A very BRIGHT Bath Do-over

This project was for clients who wanted to get rid of a terribly designed (and not well installed) shower and tub combo. It’s unfortunate when a previous renovator vomits dark travertine limestone all over every surface in sight for no good reason at all.

This house is a 1930s two-story saltbox bungalow in Austin’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood. Sometime in the 1990s, a previous owner had pretty much the entire structure gutted and redone. This was the upstairs master bath. Hello generic 1990s suburban Texas.

It’s really annoying when reno designers completely ignore a home’s history and context. This bathroom looked like it belonged in a suburban builder-grade home in rural Bastrop, not a historic home. Even worse, using porous limestone tile for the shower (and closing off the shower from any air circulation) made the whole thing literally dank and prone to mold.

The GOAL — light and bright

Aside from materials, two things tend to define early 20th century bathrooms: brightness and airiness. A master bath would be a real status symbol, so a true 1930s designer would visually maximize the space to make such a luxury even more appealing. They’d also give the bathroom a real eye-popping focal point, because what’d be the fun of NOT doing that? And finally, there would have to be a nod to the art deco movement of the era.

“My word, have you SEEN that other bathroom?!”

The homeowners also wanted to keep the materials budget within reason (because of course). Luckily, there’s nothing inherently expensive about classic design. In fact, many deco -style materials like ceramic subway tile are actually quite cheap. And open shower designs can eliminate the need for expensive elements like custom glass partitions and doors.

All it takes is some vision and creative planning. And, in this case, some moved plumbing. Moving plumbing can get quite expensive very quickly, but not in this case. Remember this was a second-story bathroom, with the second-story floor framed with 11-in deep I-joists that provided lots of working room for access to water supply lines and re-configuring drain locations. The only design limitation was a need to keep the overall general layout and room dimensions intact, which still made it totally possible to completely re-imagine the space.

The PLAN — gut it all

With a general decision to keep the overall layout but make every previous design element and tiled surface go away, the general order of tasks was:

  1. Demo the existing shower and tub enclosures, and make the 90s vanity go away
  2. Reframe the shower space for a large inset wall niche and raised kickwall
  3. Install new supply plumbing to move the shower and tub fixtures
  4. Install new drain plumbing for a freestanding soaking tub
  5. Install a new custom shower with Kerdi/RedGard waterproofing
  6. Retile the shower, tub surround, and bathroom floor
  7. Install a new tub and wall-hung double sink vanity
  8. Install a totally fabulous tiled vanity backsplash/wall
  9. Install new plumbing and lighting fixtures
  10. Enjoy a whole new era of relaxing bathing!

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

Demo

Thankfully, demo didn’t reveal any nasty surprises beyond lots of trash left behind in walls and other void spaces. The pretty shoddy surface work was a good indication that the previous renovator had gone full lowest bidder. The Modelo beer cans left scattered underneath the subfloor confirmed the suspicion.

The previous shower install had indeed been leaking moisture into the plywood subfloor, but luckily not yet to the extent of causing any structural damage. And the plumbing was thankfully at least up to modern code and easy to reconfigure for the new slightly altered shower and tub layouts.

The exterior walls were even properly insulated, which is always a nice happy surprise to have confirmed.

This is where I’d normally put some pics of the whole demo result, but this project had to progress in stages. The clients needed their master bath to be at least semi-functional throughout the process, so each element (shower, tub, floor, and vanity) had to be done independently in sequence. This made the overall project timeline a bit longer, but really helped to maximize quality of life for the clients.

Shower Rebuild

Okay, one more dig at the previous renovator. Whomever originally framed the master bath made an unnecessarily wonky shower alcove area. But even with completely arbitrary angles and dimensions, it was possible to reconfigure the space for a completely open shower experience.

Moving the shower controls and showerhead to a different wall and rebuilding the shower/tub kickwall to be just a bit taller (and actually plumb with the floor) completely eliminated the need for a glass panel or door to contain water spray. And some creative exterior wall reframing added a superwide inset niche opposite the showerhead. This combined with the now usable added surface on top of the new kickwall really helped to make the final finished shower super happy for practical everyday usability.

The off-kilter shower footprint required some creative skill to make an evenly pitched slope to the drain that would still be level and even along the perimeter of all the shower walls. Luckily, this wasn’t my first rodeo. You can check out this post for a detailed description of how to install a properly sloped concrete deck mud shower base. And this post describes how to use Kerdi for a guaranteed leak-free shower install.

The wonky shower dimensions also necessitated some extra advance planning to avoid arbitrary grout lines in the final result. If you’ve got a kickwall, a niche, several arbitrary angles, and an added corner bench to deal with, then you’re gonna need to plan way ahead for a purposeful finish!

With the shower now framed, waterproofed, tiled and ready for grouting, it was now time to move on to the next bath element.

Tub Swap

Updating the outdated 1990s jetted “spa” tub required some Gantt Chart -level coordination with the whole bathroom floor re-tile. Rather than repeat the previous mistake, the clients instead (smartly) chose to go simultaneously back into the past and style for the future with an inexpensive freestanding soaker tub.

This was a great choice for three reasons.

First, it makes sense from a superfuturistic 1930s design standpoint. This is exactly the kind of tub alcove that folks would have lost their minds over 80 years ago. Unlike the unmistakably dated jetted jacuzzi tub it replaced, this design will stand a much better chance of standing the test of time.

Second, it’s a super thrifty and fantastically flexible design solution. Although solidly built, the tub is still basically just a $700 piece of solid acrylic fiberglass plastic. And it’s freestanding design sits right on top of the floor tile with just a 2-in hole to accommodate the centered drain. So it can be replaced with a different standard-sized freestanding tub anytime in the future with no need for future tile repair.

And third, it’s actually way more practical than a jetted tub with a tiled-in surround. Didja know that you can’t actually use fun bubblebath soap or even bath salts with a jetted jacuzzi tub? You can with a simple freestanding tub. A cleverly designed freestanding soaker tub also takes less water to fill than a jacuzzi tub basin that was designed thirty years ago.

There are real sensible practical reasons why seemingly “basic” freestanding soaker tubs are back in fashion.

The main challenge on this job was making sure that the floor tile underneath the tub would be both level to itself and at the same level as the rest of the bathroom floor. Remember that the previous reno contractor had tiled the floor with dark porous travertine limestone. Rather than chisel all that up to start over, it was actually a lot easier and faster to simply re-tile on top of it with a low profile Kerdi anti-fracture layer. However, this solution required bringing the area underneath the previous tub up to level with the new tile in a way that would prevent any chance of floor tile cracking around the new freestanding tub.

The three step solution? 1) Add extra framing underneath the new OSB subfloor section to make the floor super stiff and flex-free, 2) Add concrete backerboard underlayment for more crack prevention and to bring everything up to level, and 3) Finish the floor tile install!

The whole process looked like this:

Again, going with an inexpensive freestanding tub designed for a full soak with 40gal of water or less will both increase the chances that it’ll actually get used and give lots of flexibility for any future remodel choices.

Floor Tile

A look underneath the surface.

The existing polished limestone travertine tile was a not great choice for a 1930s bungalow bathroom for three reasons. First, it made no sense with the history and vibe of the rest of the house. Second, it was dark and kinda depressing and therefore gave the whole room a real heavy feeling. Not the feeling you want first thing in the morning. And third, even polished limestone is still quite porous with literal pits and veins that collect dirt and grime. You don’t want to use natural stone tile for a high-traffic and periodically moist bathroom floor.

The conventional approach to replacing a tiled floor is to first crack apart and scrape/chisel up the previous tile. But that would have created a super inconvenient mess for the clients. So instead I did a bit of a trick and simply installed new tile on top of the old.

Schulter makes a purpose-built anti-fracture membrane to guarantee a permanently crack-free result in these sometimes tricky applications. However, you can also simply use regular Schulter kerdi membrane for crack prevention. The lower profile kerdi membrane gives more flexibility for minimizing the added height from installing new tile on top of old. In this instance, the final result perfectly matched the tile to carpet transition between the bathroom and bedroom.

Vanity and Backsplash

One of the advantages of using inexpensive ceramic tiles for most of a bath reno project is it gives room in the budget for splurging on one or two really striking elements. These clients wanted a master bath that would be bright and airy with a nod back towards 1930s sumptuousness. The vanity backsplash provided the perfect opportunity to tie everything together.

First, just replacing the vanity itself was a huge improvement. The previous vanity cabinet was massive, dark, and really out of character with the rest of the house. Replacing it with a much lighter floating cabinet was a real improvement. Although the 4-drawer wall-hanging cabinet offered just as much storage as the previous vanity, the bright natural color combined with the added floorspace made the entire room seem literally lighter.

Now THAT’S some Great Gatsby jazz!

Second, the clients chose a really fantastic handmade hexagonal wall tile, red clay with a glossy green ceramic overlay. Although expensive, the textured palm frond -like tile added a fantastic naturalistic element that both complimented the faux driftwood vanity cabinet and provided a nice counterpoint to the hard white subway wainscot tile. This vanity backsplash tile literally tied the whole room together.

Installing tile like this from counter to ceiling is not a DIY job. Handmade tile is not uniform. This can be a real problem when each tile has six sides. Making the grout gaps between tiles appear even close to uniform requires lots of test fitting and patience. You can’t simply slap up tiles like this willy nilly. If you don’t plan very carefully, then you won’t get uniform results.

Fixtures and Finish!

As a final nod to the 1930s, the clients chose gold fixtures all around — gold for the faucets, gold for the mirrors and lights, gold for the metal trim around the vanity tile, and even matching gold for the shower drain. I’m not usually a fan of gold trim, but in this instance it really works. Some final inexpensive touches like a simple wicker hamper and a few nice green plants made for a perfect finish.

Normally I’d paste in a few ‘before’ pic reminders here. But in this case why relive such a dark, dank, ugly past. Instead, here are just the bright cheerful after pics. It’s always nice when a plan comes together!