How to Design and Remodel Bathrooms: Getting Started

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Take a closer look at the bathroom you already have. Use the Bathroom Survey to help you assess your needs and establish your priorities. Then draw up your Existing Plan as a foundation for creating the bathroom you really want.

Why are you reading this guide? Presumably, you are thinking of remodeling your bathroom, and you want some ideas, assistance, and guidance. If so, you’ve come to the right place.

Most people who remodel their bathrooms do so for one of four reasons: They want more space; they want to modernize the look, feel, or function of the room; they start to make a single change, such as replacing a bro ken toilet, and then decide to make a more substantial alteration; or they have just grown tired of the way their bathroom looks and want a change for the sake of change itself. Whatever your reason may be for thinking about remodeling your bathroom, there is some specific information you ought to have in order to translate your ideas into reality in the best possible way. How to get and use that information is what this guide is about.

The guide is not intended to tell you everything there is to know about bathroom design and remodeling or tell you how to accomplish every possible task you might want to undertake. For example, if you need to dig into your walls and floors for deep-seated plumbing or electrical jobs, such as diverting your pipes, wires, and vents, you will find the substantive answer to your questions in our guide, Basic Plumbing Techniques and Basic Wiring Techniques. This guide, however, will help you decide whether those jobs are necessary.

Remodeling your bathroom is actually a straight forward series of steps:

1. Assess your present bathroom. While you’re gathering new ideas, take a closer look at the bathroom you already have. The Bathroom Survey and the Existing Plan in this section will help you develop a composite of information about your bath room that will simplify all the stages of your remodeling project.

2. Define your style. Section Two outlines the general process of designing a bathroom and includes photo graphic displays of well-designed bathrooms in a wide variety of styles. Knowing the general direction you want your design style to take will help you make material selections and other design decisions.

3. Draw up a plan. Section Three shows you how to draw up a specific bathroom plan of your own. An example of ten different floor plans for one sample bathroom shows you how to look at your space in new ways. Illustrations of scale, line, and color help you tie your design together. Charts categorize the vast array of products and materials on today’s market, speeding the process of choosing new bathroom elements. And de tailed guidelines help you organize the phases of your project, list the materials you’ll need, estimate your costs and time, and outline the work you want to subcontract.

4. Take out the old. Section Four provides specific instructions for removing the fixtures, fittings, surface coverings, and cabinetry in your present bathroom.

5. Install the new. Section Five provides step-by-step instructions and illustrations for installing all your new bathroom elements.

If you’re eager to get going, you may be tempted to turn directly to Section Four and start ripping out your old fixtures. Don’t. One man took out his washbasin and then waited three months for a replacement. Good planning will save you time, money, and disappointment; and planning is what these first three sections are all about.

Remodeling an ordinary bathroom can be a simple matter of changing the surface materials. The only structural alteration in this previously unremarkable room of standard dimensions was the installation of a shower stall, using glass walls to avoid a claustrophobic effect. The bathroom’s elegance is achieved with new wall and floor treatments combining synthetic marble with soft peach wallpaper, wall-to-wall carpeting, and trim louvered shutters — a totally new look at a modest cost.

Project Overview

At the beginning of any major project, it helps to have an overview of some of the issues you’ll be dealing with. In this case, major issues include budget, schedules, plumbing, wiring, and what “doing it yourself” actually means. You’ll find a discussion of these issues below.


The amount of money you spend remodeling your bath room depends on what you want and how much you want it. An enameled steel or molded fiberglass bathtub costs between $100 and $500. On the other hand tubs made of marble and onyx with gold-covered fittings can cost more than $5000. If you select inexpensive materials and do virtually all the work yourself, you can completely remodel a standard bathroom for well under $1000. But you can just as easily spend $10,000 or more for the same job if you buy costly materials and hire a lot of professional assistance. Before you begin, y should have some idea of what you’re willing to spend. Then to arrive at a ballpark figure of what your remodeling will actually cost, you have to determine what changes you want to make. When you’ve come up with some alternative plans, you can hire a general con tractor to make an estimate or you can make your own. The results may send you back to the drawing board, but it is only by moving back and forth between plans and estimates that you will be able to set a budget and stay within its limits.


The amount of time a job will take depends on the complexity of the job and the skill of the person doing it. You can remove and replace a toilet in an hour if you know what you’re doing and have already received your re placement fixture. On the other hand there is no limit to the amount of time you can spend shopping or correcting your mistakes if you are unprepared. Completely remodeling a standard bathroom will take at least a couple of weeks, and can easily take several months if you’re doing your own work at night and on weekends, To develop a reliable remodeling schedule, you must take into consideration your planning and shopping time as well as delivery times for special-order fixtures. As with costs, you will be unable to work up any sort of realistic schedule until you know what you want to accomplish.

Doing it Yourself

Doing your own bathroom remodeling can mean making all the design decisions, working out the plans, and managing the overall project without ever laying hammer to nail or picking up a single wrench, Or it can mean relying on outside design assistance while pulling out the old fixtures with your own two hands and installing every new item from the smallest piece of tile to the largest bathtub. And, of course, it can mean any sort of role in between. You are the one who defines what “doing it yourself’ means. The most important part is knowing what your skills are and when you need help,

Building Permits

Whether or not you’ll need a building permit depends on your local codes. The determining factor may be the total cost of the project, the extent of the work you do, or both. In many areas you can make up to $750 worth of changes in your house without obtaining a permit—as long as you don’t substantially alter your plumbing, heating, or wiring systems. You can find out what the criteria are in your community by calling your Building Inspection office. They will also tell you whether or not you need prior approval by another agency. For example, in some communities bathroom remodeling projects require approval by the sanitation department, If you need a permit, you’ll want to know what plans you’ll need to supply, how many and in what form, and if and when inspections will be required. Generally, the department is checking to ensure that you are meeting code requirements such as proper clearances around fixtures. Despite the potential for a lot of extra running around, the Building Inspection office can be a good source of information. When you actually get into the work and find that you need help with a particular aspect of your project, you may find that you’ll welcome their assistance.

Plumbing and Wiring Changes

In any bathroom remodeling project, there is always the potential for extensive and costly plumbing and wiring changes. On the other hand you may not realize how extensively you can alter both the size and look of your bathroom by tapping into existing lines or even by leaving your fixtures exactly where they are right now. Further, the cost of plumbing changes may be deter mined more by access to the lines than by the change it self. No one change—even a plumbing or wiring change—is necessarily going to break the bank. Whenever you have to pare down your project because of cost, you simply have to decide what your priorities are. It may be that relocating the tub is ultimately more important to you than having the particular style of tub’ you’ve had your heart set on, The point is that you should not assume plumbing and wiring changes are inevitable or that they are necessarily too expensive. When you get into the actual planning, you’ll see the ways in which you can play around with variations that can utilize existing lines, are esthetically pleasing, and lit your budget.

Your Notebook

The first phase of your project is design and planning. Your single most important tool during this phase is an ordinary notebook. Ring binders are best. They are more expensive than spiral-bound notebooks, but you can move pages around simply and neatly, whereas with a spiral notebook you’ll end up tearing pages out in one place and stuffing them into others. Buy a notebook now, and start to make some lists of things you like about bathroom designs—or, in fact, about any designs at all—and things you do not like. When you look through a magazine or brochure and see a picture of an appealing bathroom or of anything you’d like to use in your own bathroom, cut it out. Tape it in your notebook along with any comments you want to make about it. Organize your notes and photographs into categories that make the most sense to you. Some of those categories might be Fixtures (which you might sub divide even further into Tubs, Showers, Washbasins, Toilets), Vanities, Floors, Counter-Top Surfaces, and so forth.

Assessing Your Present Bathroom

While you’re gathering your ideas about designs, styles, fixtures, and fittings, examine the bathroom you’re al ready living with. Even though there are things you do not like about it, you may find certain elements that you want to retain or modify only slightly. Two essential tools will help you do this. The first is the Bathroom Survey, an exercise that will help you assess your bathroom in the specific terms of light, space, storage, layout, and so on. You will use this information to determine your remodeling priorities and to help guide your new design. The second tool is the Existing Plan, a two- dimensional floor plan of your bathroom as it is today. This plan will be the foundation for your new layouts. If you plan to hire a designer or general contractor to handle the whole job for you, you may imagine you can save some time by skipping the Bathroom Survey and the Existing Plan. However, anyone involved in remodeling your bathroom will need the information these two steps generate, and it’s a lot less expensive to gather such information on your own than with a consultant by your side.

The unusual feature of this dramatic bathroom is the cedar-lined shower stall. Accented by brass trim and accessories, the cedar is also used for the walls and vanity. Because no other major colors have been added, the standard glass-enclosed shower stall becomes the room’s focal point.

The Bathroom Survey

Whether you’re planning to simply spruce up your bath room or to rip it apart and start over again from scratch, the questions that follow will help you identify the problems you want to correct and the esthetic features you want to improve. It is impossible for you to give a wrong answer to any question here. If the Survey asks you to think about a problem, and you find yourself thinking about a solution instead, go ahead and note the ideas that occur to you. Obviously, the questions are by no means exhaustive. They should help you focus on particular areas of your bathroom and stimulate questions of your own.

1. General Considerations

Begin by standing in the doorway of your bathroom with your notebook and a pen or pencil. As you gaze about you, what do you see that you want to change most? Next? And then? Start a list in your notebook of all the major reasons you want to remodel your bathroom and all the most important changes you want to make. Then look at the more specific features of your bathroom, answer the questions for each section, and make whatever notes seem appropriate to you.

2. Overall Design

Do you like the way your bathroom looks? What do you like about it, and what do you dislike about it? Is it too bright? Too dark? Too messy? Too sterile? Do you think your bathroom is boring? Cold? Garish? Cramped? Old-fashioned? Too small? Somber? Spacious? As you list the design factors you like or dislike in your bath room, note the particular elements—such as color, light, or design style—that you think contribute to the atmosphere you want to change.

3. Space, Traffic, and Layout

Is there enough space in your bathroom for the people and activities that must be accommodated? If not, why not? For instance, are too many people using a limited number of fixtures? Are secondary activities (such as laundry, exercise equipment, or pet supplies) taking up room you need for primary bathroom uses? Do you have enough counter space? Enough mirror area? Enough privacy? Does your bathroom door open into the room, blocking space you could otherwise use? List the most important bathroom space and traffic problems you can think of, and note the times and circum stances when they are worst.

4. Space and Storage

Do you have enough storage space in your bathroom? Is the space you do have laid out in a way that is useful for the needs of your household? Do bottles and boxes crowd the corners of your sink or counter top? Are tooth brushes strewn across the landscape? Towels stacked on the counter top and toilet tank? As you list the storage problems you confront in your bathroom, think about the ones that bother you most, as well as those you could eliminate without remodeling your bathroom at all— such as throwing away that broken hair dryer your cousin left last Christmas or assigning everyone a regular place for his or her own towels and toothbrush.

5. Heating

Is your bathroom warm enough? Is it too warm? Do you have any control over the heat in the room? If you are not presently satisfied with the heating system in your bathroom, what changes would you like to make?

6. Surfaces

What materials cover your walls, floor, and ceiling? What do you like about these materials? What do you dislike about them? Are they easy or hard to keep clean? Have they peeled? Chipped? Mildewed? Cracked? Fallen off? Are the colors satisfactory? Have the surfaces worn well? Would you want to use these same sorts of surface coverings again?

7. Fixtures and Fittings

In bathrooms “fixtures” generally refer to the washbasin, toilet, tub, shower, and bidet (if there is one present). “Fit tings” generally mean the hardware on these fixtures— the faucets, handles, and visible pipe. As you look at the fixtures and fittings in your own bathroom, what do you like or dislike about them? Are they too old? Too modern? Too small? Too large? Broken beyond repair? Difficult to clean? Difficult to use? Are the colors wrong for your taste? Is there some fixture you would like that you do not have at present? Would you prefer a single faucet for mixing water temperatures where you now have two? Would you prefer two where you now have one? As you list your thoughts about your bathroom fixtures and fittings, consider each one individually, and note whether you want to replace it or not. If you do, how would the replacement differ from your present fixture?

8. Accessories and Hardware

Certain accessories are fairly standard in the modern American bathroom. Start with our list, and add any others you wish, to complete this section of your Bathroom Survey.

  • Mirror
  • Towel bar
  • Towel hook
  • Chair/stool
  • Magazine/book rack
  • Soap dish
  • Cup/glass holder
  • Robe/clothes hooks
  • Toothbrush holder
  • Toilet tissue holder
  • Facial tissue holder
  • Paper towel holder
  • Wastebasket
  • Laundry basket/hamper
  • Scale
  • Door handles Drawer pulls

Do you have the accessories you want? Are they conveniently located? Do you like the materials, colors, and design? Is your soap dish deep enough? Is your towel bar wide enough? Can you see yourself in your mirror? Do you have enough space for your hand- washed laundry? Note any additions and subtractions you would like to make.

9. Lighting and Electrical Outlets

Do you like the lighting in your bathroom? Is there enough? Too much? What direction does your bath room window face? When do you get the most natural light? Do you like the artificial light you have? Do you have incandescent or fluorescent light bulbs? Is the light too harsh? Too soft? Does it shine where you really need it? Do you like your lighting fixtures? Are there enough electrical outlets in your bathroom for your needs? Where are your outlets located? What do you use them for? Are they convenient? What electrical fixtures are permanently installed in your bathroom (heaters. ventilator fans, etc.)? Are you satisfied with their locations? Are you satisfied with the way they function? If not, what changes would you like to make?

10. Special Needs

Are there people in your household who have special needs, such as children or handicapped or elderly adults? What are their special needs? Does your present bathroom meet those needs? Can children reach the faucets? Can small children be bathed without discomfort for the responsible adult? Is the bathroom door wide enough for a wheelchair? Is the sink low enough for a wheelchair? Is there somewhere to sit in the shower?

Because function is the basis for all design, listing the needs of those who use the bathroom is particularly important.

11. Luxuries

In or adjacent to your bathroom, have you any luxury fixtures such as a whirlpool bath, steam cabinet, hot tub, or sauna? Which do you have? Which would you like? If you want such luxury fixtures, where would you put them? How important are they to you, compared to other priorities?

Your Priorities List

9 Once your Survey is complete, summarize your notes for all eleven sections, and develop a list of priorities from your summary. For example, if you noted that too many people are trying to use the washbasin in the morning, one of your priorities may be to clear up the morning traffic jam. If you also noted that you don’t like the color of your washbasin, another notation may be to replace it. Then you’ll want to order these notes according to their importance to you. Your priorities list will be important any time you have to choose among numerous alternatives, such as colors, sizes, and styles of fixtures, use of storage space, or selection of special features. But if you are on any sort of budget at all, the list can save you from catastrophe. It will show you at a glance where you must spend, where you would like to use your extra money, and where you can use whatever reserves you have left over. Without such a list it is all too easy to be swayed by a spectacular new tub or wallpaper that you truly love but that makes the difference between having or not having something you need much more. The list is a guide you can prepare when you are your most in formed and clear-headed self, for use when you have forgotten why you ever started planning things at all.

Your Existing Plan

Your Existing Plan is an exact rendering of your bath room as it is right now, translated from three dimensions to two. It will form the basis for all your design changes and will teach you the skill of visualizing three dimensions while working in two. To make your Existing Plan, you will need a few simple tools that you can purchase at any art supply, drug, or variety store.

Carpenter’s rule. It is very important that your measurements are precise. For this reason you should use a metal tape; cloth measuring tapes tend to stretch and yield inaccurate readings. A good length is 16 feet: It is long enough to cover most rooms, but short enough to handle easily.

When measuring always write your measurements in inches, rather than feet and inches: 5 feet as 60 inches, 5 feet 2 inches as 62 inches, and so forth. This is the way professional consultants, contractors, and suppliers measure, and you will be able to communicate with them more easily if you follow their approach. You will also be less likely to cause confusion: The supplier who reads your handwritten 5’1” will not think you mean 51 1” if you have already translated your figures to 61”.

A small straightedge or T-square

Soft pencils. Some people find it useful to have pencils in several colors, to create color codes for different elements.

Graph paper. You will be making an exact drawing of your present bathroom plan, and your measurements on paper should translate easily to the full-size, three- dimensional room. Architects commonly employ a ¼-inch scale (¼ inch = 1 foot) for whole-house projects; however, the smaller dimensions of the bathroom allow you to use a ½-inch scale (½ inch = 1 foot). In this larger scale, each square on your graph paper equals 6 inches of your bathroom, and two squares equal 1 foot. If yours is an especially small room, you might even use a 1-inch scale (1 inch = 1 foot) so that you can see your plan in greater detail.

Architect’s scale. This is optional, but you’ll find it speeds up many of your measuring tasks. it is a three-sided ruler that translates your real measurements (say, 9 feet) directly into several different scale measurements (2¼ inches in a ¼-inch scale) and back again, freeing you from the onerous task of doing arithmetic or punching numbers into your pocket calculator.

Half-inch drafting tape. This tape is less sticky than masking tape and therefore less likely to tear your tracing paper, but masking or adhesive tape can be used.

Templates. Templates of bathroom elements (tubs, washbasins, toilets, and so on) are available at art supply stores. They’re not essential, but you may want to try one out. Drawing around the appropriately sized cut outs is faster and easier than making your own templates.

  • Eraser
  • Tracing paper

Measuring Your Bathroom

When you have all your materials assembled, measure all the dimensions that will be important when you start to plan your new bathroom. If you already know that you will be getting rid of your current vanity, you don’t need to measure it, but measure anything that you may keep, however remote the possibility may be. Start with the overall dimensions and work down to the details. If you plan to expand your bathroom, include both the wall and the adjacent space you expect to annex. If the wall has a doorway, you can measure its thickness at the jamb, but do not include any moldings in your measurements. Use the chart as a guideline for measuring your bathroom’s perimeter and elements.

How to Draw Your Existing Plan

When all your measuring is completed, translate those measurements into a scale drawing. Imagine that you can take the roof off your house, and you are looking down into your bathroom. What you see from this bird’s-eye perspective is what you will represent in your Existing Plan drawing. You may have to do some additional measuring to plot the exact locations of the various elements relative to each other, Write the measurements clearly but inconspicuously, so they will not distract you when you start to work with the drawing. When your scale drawing is complete, you’re ready to start creating a new bathroom design.

Floor Plan; Elevations: Your Existing Plan does not need include elevations (scaled drawings of your walls) but you may find it easier to create your design if the walls are in plan as well as the floor.

Measuring Checklist

Overall Dimensions. You want to know the size of the room, so take your measurements as if there were no doors, windows, fixtures, or cabinets. Certain dimensions may be different in one spot from what they are in another: The ceiling will be lower where a soffit encloses a long light fixture, for example, and alcoves or protrusions will affect a wall’s overall dimensions. It may help to make a rough sketch as you measure, and you might want to re-check some of your dimensions when you draw your Existing Plan.

Length | Width



Length | Height

North wall

East wall

South wall

West wall

Angled wall

Adjacent Space. Measure the space surrounding your bathroom: closets, hallways, bedrooms, other rooms. Include doors, windows, hall width, and closet length, depth, and height. You may decide you want to use some of this space in your remodeling project.

Fixtures. Note the length, width, depth, and height of each fixture currently in your bathroom:

Type of Fixture

Bathtub _____

Shower stall ____

Shower door

Washbasin _____

Toilet _____

Bidet __

Whirlpool __

Steam cabinet __

Other __

Storage Units. Measure all the storage units now in use in your bathroom and in the areas immediately adjacent to it.

Type of Unit


Vanity cabinet

Counter top

Closed wall cabinet

Open shelving

Recessed cabinet

Recessed shelves

Recessed accessories


Length or Width | Depth of Depth | Height | Shelves

Doors and Windows. For all doors and windows, note on which wall each window or door is located, the type of window or door you have and measure the following:

______ Height

______ Width

______ Distance from top to ceiling

______ Distance from floor to windowsill

______ Distance from sides to adjacent walls

______ Width of trim or molding

When all your measurements are complete, draw your bathroom to scale.

Next: Designing Your New Bathroom--Planning Basics

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Updated: Wednesday, 2017-01-18 9:24