Thursday, March 5, 2015

A real, hopefully helpful, honest guide to renovating your bathroom

Renovating and decorating is so personal. One person's penchant for trends is another's personal time-warpy nightmare back to when they lived with it the first time (kind of like the '80s fashion that keeps coming back!). Regardless of what you choose to outfit your bathroom, the process of renovating it can be pretty overwhelming. I thought I'd outline some of the things I considered, some problems that appeared, some tips and tricks I learnt along the way. I've now renovated two bathrooms (our current house / our old house) and one laundry/WC and am by no means an expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think I have some tips to share. And I like to share; I have a blog, don't I?! I also spoke to Dana of House*Tweaking who recently revealed her bathroom renovation and has some good advice too, because it's nice to hear from others who've been through the same thing. This is by no means all the information ever on renovating a bathroom, but it might help in some small way - even if it's tip on taking a million photos so you have some back-up for tradies who might have lost all their important notes written on the wall to an over-zealous plasterer...

Finding your tradies
Ask anyone - ANYONE - who has ever used a tradesman for anything ever and they will say "oh so-and-so came out to give me a quote and I never heard from them again." I have no answer for this annoying trait, but maybe it's in their manual... So yes, you will likely get someone who will waste your time, but you need to find one first, right? Here are a few tips.

Ask around and get recommendations. We knew no one when we renovated our first house - not a soul - so we asked the local hardware store and they gave us the name of a carpenter who ended up doing our whole house. The smaller local hardwares are best - they know their stuff and they work closely with regular, local tradespeople who aren't just after the cheapest price for materials.

You don't need to use a dedicated bathroom place. I don't know much about them but I would hazard a guess that they know what they're doing BUT you'll pay for it.

A good carpenter/builder will know good plumbers, electricians, tilers, plasters - anyone else you'll need for the job. So one recommendation will usually result in a whole team. Same goes the opposite way - if you've ever used a plumber or electrician for another job, they may know a good builder for the job too. These types of tradies are usually contracted by various builders so they get to know them well - who pays them well, treats them well, is organised, who produces good work. They're one of the best sources of recommendations.

Try to have a good idea of what you want before you get someone out. We never got anyone out for any work until we knew exactly what we wanted. But we welcomed their advice and suggestions and even made some of their changes.

The right person for the job is not just the best price. You want someone who is willing to work with you to get you what YOU want - not what THEY want (and there will be some who only want to do what they want. We had a tiler who didn't want to do a feature cause it was in the too-hard basket; another builder didn't like our layout and wanted to change it to something that was less work for him!). We chose our carpenter for our first house because he tried his best to bring our plans to life, even when others had dismissed them (We wanted a certain layout with a door in the middle of a wall. Two builders looked at my sketch and said it couldn't be done. The carpenter actually measured the space and suggested we use a narrower-than-normal door. He got the job.)

Coming up with a layout
This may be dependent on budget, but if you have the luxury to have the space redesigned, here are some things to think about while playing interior designer...

Invest in grid paper and make each square equal 50cm in real life. That's what I do with everything! Draw up your space and measure your existing shower/bath/vanity/toilet space as a guide so you know what you're playing with.

Think about moving utilities to make the best layout for you. A narrow bathroom works well with the bath or shower at the far end.

Consider moving the wet spaces furthest from the door - I don't know about you, but my kids make a huge wet mess every time they have a bath. Toilet trips and teeth brushing meant wet feet right before bed in our old bathroom because they had to pass the bath to get to the sink and their socks (in winter) would get all wet. Or they'd slip over. Now, the vanity is right at the door and the bath/shower beyond it. It hasn't stopped the problem completely, but it's much, much better.

Don't let windows throw you. We have twice now kept the window in the shower/bath - tilers can waterproof and tile around them and with semi-opaque glass or window adhesive, there is no problem with privacy!

Think about moving the door. A door in the centre of a wall gives you another option for a small bathroom - you can place the toilet on one side and the vanity on the other of the same wall with the door in the middle. Open the door so it opens to the side with the toilet. We did this in our first bathroom renovation, pictured above. My bathroom MO hasn't changed much, has it?!

Consider gaps between things like vanities and baths or the wall. You don't want any gaps that you can't get your hand/arm into to clean. Trust me, it's gross. Either leave enough space to get in there or have no gap. There are all sorts of nasties lurking in those hard-to-reach places.

Make sure you really have space for everything - seriously, write a list of all that you require to be in your bathroom that will take up floorspace: laundry basket, bin, toilet brush, toilet paper holder, a stool for the kids... and then make sure you have enough room for it all!

Give yourself enough room on either side of the toilet - I'd allocate a minimum of 80cm to a toilet, with it centred in that space. It's best to place it in a corner so it's close to a wall so the toilet-roll holder is in line with your arm while you're, um, sitting on the throne, rather than having to bend around and do gymnastics to the wall behind you. We have 40cm from the edge of the toilet to the wall on one side and 70cm from the other edge of the toilet to the bath on the other. The smaller space allows a spot for a bin and toilet brush while the bigger space has a tree trunk (temporarily - when I get my butt into gear and go to Ikea, it will house a step stool for the kids.)

Give yourself plenty of space in front of the toilet too - our vanity is 60cm away from it, allowing a thoroughfare for little people to wander in (!), but I wouldn't want to go any closer to it.

Give careful thought to which end you want your showerscreen/taps - you want to make sure you have enough clearance to get in and out of the shower - especially if there is a vanity nearby. You also need to be careful your screen won't smash into anything if you're going to have it swivel, like ours does. Ours opens onto the wall, which is ideal.

Consider a recessed sliding door into the room if space is tight - no door swing might allow you a bigger vanity or more toilet room. You can also request a narrower door or have it slightly shaved if need be. Sometimes a few millimetres can make a huge difference to something fitting perfectly or your layout changing completely!

Don't waste your chance to squeeze in extra storage - recessed wall cabinets might be your thing, try built-in shelving like we did for towels and toilet paper or, if you only have space for a small vanity, think about building in a small ledge above the vanity for toiletries you use everyday but have no space on the sink for.

Making it pretty and practical
You've pinned and stalked Instagram for snippets of bathroom styles you love. Now for a reality check: don't be blinded by the prettiness of some pictures - magazines or styled images always remove signs of life (shampoo/soap/toilet roll stash/scales/toilet brushes etc) so what you're seeing is not necessarily how your space will look should you replicate it. Instead, take note of the things you find repeating themselves in your fave pictures (colour, natural materials, a particular tile) and see if you can work that into your space. Practical AND pretty is what you want. Not just pretty. Here are a few ways you may be able to get it.

Think of different places for your electrical outlets. We placed ours behind the door - it's close enough to the vanity but out of reach of children and water and can't be seen day-to-day. If you rarely use electronics in the bathroom, this might be ideal - or perhaps in a wall cabinet.

Really think about the colour of the grout - especially on the floor. White tiles with white grout on the floor is just asking for trouble. You might as well just choose grey grout because it will inevitably turn grey anyway! My personal preference is a darker floor with lighter walls. If you like the look of darker bathrooms (and we're gearing towards the dark side for our ensuite), I'd still make the floor darker than the walls. I just think they look top-heavy if the walls are darker and it feels off balance. Again, personal opinion but one to consider.

Test your floor tiles at the store - natural stones with a bit of texture are less slippery than smooth tiles. Take a bottle of water with you and wipe a bit of water onto the tile and see how slippery they are. It's a small, not-perfect test but you'd be surprised how slippery they can be. And NEVER use wall tiles on the floor. You might read this with a crinkled-up "well DER" face but in our last rental, they had used the wall tiles all over the bathroom - including the floor. And we hit the deck more times than I'd like to remember. Plus they had cracked in several places on the floor - I'm only assuming here, but I wondered if wall tiles are thinner than floor tiles and this was the reason? Either way, I cursed that bathroom every time I used it!

Consider your showerscreen options Fixed, frameless shower screens are quite lovely to look at, but if you have a shower over your bath or have little kids, a showerscreen that swivels is a great idea. It still can be frameless for the invisible look, but the hinged style of it allows easy access to taps, bathing little ones and cleaning (you can rinse off the outside of it in the shower!

Avoid bath "shelves" When tiling around a bath, depending on the style, you might have the bath sit into a frame which could leave a little tiled "shelf" along the edge (see my picture at the top of the post for detail). This all sounds well and good in theory, but the water pools here like nothing else and the grout stains so easily. I'd ask your builder for other options.

Think about how the floor will match the floor in the rest of your home We chose a grey floor tile that worked well with our whitewashed floors. We're actually planning to resand the floors and stain them when we extend. I'll be choosing a cooler, grey-based stain to match for flow. Orangey pine floors might clash with cool-coloured tiles. Bring a sample tile home and check it in natural light and at night to see if it works. It's not one that can be easily fixed!

Think about what kind of sink you want and who is using it - I always wanted an above-counter sink. To me, it acts like a wall for items on the benchtop - handy when you have young children who are awesome at moving things around randomly and knocking things into the sink. So many times our toothbrush holder was knocked in - along with anything else sitting on the benchtop. It's seems a small annoyance, but appears to be big enough to warrant a change.

Mixers vs individual taps Mixer taps are pretty popular, but I don't like them in a bathroom. In the bath, they are so easy for kids to bump or play with, potentially causing burns. Steve's story about his childhood friend whose skin was burnt from a bathtub has haunted me, so they were out. I considered using one on the vanity but I wanted the same style tap throughout the bathroom.

The range of ready-made vanities might be limited depending on the style of taps you want. I wanted wall-hung taps to show off the cross style I chose with an above-counter basin. Could I easily find a vanity that had no holes in it for the taps? Nope! It was a challenge - most have one hole for a mixer tap or three for your standard-style taps. I was trying to get a good deal on eBay or a hardware store but was limited. In the end, I found BTH, which has a good range.

Tiling around a window ledge, but will cost you a fair bit more than standard tiling. This is due to them having to grind angles on each tile for the corners. Just so you know!

The smaller the tile, the higher the price! Not necessarily the tiles themselves, but apparently all tilers have a hatred for mosaic tiles, so they charge you for them! I was told the rule of thumb was: the smaller the tile, the higher the price to lay them per square metre. My subway tiles cost a fair bit more than regular square tiles would have; mosaics or smaller squares would have cost even more. Next time I think I'll choose gigantic tiles!

Tiling is surprisingly expensive. I'm not sure why this surprises me, but it does. Aside from the carpenter's bill, the tiler was the next expensive. His fee came in at around $2000. To cut costs, we only tiled to the ceiling around the shower area. The walls away from the wet area we did just above the tap line for the vanity. Then for the built-in shelving we just did a border tile near the floor. The bonus thing about doing a half wall of tiles in areas that don't need it is if you install a towel rail or hooks, you're not drilling through tile so they can be moved if you realise you need something different or in a different spot. It happens.

The bigger tile you use on the floor, the smaller amount of grout you need to clean! I'd balance out the large-style floor tiles with a smaller wall tile...

Heat lamps might not be the prettiest thing ever but if you decide against underfloor heating, they are so good. I won't shower without the heat on in winter - it really does make a difference. And you don't look up so no worries!

Discuss with the plumber where the showerhead will sit to ensure it's the right height for everyone. If someone in the family is above-average height (like Steve!), it might need to be installed higher than normal - especially if it's in a bath, which is always slightly higher than the floor level. You might also need a longer arm from the wall if it's a large-circumference showerhead (like our rainfall one) to ensure the right amout of clearance from the wall and so you don't need to angle the showerhead everytime you take a shower.

A few more top tips...
Some miscellaneous things I thought might also be of interest. Warning: poo talk is involved.

Water-saving bits can be removed I do my bit to help the environment but I REFUSE to have a terrible-flowing shower. We bought a rainfall showerhead and were so excited and then the first few showers were pathetic. And the bath took 24 years to run. I asked the plumber what could be done and he just said "I'll just remove the water-saving device in them." Five minutes later we had a fast-running bath and a heavenly rainfall showerhead. They are the only two taps I've removed them from, but a little luxury is good for the soul.

Take photographs of each stage of the renovation From demolition, to re-studding, to the plumbing bits fitted, images of the various stages can really help when small hiccups occur. It's amazing how often the photographs of the studs came in handy. When the time came to install the hooks, the builder's notification to themselves of where their stud was had been plastered over. And when the builders forgot to cut a hole for their electrican's cables for our oven in the kitchen, my photos helped the electrician work out where it was so the damage was minimal.

Plan ahead If you're going to install a towel rail or hooks for towels on a wall, have the builders put a stud or noggin in place where they'll go so it's not just screwed into the plasterboard.

Look at your toilet. Really look at it. I made the mistake of just buying the narrowest toilet I could find that didn't have plastic parts (I didn't want a plastic seat). But once it was all in and our bathroom was in working order we quickly discovered annoyances that has Steve and I hanging for a pristinely perfect toilet in our ensuite! Inspect the inside of it - you don't want an opening that is too small that waste will not be flushed out properly. I'd also avoid toilets with a bit of a "shelf" on the inside. Excuse my potty talk, but when you have small children who tend to do their business close to the front of the toilet, there are issues with their, um, "presents" collecting on the little shelf and not flushing properly, leaving lovely artwork-style marks and generally stinking up the place. It's like the toilets I came across a lot while in Germany. I hated those things! The best styles are bowl-style with a large opening at the base. And that's the end of the poo talk!

Baths - especially bath/shower combinations - will move over time. So keep in mind the grout might crack slightly after a bit of use and you may need to redo the grout and the silicone around the edges too. Mine needs to be done, I'm still working on finding some time to do that! 

Have the tiler look at the toilet base before he begins tiling - some require the tiles to be cut perfectly around the base as the plumbing IS the base, while other toilet's have a base that fits over the plumbing and therefore will cover the tiles.

Strange smells will be temporary Oh wait, I lied. A little more poo talk: you might discover a delightful (!!) sewerage smell while your bathroom is being renovated. This will disapper once the toilet is fitted with S-bends so just bear with it for a little while. (It's still gross).

This is another one of those things people will debate about. MY opinion is this...
Taps: All have water-saving devices these days and need to be made to meet a certain standard, so they're all going to be pretty similar. I bought our taps from Bunnings and they were the higher end of their range but still a lot more affordable than at a bathroom store.
Tiles: Tiles have a huge range of prices for the same kind of thing. I bought all my tiles from Bunnings and even the tilers suggested I get them there as they were a great price and a good tile. IF you want a particular tile or a feature wall of amazingness, then this would move into the splurge section. In my bathroom, we used simple styles so no need to pay through the teeth for them.
Toilets: Again, they need to meet standards and have water-ratings. I'd just avoid anything with a plastic seat/cistern.
Hardware: Towel rails, toilet-roll holder and hooks - I just can't justify spending a lot of these items. As long as the quality is good - they seem sturdy and look nice, does it really matter if they're bargain-priced?

Vanity: This is your one real piece of furniture in the room, you want it to be a bit of a focus and nice looking so I'd buy a nice one. Ensure it's not going to blow out if it gets water-damage, so badly-sealed laminates (on edges) are not a great idea.
Custom fittings: Built-in shelves, recessed shelving or door changes can be huge game-changers to a space so are worth spending on.
Tiling: You might not have a choice! They're expensive! But we're glad we upped the budget to allow for the half walls of tiles on the vanity and toilet walls rather than just a floor border. It was worth it to us (plus - happier there are tiles behind a toilet rather than just a wall!)

I spoke to the lovely Dana from House*Tweaking - owner of this pretty space, below - for her top tips for renovating a bathroom. Here's someone else's perspective:

If possible, work with the current layout to keep costs down In a perfect world, I would have moved the tub / shower plumbing to the opposite wall but we saved $$ by keeping it in the original location.

Choose classic finishes for longevity Bathroom materials aren't the easiest to switch out (as opposed to, say, a pillow on a sofa). Subway tile, hexagon tile and/or penny rounds in neutral colours are good go-tos.

Take a risk! I had my heart set on a vintage cast iron tub set in a wood saddle base, but had no tutorial to follow and many people tried to talk us out of it. We made it up as we went along and somehow pulled it off (above). It's one of my favorite projects to date.

Choose your grout colour wisely Light grey or sandy-coloured floor grout is super family-friendly!

Information overload? You could play a drinking game for the number of times I said "consider" or "think"!! I do hope some of it's helpful. And I'm sure there are a million more tips and tricks to renovating and decorating a bathroom space effectively, but you'll come across some of them as you tackle it. And if you've already learnt some, feel free to share them in the comments section for those who are gathering as much information as they possibly can! If you're after more tips about renovating in general, try this post for some things I've learnt along the way.

{Top images by Belinda Graham for The Happy Home; bottom image by Dana Miller for House*Tweaking}


  1. I LOVE this post. We are currently renovating our ensuite, gutted it 6 months ago but I am terrible at making decisions so its still an empty shell! Am going to use alot if your advice especially the toilet!!! Just thought I would add, my husband is a tiler, he charges a lot more for mosaics as its fiddly getting the sheets perfect but only really sheet tiles, subway etc he charges normally. He actually charges more for gigantic tiles! There is less play and your floor needs to be perfectly straight which it rarely is in old houses or you'll get lips etc its easier to hide with smaller tiles.

  2. What fantastic tips you offer. I agree about the neutral colored flooring. It shows less dirt and can also be updated frequently with different colors to give the room a fresh, trendy feel.

  3. Very interesting blog. A lot of blogs I see these days don't really provide anything that attract others, but I'm most definitely interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.

  4. One tip that has always stuck in my mind from when I was interviewing the interior designers Arent & Pyke is to make sure that if you need to cut tiles on the bathroom floor, do it at the far end. Always start laying them from the front of the room and start with a whole piece. It's something that can be easy to overlook until you get into the nitty gritty end of renovating. I also think it's important to avoid placing the toilet opposite the door - even though you find this in so many homes. Thanks Belinda. I'm going to read over it again before we start on our place.

  5. I kept waiting for a moment when I had the time to sit down and read this post in peace and quiet. And the moment finally came! :) You offer lots and lots of great tips. We will be renovating our bathroom sometime in the next 2 years and even though it's likely to be quite far away in time I'm soaking up as much knowledge as possible....

  6. Bathroom tiles can be tricky if you don't do them right. Yours turned out great!

  7. Incredibly useful. Thank you so much!

  8. Your article is helpful because of the many useful tips you have shared. The one about the classic finishes for longevity is very important because it will save you a lot of troubles and money!

  9. This is quite a long list of things to have to worry about, but renovating a bathroom is a big job! It's better to know you have all your bases covered than to end up making a mistake because of something you forgot to consider.

  10. Thanks for sharing and this is a great post.