How to Replace a Small Shower
This project was for a client who needed to replace a badly constructed shower. Replacing a small shower unfortunately requires almost as much labor as a large one. Every shower after all has at least three walls and the same number of corners and seams. And small showers often have odd angles or irregular footprints or a need for ceiling tile installation too.
Simply put, showers are expensive no matter the size. That’s why it’s important to install a tile shower correctly. If properly done, a tile shower can last for a literal lifetime. However, a tile shower installation can also turn into a leaky moldy mess in just a few years if done incorrectly.
Here is an example:
This small shower exemplified bad design and poor construction.
Bad Small Shower Design
For example, using inexpensive ceramic floor tile for the shower walls saved money initially but made the shower a nightmare to keep clean. These 12×12 ceramic tiles have a somewhat rough raised surface, because they’re designed for use on high-traffic institutional spaces. They’re slip resistant, which is great for a commercial restaurant kitchen floor but really annoying for a residential shower wall.
The result was a shower difficult to keep clean. No-skid floor tiles catch and hold soap scum, and therefore encourage surface mold growth.
In addition, the finish tile used in the previous install just didn’t follow some basic design principles. In general, here are a few three things not to do with a small shower space:
1) Do not use textured ceramic floor tile for the walls, since this will make the shower unnecessarily difficult to keep clean.
2) Do not use large square 12×12 tiles for the walls, since this will make the shower space feel smaller than it actually is.
3) Do not use dark (especially large and dark) tiles for the walls, since this will make the shower space seem even smaller than it actually is.
Bad Shower Construction
The main reason for replacing this small shower was function. Although the shower design was annoying, the shower construction was worse. After just five years of use, signs of leaking water were everywhere. This included permanent mold around the perimeter of the shower floor, a persistent musty smell, and water damage along the baseboard next to the shower curb.
Demo revealed how bad waterproofing can make a mold factory:
Shower curbs are usually the first place where water leakage will show. Sure enough, peeling the tile off the outside of this shower curb showed dryrot and mold starting.
The underlying problem was a badly installed waterproofing liner in the shower base. It was a traditional PVC vinyl liner, which is a waterproofing method that can fail quickly even when competently installed. This liner was not competently installed. It was not presloped, had badly folded corner seams, and was shot through with holes.
In addition to being inexpertly folded up at the corners, the installer had ‘secured’ the liner to the wall and curb framing with drywall screws. This is basically the equivalent of hammering nails through the sides of a submarine.
No preslope for the waterproofing liner also meant that the shower floor perimeter was staying permanently moist. And the unsealed fasteners punched through the liner meant that this moisture was constantly wicking into the wall and shower curb framing.
Even MORE Bad Shower Construction
Taking everything to the studs and the concrete foundation slab was not too much of a problem. The only inconvenience was the high-density ready-mix concrete that the previous installer had used for the shower base. It’s tough to crack apart high-density Quickcrete in a space too small for swinging a full sized sledgehammer.
Aside from simply being a (literal) pain to crack apart and remove, regular concrete is NOT the right material for a shower base.
Drypack “deck mud” concrete mix is both water permeable and easy to shape, which makes it possible to slope the shower floor properly and also guarantees that moisture won’t get trapped between the shower floor tile and concrete base layer to overtop the liner level and get dumped into the wall framing. This is why you use drypack “deck mud” concrete for a shower base.
Quickcrete, on the other hand, is not and will not. This is why you can’t simply pour a shower base as though it were a section of DIY sidewalk.
GOOD Shower Construction!
Proper shower construction starts with effective waterproofing. Completely seamless waterproofing is especially important when replacing a small shower. A small shower enclosure will act like a steam room, trapping lots of water vapor moisture. This is why small showers need continuous waterproofing not just for the floor and curb but also for the walls and even the ceiling.
There are several ways you can achieve this, but I always recommend Kerdi waterproofing fabric at the shower base and paint-on RedGard waterproofing for the concrete backerboard wall and ceiling substrate. This combination is both cost effective and results in a small tile shower that will remain waterproof for a lifetime.
Putting a continuous waterproofing barrier directly behind all the surface tile (especially the shower floor tile) ensures that everything will quickly dry out completely between each use. This is especially important for a small showering space that will be used at least twice a day.
Using Kerdi fabric for the shower floor waterproofing and running up the walls a bit along with overlapping RedGard waterproofing for the walls and ceiling ensures that no moisture will ever get into the framing of this shower again. Basically, it’s now a mini steam room with a lifetime waterproof guarantee.
GOOD Small Shower Design!
The clients chose to combine sensibility with style for their new shower. There’s a reason why white ceramic subway tile is a classic.
First, smooth porcelain ceramic tile is very easy to clean. Oil and soap residue doesn’t cling to it, and you can use any nonabrasive cleaner on it. This makes porcelain ceramic tile a great choice for a nearly maintenance-free shower design.
Second, porcelain ceramic tile is also inexpensive and comes in many different sizes to match the dimensions of any space. In this case, the clients chose 3×6 rectangular tile to make the wall pattern peacefully balanced and to make the small space seem pleasantly larger. It looked great even before grouting:
In addition to classic wall tile, the clients went with perfectly complementary marble hex mosaic sheets for the floor. Using a hexagonal mosaic tile also make it possible to match the irregular shower floor dimensions:
In addition to all the great tile choices, the clients decided to use a neutral gray grout color that really let the tile finish shine. This was also a great choice for easy cleaning. There are practical reasons why some design combinations are classics!
The rest of the bathroom got a makeover too with new floor tile, a new stone countertop for the vanity, and a small backsplash to match the new shower. Remember that replacing a small shower is not cheap. Doing more renovation in a small bathroom therefore often adds only an incremental cost to the overall work.
The in-process additional work looked like this:
Replacing a small shower is also a great time to think about updating an entire small bathroom space. This project transformed the client’s entire bathroom from drab and dingy to bright and cheery.
A small shower replacement renovation and bathroom design refresh that’s now both stylish AND guaranteed waterproof for a lifetime. Not bad for a 10-day project.
The clients were extremely happy with the results as described in their review:
And this description can hopefully help with your own renovation planning!