Shower and Garden Tub Re-do

This project was for clients who wanted to turn a very blah builder-grade 1990s -era master bath into a stylish contemporary space while still keeping to a pretty tight budget. As realtors, they understood that bathroom remodels do add to a home’s value and definitely reduce time on market when selling.

For example, which of these two bathroom showers would YOU rather buy?

And as pro realtors, the clients also understood that bathroom (and kitchen) remodels rarely recoup a 100% return on investment for resale. However, there is more to justifying a home renovation project than just ROI numbers. Unlike stocks, bonds, and gold krugerrands, you can reap the benefits of really enjoying literally living in a renovation investment before selling.

The clients had already replaced the “his and hers” builder-grade plywood and faux marble vanities with euro-style hanging cabinets and porcelain sink tops, and had already installed new mosaic tile flooring. But the huge cultured marble oval soaking tub and fiberglass-floored shower insert were both dated and impractical for a busy family with two small kids.

Ever time the amount of time it takes to fill a flat-bottom oval soaker tub to high enough that your 4yr old can finally start actually bathing in water that’s still actually warm? Trick question, because it’s impossible to fill a second-floor 60gal tub with hot water from a 50gal tank in the garage. This is why lots of flat-bottomed oval 1990s -era  ‘garden style’ bathrooms are really annoying for actual use. Filling them for a bath requires an enormous amount of H2O.

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Again, these clients wanted to completely gut half the bathroom and replace the existing shower and tub but still keep project costs to a minimum. They used two main strategies for that: keeping the materials simple and the structural changes to a minimum.

Materials — simple and straightforward

The clients kept material costs down by getting the most design pop from simple 4×12 -in white ceramic subway-style tile. They also opted for relatively inexpensive function from a short acrylic soaker tub that was both an online closeout and cleverly designed to be usable for bathing with only a 20-30gal water fill (for comparison, a 10min shower uses 25gal of water at 2.5gal/min).

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Choosing stock Delta fixtures and trim for both the new shower and tub also kept costs down. Just about any fixtures you can buy off the shelf at a big box store will be less expensive than designer.

Finally, they chose to use natural stone pieces for the shower curb, window sill, and some other tiled surfaces. They kept costs on that element low by using remnant pieces. Stone countertop install shops will often have remnant stone pieces from kitchen counter projects that they’ll sell at discount (cut and polished to specs) just to get rid of ’em.

Design — Don’t move things (much)

Moving plumbing and knocking out walls are generally two of the most expensive labor items you could add to a bathroom (or kitchen) renovation. Although this bathroom was on the second floor (and therefore wouldn’t require hammering through a concrete foundation to move drain plumbing), the clients still chose to keep the original tub and shower locations. This kept both the plumbing and carpentry labor to a minimum for the new tub and shower installs despite enlarging the shower space and moving the shower supply plumbing to a different wall.

In general, preserving the original basic layout of a bathroom will really help to minimize the renovation labor cost. Rule of thumb — moving things like walls and water drains is expensive.

The Plan

With budget-saving materials and design elements decided, the renovation execution order of tasks was:

  1. Demo the existing shower and cultured marble tub to the studs and subfloor
  2. Reframe the shower space for a large inset wall niche and a larger footprint
  3. Rebuild a new kickwall between the shower and tub and a drop-in tub skirt
  4. Install new supply and drain plumbing for the new shower and tub
  5. Install a new compact acrylic soaker tub
  6. Install a new custom shower with Kerdi/RedGard waterproofing
  7. Tile the shower and tub surround
  8. Finish with grout and trim paint

Did everything go to plan? Read on to find out!

Demo

Thankfully, demo revealed no nasty surprises. The plastic builder-grade shower floor insert and synthetic cultured marble wall panels had had no significant water or moisture leaks, so there was no serious framing dryrot or mold in the wall or subfloor. Same with the cultured marble soaker tub — took just a few sledgehammer whacks to knock into pieces, and thankfully didn’t reveal anything scary underneath.

An altogether boring demo — just like I like ’em!

Reframing Carpentry

The biggest challenge here was making sure that the original wall framing was plumb and square, and especially making sure that all the new framing (to separate the shower from the tub area and to support the new drop-in tub) was perfectly square and plumb.

This is where even a little bit of a screw-up can lead to big problems later on. If wall framing isn’t dead level, then it’ll be impossible to set the tile dead-even to finish. And if the side support for a drop-in style tub isn’t well framed, then everything will flex when the tub is filled with water and kids — and grout and tile around the tub will crack as a result.

Here’s an example of one way to frame the support for a drop-in tub:

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The framing on this is 2×6 instead of 2×4 for two reasons. First, 2×6 boards at home centers are generally straighter than 2x4s. And second, the beefier lumber adds a little bit to make the kickwall more sturdy. But it’s more the placement rather than the size of the new framing that counts. You want extra support at the edge of the tub where people are most likely to sit while scrubbing kids.

On this project, I worked on the shower and tub installs a bit asynchronously. Large custom tile showers take longer to install than tubs and surrounds, so I prepped the shower for tile install first.

Plumbing and Waterproofing

Despite the open design, the fundamentals of installing the plumbing and waterproofing for this custom shower were very straightforward. Since this was a second-floor bathroom, getting access to the drain plumbing was easy — just cut out a section of the plywood subfloor:

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This is what the shower base looked like with the Kerdi drain installed, subfloor patched, and everything ready for the concrete deckmud:

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When installing a concrete shower base on plywood, it’s best to first put down a layer of 2mil plastic with wire mesh above. This prevents the plywood from sucking moisture from the deck mud concrete mix too quickly and also provides ‘rebar’ for strength. Both are cheap and easy extra steps to help ensure that the resulting concrete base is strong and flex-free.

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The concrete for a shower base only needs to harden overnight before installing Kerdi waterproofing fabric over top of it. The concrete will continue to cure and harden for days, but doesn’t need to be exposed to air for that to happen.

Here is what the shower space looked like after RedGard waterproofing for the concrete backerboard walls but before Kerdi waterproofing for the shower base and curb:

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Again, some install steps can be juggled a bit for efficient scheduling if the wall tile size allows. In this case, I actually started installing the shower wall tile before waterproofing the shower base and curb with Kerdi. Since the shower floor had an odd geometry, this gave me time to make the pitch and slope of the floor perfect by troweling on layers of leftover thinset at the end of each wall tile install day.

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Shower Wall Tile Install

The clients chose a 4×16 -in white ceramic tile for this project. Normally, it isn’t recommended to install ceramic tile this size in a full 50% offset subway tile pattern. Since ceramic tile is made from a thin layer of porcelain on top of what’s essentially a clay pottery layer, long skinny ceramic tiles are rarely actually completely flat. Individual tiles are often bowed up or down just a bit, which can make it very difficult to get a completely flush install.

But, not impossible!

If you make all of the concrete backerboard dead level, you can then make even slightly warped surface tile nicely flush too with just some added install time. Selecting tiles carefully and backbuttering each one individually are the secrets to flush success on a dead level wall or floor substrate.

Shower Floor Tile Install

The clients chose a bold contrasting design for their new shower. Their vision was for white tile shower walls with off-white grout, but a floor of black hexagonal mosaic tile with black grout. And, they envisioned a first course of wall tile that would also be black with black grout.

This is why it was really important to get the shower floor slope perfect. Since the bottom course of tile along the walls would be completely different than all the rest of the wall tile, any wonkiness at the perimeters would have been really unsightly for the finish. But with planning and attention to detail, the floor and perimeter tile worked out perfectly.

Shower Curb and Kickwall/Niche Highlights

The clients also chose a bit of flair for design accents on this project. Rather than simply wrapping everything in ceramic tile, they chose to use some cut and polished marble stone remnant pieces from Austin Granite Direct (a relatively large local independent stone and granite countertop supplier).

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Using remnants instead of custom-order pieces saved on materials cost. And, measuring and installing the straight rectangular niche and wall top pieces was easy since square dimensions are simple. The shower curb was a different matter though.

Having stone pieces custom cut to fit complex shapes and angles can be pretty complicated. In this case, the curb needed two different pieces that had to be pitched at two different angles (so that water wouldn’t pool on the curb each time the shower was used).

There are a few tricks to getting complicated stone pieces precisely cut for a complicated install challenge. First, it’s a really good idea to make an actual full-size template out of cardboard for the stone cutters to use. This ensures no miscommunications for complicated cuts. 

And second, when joining two stone pieces at a complex angle, leave yourself an easy option for on-site size adjustment. In this case, one of the two curb pieces would have one end buried in the tile wall.

So, I made the template for that piece a bit longer than needed on the square-cut end. A quality full-size 10-in wet saw will cut even solid stone cleanly. Using this trick, I was able to custom fit the two marble curb pieces with precision by cutting off the unneeded material onsite.

The result was a true custom fit finish to the classy marble shower threshold highlight.

Tub Surround Tile Install

Tile around a bathing-only tub (as opposed to a tub/shower combo) is basically the same as backsplash tile — 99% decorative, since the only water it’ll see is the occasional splash from kid bathing. Therefore, decorative tile around a bathing-only tub doesn’t need to be installed on a waterproofed substrate.

 The main challenge with this install was figuring out a layout that both integrated with the shower tile pattern and accommodated the window opening and ledge.

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A bit of careful planning got good results.

 

Grouting

The clients chose an off-white grout color to complement the white ceramic subway tile. This would normally make grouting a breeze, but the contrasting black grout for the shower floor and first row of tile meant that it was a two-day process.

It’s generally not possible to install multiple grout colors adjacent to one another in a single day and still get great results. You’ll want to plan a whole day for installing each grout color.

You’ll also want to plan time for trim painting, too. Grout residue will get smeared on the walls all along the perimeter tile. So, a bit of trim painting will be needed once everything else is done.

Before versus After!

The original looked like this:

And the ‘after’ now looks like this!

The clients will be polishing the look with a frameless glass install. Here are the glass plans:

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