To Niche or Not To Niche?

And, how much is too much?

It’s a question folks ask a lot when figuring out what they want in a new tile shower installation. With a truly custom reno where you’re starting from the studs, just about anything is possible for showerhead placement, shower drain placement, and shower controls placement.

But again, the most common questions that I get are usually focused around tiled niche inset options.

So, here’s some detailed advice for shower niche design and placement questions.

Q: Should we put an inset niche in our new custom tile shower?

A: Yes, yes indeedy you definitely should!

This is a no-brainer, even if you yourself only use one single bar of soap for washing everything (hair, face, feets, etc). In that case, having an attractive, convenient, and easy to clean inset space for bathing products and accoutrements might not mean much to you. But this will be important to a lot of other people.

So, why not give other folks (and future homebuyers) the option to avoid shower caddy inconvenience?

Also, it is very difficult (and expensive) to carve into an already tiled wall to add a niche insert after the fact. But it is generally very easy to add a niche insert while installing a new tile shower or tub surround.

So, adding a tiled inset storage niche to a custom shower install is not much added expense and will make the shower much more attractive to most people.

Q: Where in our new custom tile shower should we put an inset niche?

A: Pretty much wherever you want!

If you’re starting a custom shower install from scratch, then step zero is to demo everything down to the wall studs. So, the walls can almost always then be re-framed to accommodate whatever niche size and placement you can imagine.

Most tile installers will automatically suggest putting inset niche spaces into the longest wall or the opposite wall of a shower or tub surround because “that’s what’s standard.” The actual direct translation of that phrase is ‘because that’s what’s easiest for the installer.’

Generally, these walls don’t have any plumbing lines or electrical wires to work around. So, they’re the easiest to reframe for a niche:

But there’s no reason why you can’t have an inset niche just about anywhere you want in a custom shower (and in just about any size).

For example, putting a niche into the short wall with the shower controls and showerhead can be really convenient for efficiency. Don’t want to be turning and twisting around all the time to grab your soap, shampoo, conditioner, etc? Then put ’em all in a niche space that’s right in front of your face:

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Now THAT’s some convenient niche storage!

Even a short wall that’s stuffed with plumbing fixtures can be re-routed to accommodate a niche space, like this:

Q: How large should we make the niche space?

A: As large as you want — and then a bit more!

Shower niche spaces are like garages. It’s always handy to have extra space in ’em. And unlike a garage, the extra labor and materials for framing a larger shower niche is generally negligible.

So, bottom line? Larger is generally better, especially when it can really complement the overall shower or tub surround design:

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Now THAT’s some big niche!

Q: Ok, so larger is better — but what specific size ratios work best?

A: Look at your shampoo bottles and design from there!

Most bath products (shampoos, conditioners, fancy body wash soaps, etc) come in containers that are no taller than 11-in or so. So, whether you’re making one long horizontal niche space or one tall vertical niche space with shelves, it’s a very good idea to make it with at least some space that’s 12-in tall.

If you’re going minimalist, then a square-ish inset that’s 12-in tall and 14-in or so wide is about the smallest niche space that’d still be practically useful.

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Example of minimalist niche — one soap and shampoo for up top, and one foot rest for below!

If you’re really wanting to maximize the usable space but still want to keep things simple, then a horizontal inset in a long shower or tub surround wall that’s 12-in tall and 24- to 30-in wide will be really convenient:

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This reno was for a kid’s bath — not much need for fancy conditioner, but LOTS of tub toys will live in this niche space!

And, if you’re wanting to put a really maximally useful niche in a short wall or within a single framed stud bay, then a vertical inset that’s 12- to 16-in wide and 24- to 36-in or more high with lots of shelves (placed so that tall shampoo bottles can still fit) is a good starting point:

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However, these are just general guidelines for guiding your planning. Again, if you’re paying someone to do a custom tile shower install, then it should be possible to get just about any custom dimension niche you can imagine.

Q: It looks like vertical niche spaces really want some kind of shelving to be really useful — got any specific advice on that?

A: Yep — it mainly depends on how much time you’ve got!

In general, there are two options when it comes to putting a shelf or two in your vertical niche space: glass, or something else.

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Glass shelving is often the default option when folks think about putting a shelf into a shower space. Tempered glass is safe, relatively easy to clean, and goes with any style of tile. However, tempered glass has to be specialty cut to size with very specialized equipment — your shower tile installer will not be able to cut pieces of tempered glass onsite.

Therefore, tempered glass shelving for a niche space must be ordered a week or two in advance. And, since even a very careful carpenter can’t guarantee final framing dimensions to an eigth-inch accuracy, glass pieces for shower niche shelving usually can’t be ordered until the space is already framed, waterproofed, and ready for tile install.

So, ordering custom-fit glass niche shelving generally slows down a shower install by a week or so overall. If you’re not able to schedule a week of downtime into your bath reno or you’d just like to save $100 or so in materials costs (since even 6×12-in custom sized tempered glass pieces generally cost ~$60+ apiece), using tile is an alternative option.

627fe30d0db61c225bdea37bfe29e7e0Tile shelving is an option that any competent shower installer can handle onsite. And, although using tile for shelving requires some advance planning and design thought, it can result in a really unique look for a fraction of the cost of custom-cut glass.

The simplest tile shelving option is to use a piece of natural stone tile that has a relatively smooth underside finish. Marble, limestone, slate, granite, quartz — there are lots of possibilities to match just about any field tile color or pattern. Alternatively, an installer can double-up on two ceramic or porcelain tile pieces with bullnose edges to make a shelf out of what then seems like a double-thick, double-sided tile slab.

IMG_7934Several stacked niches is a third option for maximizing the vertical storage space potential of a shower wall.

This sidesteps the shelf issue entirely, but does add more labor cost due to the extra install time. I generally price custom shower installs with one ~12×24-in niche inset already included in the labor cost. Whether a customer wants to add additional niche insets or shelving in a 24-in or taller niche space, it generally works out to about the same added labor charge to cover my additional time.

Several stacked niche insets on a shower wall can, however, make a nice design statement. Also, you can customize the dimensions of several niche inserts to very specialized uses.

IMG_1481For example, you might want one wall niche specially sized for just one oversized bar of soap (as an alternative to the traditional protruding ceramic soapdish).

Or, you might want a step-sized insert 16-in or so above the shower floor to use as a footrest for leg shaving (pictured to the right).

Planning a custom shower with several different niche inset spaces therefore makes it possible to truly design the space to your exact needs.

The bottom line? Whether you choose glass or tile shelving for a vertical shower niche depends on how much time you’re willing to wait for a few custom-order glass pieces versus how much thought and effort you’d instead be willing to invest in looking for just the right natural stone tile piece or planning a creative layout for having an installer use ceramic or porcelain field tile for the shelf-covering material.

Q: Thoughtfully designed shower niche insets sound AWESOME, so why don’t all custom tile showers have ’em?

A: Good question!

Making a custom shower install truly custom and usable takes a bit of extra design thought and planning. And, adding wall insets and working with additional material types takes a bit of extra installation time and expense. So, one answer to that question is the standard (and depressing) “Because cookie-cutter builders and installers just don’t want to be bothered.”

But, compared to the super-awesomeness of a truly custom result, this extra marginal time and expense is pretty negligible. So, don’t let that be you! If you’re thinking of doing a custom tile shower install, then take some time to think about niche insets!

They’re pretty cool when done right: