Bathing Beauties

Bathrooms are becoming more customized and more functional at the same time. The result? Rooms that work hard but make life a little easier.

Are bathrooms the new kitchens? They do have a lot of similarities. We spend a lot of time in both. Like kitchens, master bathrooms are far bigger—the master baths, anyway—than they were a generation or two ago. Options for features and finishes continue to expand, allowing for more custom looks. Technology has infiltrated, too, allowing us to watch television from the tub or turn on the shower without touching a handle. And with the fixtures, cabinetry, electrical work and plumbing, bathrooms also cost a lot. It makes sense that the second-most-expensive room in the house is getting more attention.

And the bathroom deserves it. Bathrooms have to work hard and endure a lot of abuse. They have to tolerate hot curling irons and messy toothpaste, steamy showers and water on the floor. It only makes sense to invest in sufficient quality and to allocate enough space to make the bath functional and comfortable.

The first step is always determining a budget, says Marling HomeWorks’ designer and sales consultant Cyndi Cheramy. A reliable budget helps professionals narrow choices and present design options that you can afford. That, Cheramy says, leads to better projects and greater satisfaction down the road. After all, if you shop before you run the numbers, you might get your heart set on cabinetry or fixtures that just cost more than you can spend.

“A good budget really helps set expectations,” Cheramy says, noting that those initial expectations will dictate how satisfied a customer is with the end result.

Kristin Anderson, showroom manager at Ferguson, a plumbing fixture retailer for consumers and contractors in McFarland, also encourages homeowners to pay close attention to timelines. Sure, a team from HGTV can remodel an entire house in a week, but in real life things take longer than that. Faucets have to be selected. Cabinetry needs to be ordered. And delivery times, Cheramy adds, vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Bella Domicile’s senior designer Al Curran encourages homeowners to prioritize their project wish lists in case some items need to be modified or cut. Since it can be hard to decide what matters more (multiple shower heads or a bidet?) Curran suggests a trip to a luxury hotel or a visit to a spa to test-run the products featured in magazines or friends’ homes. “This will allow you to make sure that these are items you will continue to use,” he says, “and that you’re not purchasing them just for the sake of the latest trend.”

Jeff Grundahl says functionality is often at the top of the list for his clients. “In almost all cases we’re seeing increased interest in usability,” says the owner of full-service remodeling contracting company JG Development. “We are putting in fewer whirlpools—and in a lot of cases we are taking them out. People don’t just put them in because they feel they have to.”

Instead, they are investing in the features that they want to use. So, Grundahl says, that might mean multiple showerheads for families in which the children use the master bath. Or it might mean a fireplace for those who like to really relax and unwind in the bathroom. “It’s become much more of a personal space,” Grundahl says. “We used to have more standards, but now we see so many different needs and wants in a bathroom.”

If there is a common thread, Cheramy says, it is showers. In fact, more and more of her clients—even those with midrange budgets—are removing master tubs altogether and are replacing them with custom showers.

Bella Domicile’s Curran agrees. “Showers really are the trend of today and tomorrow,” he says. With multiple showerheads, massaging sprays and in-floor heat (not just in the bath but in the shower itself), showers provide “instant gratification” for homeowners seeking a little comfort or relaxation.

Ferguson’s Anderson says high-tech innovations can add another level of luxury. “More manufacturers are coming out with electronic controls to create a custom showering experience,” she explains. “These programmable showers let you digitally set your preferred water temperature, volume and even massage settings for multiple users.”

Anderson notes that technology is also behind Kohler’s motion-activated heated seats, automatic flushing and even music options.

While some eager empty nesters convert their children’s former bedrooms into full-scale master bedroom, bath and closet suites, Keven Schmidt points out that bigger isn’t always necessary or even better. The owner of full-service design and remodeling company Dream Kitchens notes that showers that are too spacious might never feel warm enough, and new closet system features allow for better organization with less dedicated storage space. If you want a more current, more functional, more luxurious master bath or master suite, Schmidt says, you can have it, whether you live in a classic near-West bungalow or a large new suburban transitional.

“Ten years ago size was everything. Now finish is everything,” Schmidt says, “and any bath in any house can have a very nice level of finish.”

Case in point: the powder room. It’s probably the smallest room in the house, but that doesn’t mean it can’t make a big impact.

Without the high demands of full or master baths, the powder room can get away with putting form slightly ahead of function (but not forgetting it altogether). Schmidt says homeowners can use powder rooms to express their creativity or to add flair to their homes. This means they might take some design risks that they wouldn’t elsewhere. They also can spend a little more on higher-end products because the small size of powder rooms requires less material to begin with.

For example, homeowners might scour antique shops for old-fashioned washstands and have them converted into vanities. Or they might splurge on a stunning glass vessel sink and wall-mounted faucets. Another option might be to go bold with rich, saturated paint colors or custom tile mosaics.

“Because it’s a small space, it’s usually not that expensive to make a statement,” Schmidt says.

If Curran could share any other advice with homeowners, he would encourage them to consider working with professionals or at least consulting them during the planning stage. “Oftentimes it is what you don’t know or neglect to consider that creates disappointment with the end result,” he says.  

Grundahl agrees that experience can make a difference. “We concentrate today on ventilation and getting rid of some of the old problems that used to plague bathrooms. Things like moisture and condensation,” he says. “Although people know it can be a problem, they don’t typically think about how design can remedy it.”

- Jennifer Garrett

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