown from its introduction as a utilitarian closet and can be a little more glamorous.”

In Scale
Other than being in character, it is important to consider the scale of bathrooms in relation to the rest of the home. In many cases, homeowners want a large bathroom with double sinks, a whirlpool, a separate shower and walk-in closets. In renovation projects, they often offer to sacrifice an extra bedroom. However, such a large bathroom often will not fit with the scale of the rest of the rooms.

The 6x8-ft. bathroom in Schafer’s apartment remained in its original space while other rooms were reconfigured. “I had the opportunity to change the character and finishes, but I wasn’t able to change the size or location,” he says. “There was not really an alternate plan for the bathroom as the apartment was only 900 sq.ft.” While the room itself was not in danger of being out of scale with the apartment, adjustments needed to be made within it. In this instance, Schafer says, “The scale becomes an issue in the design of the bathroom as a room unto itself and not in relation to other rooms.” To this effect, moldings and detailing in the bathroom, which were similar to those in the remainder of the apartment, were scaled appropriately to the smaller space.

Schafer, however, concedes that while the size of a room does make a statement, it is not always inappropriate to design a large bathroom. “There are different expectations for a small and a large residence,” he says. “Having a large space makes a bathroom part of a big old house – it feels more like a formal, elegant room, similar to the living room, for instance, than an afterthought.”

In traditionally styled homes, it is a challenge to design bathrooms with historical accuracy. While fixtures are constantly contemporized and large rooms are being offered for remodeling, architects are coming up with solutions to integrate the scale and character of bathrooms with other rooms in the house. Melding modern elements with traditional styles is a viable solution.

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