A better plan, a greenhouse window and some bold blue tile give a dingy bathroom a brand-new look

Photo 1: Blue tile winds its way around the room in this view from the bay window. The soffits create a coffered ceiling, and mask the dropped header made necessary by the bay window. The old wall mirror was removed and trimmed to compensate for the lowered ceiling, and the scrap piece saved for the medicine-chest door.

My friend L. Dennis Thompson bought a small stucco house in one of Santa Barbara's older downtown neighborhoods. Dennis is an architect, and he immediately began to make lists of the remodeling jobs he wanted to do. They ranged from plumbing repairs to skylights, porches to second-story additions. But because he's working on a tight budget, the projects had to be assigned priorities, with some scheduled as more distant dreams.

Ironically, the job that got done first wasn't the highest on the list. He decided to tackle the bathroom right away because he was made an offer he couldn't refuse-free labor. I was teaching my annual tile-setting course at the local university extension program, and I was looking for a suitable site for hands-on instruction. Dennis assured me he could have plans and materials ready in two months.

Superficially, the bathroom looked fine. It had been hastily upgraded to help sell the house. A huge mirror covered one wall, and thin wood paneling had been applied around the tub. But there were gaps between the strips of paneling-a lousy wall covering for a damp location. A cheap carpet covered the old vinyl floor, and the toilet occupied the most prominent spot in the cramped room. Beyond it stood an antique vanity. The room had only one small window, and Dennis wanted a lot more light. So the challenge was to turn an adequate bathroom into a light-filled space, and to give a group of student tile-setters a range of experiences.

Planning with constraints - To reduce costs, Dennis wanted to keep plumbing modifications to a minimum. His new plan kept the supply and drain lines in nearly the same place, but switched the location of the vanity and the toilet (drawing). This made the vanity the center of attention and tucked the toilet behind a low privacy wall.

The room needed more floor space, but there wasn't any easy way to claim it. The adjacent rooms didn't have any extra square footage to give up, and the setback limitations of the local building code wouldn't allow any footings beyond the existing foundation. The solution was a room-wide bay window with a wide shelf supported by knee braces. Since this bay is defined by the building department as just another cantilever, it doesn't violate the setback code.

Dennis picked a cobalt-blue tile to establish the color in the room. He wanted it to march along the wall above the vanity, over the partition wall and then wrap around the corner and onto the bay window shelf. To balance this dazzling blue, he chose creamy white tile for the vanity itself and around the tub. He decided that both color tiles should be 4!4 in. square, which would create a strong, grid-Iike pattern in the room-if everything could be made square and plumb.

To keep from having to trim too many tiles, Dennis drew elevations of the room, at a scale of a half-inch to the foot, showing all the fixtures and every tile in place. The drawings were a lot of work, but they were worth it. They helped both of us to layout the framing to accommodate the tiles, and to anticipate the detail problems before the place filled up with eager students of the tile trade.

Virtually the entire exterior wall was removed and reframed to form a greenhouse bay window. To stiffen the structure, triangular gussets tie the horizontal members and their knee braces to the cripple-wall studs.

Photo: L. Dennis Thompson

Demolition and new framing - Only one piece of the existing bathroom survived the remodeling-the wall-size mirror over the vanity. We hired a glass company to remove it and cut it down to a size that would fit into the new space. We used the 1-ft. wide scrap that resulted to make a door for the medicine cabinet (photo 1). With the mirror out for fitting, we gutted the bathroom down to the studs, and opened up the exterior wall for the bay window.

The horizontal members that support the bay window (photo right) are essentially floor joists, only at sill height, and they are supported by 2x4 knee braces. These braces are tied to the cripple studs by plywood gussets. The result is a rigid framework that may seem overbuilt, but with two rigid surfaces-stucco finish on the outside and tile on the inside-we didn't want the kind of movement that results in cracks.

The bay faces southeast and catches plenty of sun, so we gave its sill a 1 !,1-in. mortar bed for a bit of thermal mass. The major opening in the bay is finished with three Pella windows. They have double-glazed, snap-in panels, with translucent glass on the inside. The shed roof and ends are fitted with custom-cut pieces of clear safety glass. When the landscaping grows enough to provide some privacy, Dennis plans to replace the translucent glazing with clear glass.

Shower solution - There is a closet between the tub and the hallway, and we didn't want to disrupt the existing framing. The problem was where to run the plumbing for the shower head. Dennis solved this one by detailing a furred-out frame that butts the existing wall, and holds the shower supply line and the tub faucet (drawing left, photo below). Its dimensions were worked out to allow full tiles wherever possible. This solution left the closet intact, and created a pleasing ceramic sculpture reminiscent of a high-tech office building. The nook near the wall is a good place to store shampoo bottles.

Vanity and partition - ln a room this small, all of the parts are interdependent. The low partition wall not only screens the toilet, but also serves as a towel and magazine rack and holds up the end of the vanity top. The vanity, in turn, is a box-beam on its side, and it firmly anchors the partition (photo and drawing, below).

The thickness of the partition was determined by the width of one full tile plus two quarter-rounds. At its core is a 2x4 frame covered with 5/8-in. plywood. It's best to use kilndried lumber for this kind of framing because green lumber will shrink away from the outer layer of tile, creating voids between the two that at the very least will crack the grout. A layer of moisture-barrier paper covers the plywood, followed by a thinset mortar base about 1/4 in. thick to bring the wall out to the right dimension for the tile.

I like to use Aquabar B paper (Forti-Fiber, 4489 Bandini Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90023) for the moisture barrier in this kind of work. It's a sandwich of two layers of kraft paper with an asphalt-emulsion center, and it gets high marks for water resistance. It's more pliable than builder's felt, making it a lot easier to fold around angles and projections. Also, it doesn't bulk up at corners the way felt does.

The thinset base hangs on galvanized expanded metal lath. This stuff comes in several weights. I used 3.4 Ib. per sq. yd. I specify galvanized lath for wet locations because in many of the bathrooms that I've remodeled, the non-galvanized lath behind the old tile is often close to total disintegration. Although it's nearly impossible to recognize visually, expanded metal lath has a right-side-up. On a vertical surface, the cups in the lath need to slope upward, away from the backing. You can check the lath's orientation by rubbing your hand over it-when you've got it right, the up- stroke will feel relatively smooth, while the downstroke will grab at your fingers.

Like the partition, all the tiled surfaces in the room have a thinset bed on lath over ply- wood. We used bent-over 5d galvanized box nails to secure the lath, and we spaced the nails about every 8 in.-close enough to eliminate any springy spots.

Tiling tips - To begin setting the tile in this room, we marked a line one tile above the top lip of the tub. We carried this index line all around the room, and tacked lx2 guide boards to the walls just below it. My ten students laid up most of the tile in one weekend. Some mixed thinset, some cut tiles and smoothed edges and some laid up the courses. It was chaotic but marvelous, and I was amazed how ten people could work harmoniously in such a small space.

The tiles that we used have tiny lugs built into their edges to ensure uniform spacing. The danger here is that they will occasionally overlap one another, producing a high tile in an otherwise smooth wall plane. A good way to prevent this problem is to cover the windows and hold a drop light directly above the tile. The raking light will create exaggerated shadows next to the protrusions, allowing you to correct the position of the tiles before the mortar sets.

The most difficult part of the tiling was laying the curved section in the face of the vanity top. Dennis and I cut lots of little pieces, 1 in. wide, to lay like piano keys around the curve. We used a water-cooled, diamond-blade saw for this, but I wish we'd had a newer blade. The thicker the band of diamond chips on the blade, the cleaner the cut, and our blade left ragged edges that had to be smoothed down with a stone. We gave the tiles a day to set, and then grouted them (see FHB # 17, p. 75).

The completed bath is now the most delightful room in the house. The bay window warms up the room at an early hour, and makes it a pleasant place to pry open your eyelids in the morning. Plants do well on the window shelf, and the room contributes a bit of solar heat to the rest of the house when the bathroom door is left open. The large mirror and the bay window team up to create a surprising increase in the amount of light and perceived space.

If Dennis were to do it again, he'd do a few things differently. First, the room needs a heat source other than the windows. It's warm during the day, but chilly at night. Also, he's had second thoughts about the flooring. He finished the floor with oak strips, stained to match the floors in the rest of the house. Hardwood floors in the kitchen and bath are okay for the fastidious, but guest bathers sometimes fail to mop up their splashes, and some of the strips are beginning to cup.

The total cost of the project was almost exactly $7,000, which included replacing some of the old galvanized water pipes under the house with copper ones. Besides getting the bathroom he wanted, Dennis saved about $800 by using student labor.

Dennis Allen is a contractor who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Illustrations: Frances Ashforth

Allen Associates
1427 Tunnel Road, Santa Barbara, Ca 93105
Phone (805) 682-4305

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