Space-Age Tub Surround

This project was an update to a backyard rental house turned Austin-style stand alone tiny home. The structure started out as a detached garage built in the 1960s when this particular Austin neighborhood was not even technically inside the Austin city limits, and was converted into a ‘mother-in-law’ -type backyard living space around 1980 or so.

In subsequent decades as home values along the West Anderson Lane corridor soared, the standalone addition went from “extra living space made out of a large backyard garage” to backyard rental income and then finally got transformed (on paper at least) into a completely separate property. The last transformation came with an accompanying kitchen and living area room remake, which was perfectly charming visually and even more thoughtfully utilitarian chic. The resulting ‘tiny home mansion’ actually worked great as a space station -like efficient 650-ft2 2-bed 1-bath.

But the bathroom was still the original 1980s everything. Although the clients wanted to minimize costs by keeping the original tub and not moving any plumbing, they still wanted to make the basic small bathroom layout somehow feel larger as well as modern.

The good news? Just about anything would be an improvement to the very dated (and not well installed) 4×4-in square white tile tub surround original install. It’s nice to have a low bar set.

The Plan

The clients chose to maximize the visual impact of their new tub surround by deciding to tile one entire wall from floor to ceiling. This design trick actually makes a small-ish bathroom seem larger by integrating the tub surround visually with the rest of the room.

So, the process was:

  1. Fully demo the entire previous tile tub surround to the studs and re-frame for an inset tiled niche and to repair any legacy water damage
  2. Partially demo one bathroom wall to the studs to re-configure plumbing for a new vanity and re-wire for added vanity counter outlets and a light fixture
  3. Install concrete backerboard for the tub surround and drywall for the non-wet wall areas
  4. Waterproof the tub surround concrete backerboard with RedGard (waterproofing and vapor barrier in one)
  5. Install ceramic wall tile for the tub surround and one full wall of the bathroom floor to ceiling
  6. Re-install the bathroom vanity
  7. Install new GFI -protected wall outlets and new light fixture

Did the job go according to plan? Did it have a happy ending? Read on to find out!

Step ONE: Demo Those Walls!

Again, the structure had started out as a garage converted into a living space nearly 40 years previous. So, the framing was simple stick 2×4 with a bit of insulation (and with a powdercoated aluminum frame window stuck in the tub shower area):

There was some dryrot and other moisture damage from the leaky original tub surround, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a bit of re-framing and new insulation plus spray foam:

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Step TWO: Button Up those Walls!

In addition to proper waterproofing, the clients really wanted a proper inset shower niche so they wouldn’t need to keep using the windowsill for shampoo and whatnot storage. Not a problem to add with the wall opened up. This is what the tub surround looked like once everything was waterproofed and ready for tile:

Remember that the clients also wanted to tile the entire main wall of the bathroom floor to ceiling. This way the tub surround tile would extend the entire length of the bathroom and make the whole space feel a bit larger. It’s no problem to tile directly on drywall for non-wet areas of a bathroom, but since the drywall was going to be covered up with tile anyway it was a great opportunity to add an outlet and move the vanity wall lighting. Doing these things after a wall is completely covered in tile is pretty difficult. But before? Easy peasy!

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STEP THREE: Tile Tile Tile!

Aaaand it was a LOT of tile for a tub surround install. Plus, this particular tile came with some challenges. Typically, 4×12-in ceramic tile has a bit of variation that can make installing this large-format in a subway pattern kinda challenging. Since ceramic tile isn’t full ceramic through and through, the firing and cooling manufacturing process creates stresses as the top ceramic veneer layer heats and cools at a different rate from the underlying clay layer.

The result? Individual tiles often end up a bit warped — either randomly concave or convex by 1/16-in or so. While this might not seem like a big deal, it does pose a challenge when you’re trying to install a full subway pattern to be dead flat to itself with skinny 1/8-in grout lines.

These clients chose a large-format subway tile with an even more challenging material limitation. In addition to being a bit randomly warped, the tile had a wavy surface finish and a ‘rustic’ perimeter finish that was ideally designed for a simple stacked brick install. But the clients really wanted a creative 1/3 overlap semi-subway pattern for the install.

So, how to make that go? Install the tile patiently and carefully (and with lots of creative shims):

STEP FOUR: Grout and More Grout!

The clients chose a nearly white grout for their install. Completely white grout is often difficult to maintain, since any soap or oil residue will slightly darken areas that get more shower spray. However, nearly white grout will usually appear completely white when installed with glossy white ceramic tile and yet wear much better:

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The slight off-white shade will mask soap residue and therefore keep your shower or tub surround appearance much better.

STEP FIVE: Vanity and Lighting Installs

Very straightforward with framing blocking installed in the wall for the vanity and a proper wall box for the vanity fixture electrical. The 50s -esque kinda sci-fi wall light fixture nicely accentuated the texture of the floor to ceiling wall tile:

And FINISH!

Although I neglected to take proper ‘before’ pics for this project, just imagine a plain boring 4×4-in square ceramic original tub surround with no niche storage and boring plain painted drywall in contrast to this finish result:

Yep, the clients were pretty happy with how it turned out.

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