Small Bathroom Space Savers

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  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, a few things that all old-house lovers, like me and Tom, are familiar with are drafty windows, less-than-perfect plumbing, squeaky floors and this one’s my favorite, guys: small bathrooms. Love them.

    TOM: That’s right. Well, new home baths have nearly doubled in size over the past 30 years. Most older-home bathrooms average about 5 foot by 8 foot. And short of ripping out walls to increase space, you may think you have few options. But there are ways to use the space to its fullest potential. Here with tips to do just that is This Old House plumbing-and-heating contractor Richard Trethewey.

    Welcome, Richard.

    RICHARD: Hey, guys.

    TOM: So, Richard, if your bathroom is snug, remodeling is always an option. But it can be expensive, right?

    RICHARD: It can. I mean many times, it’s as much as an automobile. For somebody – for a professional organization to come in and, on the Monday, rip out the bathroom for a day or two, rough it in for two or three days, completely rebuild it, another two or three days to tile it and stuff like that, it can be a big deal. It can be $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 for a full remodel. That’s not inconsequential and many people can’t afford it and don’t need to.

    What you can also do is do some cosmetic remodeling, which is what most people want to do, which is a way to say, “How can we get the most for the least?” And you do small-scale changes and additions to the bathroom to clearly – to create the space or at least to create the illusion of the space that you need.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: You can’t change the physical size.

    Corner sinks have been terrific, you know. Corner sinks allow you to say, “Instead of taking up that vanity width – which is generally 22, 24 inches wide – let’s tuck that little, beautiful corner sink, 15 inches on either side, into a corner.” It might have a pedestal leg or not. Pedestal legs, I will warn you, are tricky because you have to make sure they are roughed in perfectly. The wall-hung sinks at least let you come in from either side, so they’re a lot more forgiving in …

    TOM: Right. More flexibility in terms of how you [home it up] (ph).

    RICHARD: Absolutely. And so that’s one way. That’s for the sink.

    Now, the other thing is the shower. You can get a very comfortable, reasonable shower by going into the corner. They call them a “quadrant shower” but really, it’s just going to have a 36 – a 33- or 36-inch from each corner and then that rounded front that allows you to have a little more space, much like those – you know what I also love are those rounded shower curtains, which come out just so that the …

    TOM: Reach out a little bit.

    LESLIE: Gives you more space inside, yeah.

    RICHARD: Gives you a little more space inside. It’s another illusion-changer.

    But these quadrant units allow you to have plenty of space and then close up that door and keep the water in.

    TOM: And they’re really attractive, too. They’re very modern-looking.

    RICHARD: They are better. There was a day that a shower was this really utilitarian, awful, little box. It was like being in a bad, little coffin. And now, this thing really lets you breathe and the corner ones are great.

    LESLIE: I think another thing that people are really in need of, with small bathrooms, is storage. You store so many things in a bath and especially in an older home, you’re not given that extra closet to put linens in.

    RICHARD: Yeah. Oh, that’s right.

    LESLIE: So now your bath closet is everything.

    RICHARD: It’s not just linens. It’s bath products, it’s where do you store those extra towels. So there’s all sorts of cool, little things you can have. There’s a whole world of shelving units that go on top of the tank top, right above the toilet-tank top, really. So now you can have shelving there. You can have little storage units that are designed to fit that 22- to 24-inch-wide space which represents the top of the toilet tank.

    TOM: And use up all that vertical space.

    RICHARD: That’s right.

    TOM: You can go right up to the ceiling.

    RICHARD: That’s right. Yeah. And that’s been great. They’re not always that attractive but there’s also those two poles that can go on either side of the toilet tank. And that allows you shelving right to the top of the ceiling. And in small bathrooms, you’ve got to fight for it.

    TOM: Just towel storage takes up the most room.

    LESLIE: Yeah.

    TOM: And it can actually be attractive to have all your towels rolled up and stuck right there.

    RICHARD: Yeah. Yep. Yeah, yeah. I’ve seen some beautiful, sort of medicine-grade, like doctor-grade, white cabinetry where you fold the towels beautifully. And it really is terrific. It’s a relatively small space. It’d be …

    LESLIE: I actually have an antique pharmacy cabinet.

    RICHARD: Yeah, yeah.

    LESLIE: It locks. It looks all …

    RICHARD: That’s it. That’s exactly it.

    LESLIE: Yeah, it’s really nice.

    RICHARD: And some beautiful hotels do that, too, where they present the towel as part of the decoration instead of hiding it in a closet somewhere.

    TOM: We’re talking to Richard Trethewey – he’s the plumbing-and-heating contractor on TV’s This Old House – about how to make a small bath seem bigger.

    Richard, what about some of the fixtures and the faucets out there? You mentioned corner sinks and corner showers but we’re even seeing smaller tubs and different types of sinks, like vessel sinks, that can seem to give you a lot more room.

    RICHARD: Well, the last thing you want to do, with a conventional bathtub – the standard bathtub in America – is take a bath in it. It is not deep enough to actually …

    TOM: Right.

    LESLIE: Oh, it’s terrible.

    RICHARD: It’s really not deep enough. So, there, you could go with more of a deeper, deeper tub where you can get in and it could be 4 feet – and don’t overlook the beauty of a what they call the Essex tub, the tub on legs. They were designed to bathe in and then we gave up – we gave them up for the utility of a shower. But if somebody really wants to have an extraordinary bath, those tubs on legs, they tuck right underneath – against the wall and they’re much more functional as far as taking a bath.

    TOM: Now, are those tubs taller? Just not as wide?

    RICHARD: They’re slightly taller. Yeah, slightly taller.

    LESLIE: They’re just deeper.

    RICHARD: Right. But the standard tub right now is only – at the most, it’s a 14-inch off the …

    LESLIE: I can either have my shoulders and back wet in the tub, with my legs sticking straight up in the air, or just my legs in the water.

    RICHARD: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Right. That’s right.

    TOM: You decide.

    RICHARD: Yeah.

    LESLIE: It’s a choice. I have to choose.

    RICHARD: Imagine me.

    TOM: Yeah. And what about the sinks today? Aside from the corner sinks, we’re seeing a lot in vessel sinks. Those can give you more countertop space, right?

    RICHARD: Right. The evolution of lavatory sinks has always been – in the old days, it was – they used to be a stainless-steel rim which held the sink. And that was always a place where it was – get gunked up. And then they went to a self-rimming, which meant that it sort of sat down on top of a countertop. Well, that meant that your width was pretty dramatic; it was just going to be 22×19 or 22 round. And so it took up every bit of the top of the vanity.

    You can actually fool your eye with these sort of vessel sinks, which looks like a still-life bowl.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: It looks like a bowl you put food in. And it stands – so it stands beautifully proud on a flat surface. But now it gives you a little additional storage space for toiletries and things like that on – that actually exist underneath the crown of that lavatory. So people love those.

    I, personally – I’m not that thrilled with them because once water gets outside the vessel, you can’t wipe it back into the – so, if you have – it’s not – I don’t think it’s the most functional for the bathroom where young kids will be using it every day.

    LESLIE: Yeah.

    RICHARD: But it’s beautiful for a half-bath or a decorative, smaller bath.

    TOM: Now, aside from the plumbing fixtures, you can do a lot with lighting to make these small spaces look bigger, can’t you?

    RICHARD: Yeah. I mean it’s amazing. Maybe it’s my eyesight but everywhere I go, it seems the lighting is terrible. And there’s all sorts of ways that you can make a room feel bigger, both with mirrors and with lighting, which sort of makes the place come alive a little bit. It doesn’t feel like this awful – because sometimes, these small bathrooms are tucked underneath stairs. They’re dark and dingy. And so proper lighting – and the fact is, if you’re going to make it be a bathroom that you need for shaving or for hygiene to see your face, you’ve got to have decent lighting to make that happen. And there’s got to be something besides those Hollywood lights that we grew up with around the medicine cabinet.

    LESLIE: Yes. The powder-room, makeup-artist lights.

    RICHARD: That’s right. That’s right.

    LESLIE: And as all the ladies listening can attest, we don’t wake up looking like this.

    RICHARD: That’s right.

    LESLIE: We need lighting to put our makeup on properly.

    RICHARD: Right.

    TOM: It only takes a little while.

    RICHARD: Only takes a little while.

    TOM: See, that’s where a dimmer comes in. You can start low and kind of bring it up.

    RICHARD: That’s right. A dimmer.

    LESLIE: No, a dimmer is also known as a confidence booster.

    RICHARD: Yeah.

    TOM: There you go.

    RICHARD: “I look better now.”

    TOM: And our bathrooms will, as well.

    Richard Trethewey, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit. Great advice.

    RICHARD: Great to be here.

    LESLIE: Alright. Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit

    TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by State Farm. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

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