Choosing a Bathroom Layout

Learn what factors to consider when planning your remodel.


By: Kristen Hampshire

Quick Tip!

One of the biggest (and most frequent) mistakes homeowners make when remodeling their bathroom is choosing a tub that's either too big or too small for the space. Make sure the tub you choose doesn't overwhelm the space or leave you cramped and uncomfortable at bath time.

When designing a bathroom, the key is to look beyond this space. Does the style blend with the rest of your house? Now, keep in mind, you don’t have to be matchy-matchy and blending doesn’t have to be boring. But if your door knobs and hardware throughout the home are oil-rubbed bronze and you choose nickel for a hall bathroom, the change in finish could be distracting to the eye.

Same goes for color scheme, except for the powder room, where drama reigns. If the master bedroom walls are painted a cheery yellow and you go for a burgundy wine colored bathroom, the jarring contrast will create a choppy feel, not the smooth transition you’re after. Unless you plan on renovating the bedroom and changing the colors there, you want an adjacent bathroom design to go with the flow.

“If the bathroom is part of a master bedroom, it needs to tie in with color or texture—something,” says Eileen Kollias, designer/owner, Eileen Kollias Design, Boston, Mass. “If the bathroom is in the hallway and not part of a suite, I don’t think it has to flow at all. It can have its own feel, its own theme, and be fun—totally different. It’s up to the homeowner.”

As you consider the layout of your bathroom, take advantage of every square inch. Tabulate configurations for plumbing fixtures and cabinets. Be sure the tub you choose is the right size for the space—a common mistake. Decide whether you want a tub in your master bath, or if you’d rather give that square footage to the shower and enhance that bathing area with soothing body sprays.

Remember, when planning a space, it’s all about you. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it?) And, in the bathroom, design must result in a space that is safe, and will grow with you.

Bathroom Layouts That Work

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Create Consistency Between Rooms

If the bathroom is connected to a master bedroom, plan your design to create a smooth transition. Try tying in a color or texture so the two spaces flow together. This spa-like bathroom, which has virtually no walls, flows seamlessly into the bedroom thanks to the subtle color palette and serene feeling. Photo by Daniel Newcomb; design by Joseph Pubillones

Create Functional Areas in Layout

There is no exact prescription for the best bathroom layout — it all depends on how you use the space. This bathroom has a lot of open space in the middle of the room with functional areas along the perimeter, such as a sink and makeup area. Image courtesy of Jorge Castillo Design

Utilize Space in Your Design

When considering the layout of your bathroom, take advantage of every square inch. This bathroom squeezes the shower, toilet and sink into a small area while still being a useful space. Image courtesy of Superior Homes

Add Enough Storage Space

Adequate storage space is essential to a functional bathroom. Think about how many people will be using the room, and include enough cabinets and shelves so each person can keep their belongings organized and clean. This room has cabinets under each vanity, plus a tall cabinet for extra storage.

Choose More Counter Space

While dual sinks are useful in a family bathroom, some homeowners are giving up the double sink in their master bathroom to gain more counter space. With only one sink, this vanity offers more space for other tasks. Photo courtesy of Kohler

Conceal the Toilet

The toilet can dictate the design of the bathroom, depending on where it is. But, although it’s the primary reason you go to the bathroom, you don’t want it to be the design focal point of the space. In this bathroom designed by Andreas Charalambous, the toilet compartment echoes the shape and style of the shower, but features a sandblasted door for privacy.

Photo By: Geoffrey Hodgdon

Save Space With a Shower-Tub Combo

The old standby for a full bathroom is a combination of a shower and tub, and this is still a functional, affordable option. It is traditional and will easily save space. This bathroom, designed by Erica Islas, features a bath-shower combo, which fits easily in this small space. The mosaic designs add a little flair, while the long mirror makes the space seem larger. Photo by Young-Wolff Photography

Photo By: Copyright 2006 David Young-Wolff

Use a Smaller Tub

Forget the supersized Jacuzzi. It hikes up your water bill and uses up your hot water. Instead, choose a deeper, smaller tub built for two, which will save space, money and heat. This tub can easily fit two people, while saving on the water bill. Photo courtesy of Collaborative Design Architects

Embellish the Powder Room

When it comes to powder rooms, drama rules. Spice it up with a bold print, bright color palette or some glitz. In this powder room, the bright yellow walls add fun drama and the embellished mirror adds a little glamour. Photo by Louis Ferraro of Lifetiled, LLC. Design by Ackerman Interiors

Functional Zoning

By organizing functional areas around a central space, you give the bathroom plenty of open space no matter its size. While kitchens apply a tried-and-true work triangle, there is no exact prescription for the best bathroom layout.

Browse a Bathroom Buying Guide

A restful bathroom retreat must be a space you love, one that can withstand splashes, steamy showers and soggy towels. With a little planning, pick the look you will love and can live with.

Space planning all depends on your lifestyle and the way you use the space. However, keep in mind when planning that if you must move the plumbing to accommodate your new design, the price tag of your project will be much higher than if the “guts” of your bathroom can stay put. That said, layout options are more limited when relying on existing plumbing hookups, drains, ventilation, etc.

Here are functional zones you might include in the design:

Vanity. The vanity area includes a countertop, storage and a sink or two. This zone also has a mirror, which is generally in a frame in today’s designs. Mirror walls and large mirror slabs are outdated. In master baths, some homeowners are giving up the double sink to gain more counterspace. On the other hand, dual sinks are useful in family bathrooms where children or other family members share the space and want their own station.

Shower/Tub Combination. The old standby for a full bathroom is still a functional, affordable way to incorporate a shower and tub in the same small space. Ideally, a home will have at least one tub (important for resale), and this traditional fixture fits the bill (and the budget).

Tub. Supersized Jacuzzi tubs are outdated. They’re out there, but who wants to pay the water bill to fill that thing on a regular basis? And you better plan on a separate hot water heater for those pool-sized vessels. Instead, master bathrooms that include a tub are equipped with deeper, smaller tubs that are still built for two.

Feature Shower. Tubs are less commonly used in master bathrooms, and when they are used, they have a smaller footprint and are deeper. Homeowners are choosing to use the floorspace to expand their showers. Forget the old stand shower that feels like walking into a vinyl can. “Showers are getting bigger and including seats,” says Rick Miller, president of Miller’s Fancy Bath & Kitchen in Louisville, Ky. “At least one of the shower walls is coming down to a partial or half wall and we are putting glass panels on top of that and doing attractive floor-to-ceiling tile.” Meanwhile, fixtures have evolved to accommodate the demand to “soak” in the shower rather than the tub.

Spa Shower/Tub Room. Take that feature shower and expand it, then place a tiled, sculptural tub in the middle. What you get is a contemporary space that incorporates the best of both bathing features. “The whole space is tiled, and there might even be a fireplace in the wall or a television,” suggests Brian Johnson, principal, Collaborative Design Architects in Billings, Mt. “Rather than being confined in the tub, you can stand up and turn on a shower head to rinse off. This design is becoming more and more popular.”

Toilet. It’s the most used feature in your bathroom and the one fixture you don’t want to position as your design focal point. The toilet can be tucked behind the entry door, placed beside a vanity alongside a wall and partially hidden, or closed in a dedicated “water closet.” A dedicated room is ideal in larger master bathrooms, and half-walls can help block the toilet space in roomier full baths or masters where an open-air feel is desired.

Get the Look

Pulling it All Together

Depending on the size and shape of your bathroom, plan a design that incorporates the features you need. “Every inch counts in the bathroom,” says Cassia Wyner, designer/owner, CW Design, Brookline, Mass. There are regulations you must adhere to when placing fixtures in the space—space allowances for the toilet, sink, shower, tub. The National Kitchen & Bath Association provides recommended space allowances. Ask your designer how he is figuring those space guidelines into the design.

Also critical in a bathroom design is safety, including slip-resistant surfaces, proper lighting and features like attractive grab bars that can work as a hanger for towels or a support in case you lose your balance. “The same logic with universal design bubbles up into overall space planning,” says Diana Schrage, senior designer at Kohler. “We are providing more creative solutions for the long-term that are beautiful and are not a trade-off.”

As you plan your bathroom, here are some tips to create a layout that will work for you:

1. The toilet sets the tone. Whether you’re gutting the space or refreshing it cosmetically, the location of an existing toilet can dictate the design. (You can move it, of course, but it will drive up the price of your remodeling project.) “This is because you have a 4-inch stack drain that is tough to move,” Wyner explains. “You want to keep the toilet as close as possible to where it already is.”

2. Take a headcount. How many people will use this space? This can dictate how many vanity sinks you’ll need, how many drawers and cabinets for storage, whether you require a tub and shower—or not. “And, is the bathroom the only one in the house?” Kollias asks. “Design for function first, and then bring in the appeal.”

3. Consider storage. “Do you have to store towels and linens inside the bathroom?” Kollias inquires. “How much storage do you need for each person who uses the bathroom?”

4. Give yourself space. “There are rules and regulations for doing a proper bathroom, and sometimes people try to jam too many thinks into a small area,” Kollias says. Toilets need 30 inches of space, and the minimum for a shower is 30 x 30 inches (Kollias prefers 36 x 36 inches and loves to have 42 x 42 inches to work with). The center line of a sink should be at least 20 inches off the wall. “It should not be any tighter than that,” Kollias says. “And sometimes you’ll see people who want two sinks in a bath and they try to squeeze them into a 5-foot vanity, and that really is very tight. There should be 36 inches between sinks.”

5. Overlap space. If you’re working with an especially small bathroom footprint, one strategy for adhering to space allowances while fitting in essential plumbing fixtures is to overlap the clearance, says Diana Schrage, senior designer for Kohler. “Your floor space for the entrance to the tub can also double as part of the clear floor space around the toilet,” she says.

6. Clear the air. Keep the space open and it will appear larger. You can accomplish this while still privatizing the toilet. “You can be creative with a frosted glass panel or a partial wall,” Schrage suggests. “With frosted glass, you can create a channel in the floor [to secure it], and it literally takes up ½ to 5/8 inch of space. You get a sense of privacy and separation without feeling claustrophobic.”

Ventilation, Please

Quick Tip

If you install a steam room, be sure to install a hopper unit on the door, which is a window that tilts back and forth allowing steam to escape.

If there’s one room in the home that always needs to air out, it’s the bathroom. Beyond ushering out odors, vents serve the critical function of lifting damp air out of the room. When a bathroom is not properly vented, structural damage to the home can result.

Bathroom vents must exhaust to the outdoors—not simply up and out of the bathroom (and into the attic). “Then you put moisture in your attic and insulation, and I’ve seen instances where there was so much moisture in the attic that on cold days, the bottom of the wood deck froze and as it melted in the spring, it was like raining in the attic,” says Ken Perrin, president, Artistic Renovations, Cleveland, Ohio.

That “rain” leaks through drywall and into the rooms below.

Perrin says you need a powerful vent to get bathroom moisture out of the house. Specifically, the Home Ventilation Institute (HVI) recommends bathrooms smaller than 100 square feet have an exhaust fan that provides 1 CFM (cubic feet per minute) per square foot (about eight air changes per hour.) Bathrooms larger than 100 square feet should have a ventilation rate based on the number and type of fixtures in the room.

Toilets, showers and bath tubs need 50 CFMs each, says the HVI. A jetted tub needs 100 CFM.

So a bathroom that's 20x12 feet and has a tub (without jets), an enclosed shower and a water closet (toilet room) will require 150 CFM of vent power. You can install three separate vents in these functional zones (the ideal), or a single 150 CFM fan at a central location. You should leave a vent on for 20 minutes after leaving the bathroom. Consider a timer.

There are several venting options:

Ceiling mount fans. This metal box, or housing, is recessed into the ceiling. A vent duct runs to the outdoors.

In-line fans.The advantage of in-line fans is that they are less noisy than ceiling mount fans, and multiple fans can be connected to a single motor that is housed along the duct run (usually in an attic or crawlspace).

Wall-mount fans. If there is living space above the bathroom, this unit is a solution. It mounts on an exterior wall and the motor is located right at the vent’s exit point.

Vent switches. Specialty switches include humidity sensors that turn on the fan when air become moist, and timer switches that turn off the fan after a set amount of time.

Conserving Water

Quick Tip

Want to see if your toilet has a leak? Drop a bit of dye or food coloring into the water tank. If the color seeps into the bowl without flushing, you have a leak.

An average American uses 70 gallons of water indoors every day per person, and 25 percent of that water goes down the drain when we flush the toilet, says Diana Schrage, senior interior designer at Kohler. “We know from our data gathering that more than half of the toilets in the U.S. are still outdated, inefficient models,” she notes.

A high-efficiency toilet can save up to 16,000 gallons of water per year for an average family of four—and you’re not compromising flush power by choosing a high-efficiency toilet. “The flushing technology will meet your needs,” Schrage assures, noting that up to 2 pounds of waste can be “processed” by these updated, efficient toilets.

But the toilet isn’t the only plumbing fixture in the house that is a water guzzler. The lavatory faucet and shower are two other culprits that can be modernized with updated fixtures designed to conserve water—and save you money on your utility bill.

Efficient Bathroom Fixtures

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Efficient Aerator Faucet

TOTO's single-handle, high-efficiency faucets have an aerated flow rate of 1.5 gallons per minute (gpm). The proprietary aerator system in the Upton faucet model delivers the same effect as the higher volume models, allowing you to wash your hands effectively while saving water. Upton faucets are available in standard and tall models.

Photo By: Toto

Energy Cell Faucet

Kohler Insight Technology for wall- and deck-mount faucets is able to analyze and log feedback from its environment when it’s initially installed. If the bathroom space has low lighting or highly reflective lighting, the sensor calibrates its default setting to accommodate the new space. The faucet is designed to conserve natural resources and also maintain quality and performance.

Photo By: Kolher

Digital Shower System

Moen’s ioDigital technology can be found in the shower of their Vertical Spa line. The consistent energy-saving temperature reads on a digital waterproof screen, which can be used to program different zones at various temperatures.

Photo By: Moen

Water-Saving Shower System

TOTO high-efficiency shower systems follow the EPA's recently released new high-efficiency shower specification, requiring that showerheads and hand showers consume no more than two gallons a minute. The Soiree High-Efficiency line of showerheads and hand showers uses no more than 1.75 gallons of water per minute.

Photo By: Toto

Multi-Function Showerhead

Moen’s Envi Collection of Eco-Performance showerheads, hand showers and rain showers are flow-optimized, using up to 30 percent less water than normal fixtures without sacrificing performance. The three-function, modified spray formers actually increase the velocity of the water spray, maintaining the highest-quality shower experience.

Photo By: MOEN

Water-Saving Showerhead

TOTO High-Efficiency Rain Showerhead creates a spa-like rain shower while emitting .25 gallons of water less than specified by the EPA. The showerhead has rubber nozzles that prevent lime scale and calcium buildup and also comes in various durable finishes.

Photo By: Toto

Eco-Friendly Bidet

Coway has specially designed the water-saving BA13 Premium Bidet to fit any U.S. toilet type and size. It’s easy to install with its "sliding seat" system, and has upgraded features, such as the "Twin Stainless Nozzle" and the "Silver Oxide Sterilization Cleansing System" that removes 99.9 percent of bacteria. The four-way valve system allows three level choices of personal alterations.

Photo By: Coway

Dual-Flush Toilet

TOTO’s Aquia High-Efficiency Dual Flush Toilet comes in both wall- and floor-mounted options. The china used in the toilets is coated with TOTO's patented SanaGloss glaze, which prevents the build-up of matter and bacteria, assuring that the bowl is thoroughly cleaned at each flush. These water-saving, dual-flush toilets feature TOTO's Dual-Max flushing system, which optimizes water usage by enabling users to select 0.9 or 1.6 gallons per flush.

Photo By: Toto

Toilet. Look for a high-efficiency toilet that uses less than 2 gallons per flush. (The average is 5 gallons per flush.) Kohler’s high-efficiency toilets use 1.28 gallons per flush, Schrage says.

Vanity faucet. By selecting an efficient faucet, you can save 45 percent more water compared to older, standard fixtures, which is about 14,000 gallons of water per year for an average family of four, Schrage says.

Shower head. High-efficiency shower heads with water-saving aerators can save more than 7 gallons of water per shower, Schrage notes. Plus, you’ll avoid wasting water to heat up your shower with a “purge and pause” function that pauses water once it reaches a programmed temperature rather than allowing it to drain.

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