Tips from an expert about your bathroom renovation

Bathroom renovation

We recently looked at how to remodel a bathroom step by step, but now we’re turning to an architecture expert, Maria Gray, to get the inside scoop on the pitfalls, challenges, trends and opportunities for a bathroom renovation.

Maria Gray, Principal at Gray Area Design, has taught architecture and interior design courses at Columbia University and Parsons School of Design, respectively. She has a Master of Architecture degree as well as a Master of Science in Sustainability Management degree, both from Columbia University. She can be reached at

How should a homeowner approach a bathroom renovation?

The first thing you’d want to do is to define the scope of the renovation, based on your budget. A total gut renovation is obviously the most expensive. Next, think about what you’d want to replace or keep: tile, tub, sink, vanity, shower door, etc. And then, you also want to consider the age of the bathroom and whether you are moving fixtures.

Replacing a tub can be difficult based on the age of the home. Older homes have cast iron and porcelain tubs are big and heavy and often need to be cut into pieces in order to remove them. If your tub was installed between 1900 and 1940, then your tub is probably very heavy. More recent homes have lighter tubs.  Fiberglass is lighter but it is a toxic material so you may need to have it professionally removed so that you don’t breathe in the air.

Also with older homes, the connection to the floor or tile is stronger and replacing the tub, toilet or sink can damage the floor.

It is more budget friendly to keep the toilet, sink and tub in their locations. Moving these to a new location means moving the connections. Moving a toilet is the most expensive.

What are some unexpected challenges with bathroom renovations?

If a bathroom is older, you may need to bring the pipes up to the current building codes and bring the fixtures up to new water saving regulations.

For a bathroom renovations you are also dealing with multiple trades: plumber, electrician, sheet rocker – (note: waterproof  and/or sheetrock designed for tile is required at some locations in your bathroom), tiler, and painter.  It takes a lot of coordination between these trades and the work that is being done, in terms of sequencing.

Because of this, it is a good idea to have a general contractor. That will cost 12-18% on top of trade fees, but a contractor carries insurance, which is a big plus, and they can manage all the different trades and sequencing.

Some homeowners want to act as the general contractor, but it is not something I recommend, as it’s really hard to manage the timing and work of all of the different parties involved.

bathroom renovation

What are some common mistakes that people make?

One mistake is not making sure that your plumber or electrician is licensed. You also want to see examples of their previous work. Another mistake is not being aware of building requirements and whether the job needs to be filed with the building department. When it comes time to sell, not doing things to building code may be a big red flag to a buyer.

Another mistake I see is not allowing for good clearance – doors that bump into fixtures like the sink or toilet – not being able to open the door the whole way. Another mistake is in the scale of things – putting in a vanity that is too deep so there is not enough room to stand in front of it with two people. Sometimes homeowners select a toilet that is too big. There are round toilets but also elliptical toilets that are deeper, that stick out too far or into other things, like the vanity. I’ve also seen showers that are too small, or the shower head too low. You want to take the homeowner into consideration – bigger people need bigger showers and higher shower heads.

What are some new trends in bathrooms?

Some of the big trends right now are around energy efficiency, water efficiency and water purification. LEED design, which is about green building. Also, WELL design which is about human wellness. WELL design as it relates to a bathroom would include filtering shower water and tap water. Like in Flint, which is an extreme example, our water can be contaminated and your body absorbs water and also the chemicals in it.

Some other trends include mold proof sheetrock, low VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and caulking, which are good especially in a small room that isn’t ventilated to avoid breathing in chemicals.

For lighting there are many new trends, like halogen and LED. You want to see examples of these before you choose them as they have different effects on skin tone. Incandescent has a warmer tint, and with newer halogen and LED lights, you are able to choose the color that you are installing.  Keep in mind that putting new lights in changes the color of how your paint looks, so you want to take into consideration how paint colors look depending on the lighting.

In terms of faucets and hardware, for a long time, silver toned color was a trend, such as nickel and stainless steel. Now, brushed gold tones are a trend (not polished gold, but brushed), and black metal, which I think are interesting. I like that the personality of the homeowner can come through. You can consider also matching your doorknob hardware!

For the look and feel of a bathroom, green materials are becoming more trendy – natural wood vanities, floor tile that can be made to look like antiqued wood and wall tiles. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, the trend was very hygienic and clean, such as silver fixtures and white tile, but now, warmer materials, like wood, are trending.

What is a small renovation that you can do that really makes an impact?

One of the highest impact items you can replace is the vanity. Older vanities are laminate with doors that don’t last. Also, wear and tear shows the most on vanities. Toilets and tubs are made of more durable material and typically don’t show wear as much.

For a good price, you can get a fairly good vanity that comes completely done with a granite or marble top, and it is fairly easy to replace a vanity.

Faucets and shower head are also easy to replace and you can get really nice shower heads with different massage features and put your bathroom into the 21st century. A fresh coat of paint is always nice and easy. Door hardware can make an impact, as well as new light fixtures and tile that is cleaned and re-grouted.

What delivers the biggest return on investment?

It really depends on the bathroom. If the bathroom is small, you might consider taking a little adjoining space from a bedroom or closet, and expand it a bit. That will give you a good return. People expect spacious and roomy bathrooms now. It’s also a plus if the master bathroom is attached to the master bedroom. If yours isn’t and you have a bigger budget, this is something you might consider which would also give you a good return if you are looking to sell.

Should you hire an architect for a bathroom renovation?

A bathroom renovation is complicated. You have the lighting, paint, color, coordinating all the trades, sheetrock, and other materials. A contractor who has done both design and build would be able to do it. But if it’s a design/build contractor, you want to see examples of their work done without an architect.

You could also have an interior designer work with a general contractor. Architects are proficient at the technical aspects of renovations, but aren’t necessarily interior designers, so you want to make sure they know the aesthetic qualities that you wanted.

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