Luxurious and Eco-savvy Bathrooms

Luxurious and Eco-savvy Bathrooms

By Marilyn Pribus –

Whether you are building a new home or remodeling your old one, REALTORS® agree that a luxurious master bath is a big plus. You get to enjoy it now and when it’s time to sell, and only the kitchen is more important.

REALTOR® Todd McGee, Associate Broker with Nest Realty in Charlottesville, confirms that people take a very careful look at bathrooms. “People are looking for something to match their lifestyle,” he says. “They may not necessarily want a big soaking tub, but they like a larger walk-in shower with no-step access rather than those all-in-one fiberglass units.”

Other favored features, he says, include a separate “water closet” room and definitely higher vanities than were popular 20 years ago so you don’t have to bend over. “The medicine cabinet doesn’t necessarily have a mirror,” he continues. “Many these days have interesting frontings, enough shelves to keep things orderly, and often electrical outlets.”

A surprising number of bathroom upgrades can be Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects by a reasonably handy homeowner, but projects involving bearing walls, major plumbing installations, tile setting, and rewiring are usually best left to professionals.

Universal Design
No matter what degree of luxury you seek, your over-arching plan should be a commitment to Universal Design. This planning scheme spells out easy access for persons with disabilities, injuries, surgeries or accidents that require walkers, crutches, or wheelchairs for mobility.

Universal Design is also important because an accessible dwelling makes it easier for homeowners to “age in place.” Besides, when it’s time to sell—whether next year or decades from now—these upgrades will attract a larger pool of potential buyers. 

In a bathroom, Universal Design features include barrier-free entry with a wider-than-standard door, no-step access to a shower, and enough room to maneuver a walker or wheelchair possibly with a helper present. Other important amenities: grab bars by the toilet and in the shower, shower controls at lower levels, a handheld showerhead, and a higher level toilet.

These features do not add a great deal to either initial construction or a remodeling project, but their absence can mean costly upgrades if they are gradually (or suddenly) needed.  Take, for example, the unhappy case of a local man who must use a motorized wheelchair after a serious accident. He faced expensive retro-fits including a no-step entry to the house, widened interior doorways, and a completely remodeled bathroom.

Choosing Your Style
Before you start considering fixtures—lighting and such—take time to decide on a theme. This small room can be an extension of your decor, but it could also stand alone. Here’s a chance for a bold color scheme in your favorite hues or a subdued palette with relaxing tones.

You can create a little greenhouse with vivid floral wall paper and even a greenhouse window with shelves for living plants. You could go rustic or sophisticated or retro.  Do you want gleaming tile climbing the walls to include the ceiling? How about natural stone and wood?  Do you want to punctuate it all with chrome or copper or brushed steel?

For ideas to trigger your imagination, visit model homes and open houses in the area. A search of the internet with word such as +bathroom +décor +style +eco +luxury +economy +plan +design will display hundreds of beautiful ideas.

If you are building your home, take time with your architect specifically for bathroom planning. On the other hand, if you are planning on your own and have a general idea of your direction, you might want to try available software to create your design.

While some of this software is for sale, there are a number of websites where you can play with it online. Since it’s often in 3-D, you can get a real feel for what your finished design might look like. You can move fixtures, check door clearances, choose between a wall-hung or pedestal sink, and much more.

Windows, Ventilation and Heating
It’s always lovely to have at least one window for natural light, fresh air, and ventilation in seasonable weather. Of course, with bathroom privacy always a consideration, this may not be a great choice.  In this case, skylights or light tubes are great options.

Especially in original construction, glass bricks can be a handsome choice. While open windows are fine during mild seasons, alternative ventilation is essential in colder weather  to prevent mold, or unpleasant odors. A clever addition is a humidity-sensing fan that operates automatically.

Although bathrooms are generally part of a home’s heating system, they sometimes require a bit of extra warmth. Infrared light bulbs are an easy addition and space heaters recessed in a wall are also cozy. With new construction or remodeling, the installation of radiant heat mats under floor tile is surprisingly inexpensive and truly luxurious on a chilly morning. For real pampering, there’s nothing like a heated towel bar.

Being Luxurious
Many people these days are opting for a spa-like master bath.  A new trend is combining both a tub and a shower in a so-called wet room. In this case the tub edge or deck becomes a shower bench. A luxurious extra touch can be supplied by a digital shower system programmable for each user’s preferred temperature, flow rate, and mode. 

Often these new wet rooms aren’t completely enclosed, but have glass walls rather than doors. Sometimes a partial wall of tile or stone protects privacy while the use of smoky glass gives a feeling of both openness and privacy.

Steam showers, “rain” showers, multiple shower heads, and soaking tubs with air or water jets are also popular. Remember that some of these devices need extra space for their “mechanicals.” For example, a steam shower needs a steam generator nearby, is generally built large enough for at least two people, and requires a complete enclosure These days, the final touch can be  matching faucets, shower heads, and a drain that is an artistic statement—so much more elegant than that old chrome circle.

Happily, you can be luxurious and eco-savvy at the same time. Select water-saving shower heads that introduce motion or air into the spray to make it seem more generous. Low-flush toilets are significant water savers, requiring as little as a gallon of water for a flush. Both the City of Charlottesville and the Albemarle County Water Authority offer substantial rebates to replace older toilets with low-flow options.

Wall-hung toilets are gaining in popularity.  They can be installed at any desired height and the floor beneath is clear for easier cleaning.  Since the tank is in the wall, these toilets are also space saving and there is even hand-free technology for flushing with just a wave.

One of the most expensive features of a new bathroom can be the tub with surprising price tags. To keep the cost in check, visit an architectural salvage shop such as Caravati’s Architectural Salvage in Richmond; Salvagewrights, Ltd. in Orange; or the Habitat ReStore in Charlottesville. Even if a tub you like is badly stained, you can have it professionally reglazed for around $500 to $700 to look like new.

Facelift or Full Remodel?
“You can always tell when a house was built before about 2002 or 2003,” declares Bill May of ERA Bill May Realty Company. May’s been a REALTOR® for 45 years and confirms that after the kitchen, the next thing home shoppers check out is the master bath. “Since 2003, bathrooms have been getting larger,” he says. “People really like to have two separate vanities and mirrors and a soaking tub big enough for a party.”

If you’re remodeling, however, you’re likely to be working with a much smaller area, so you’ll want to save as much of the existing bath as you can. “You can’t do much to change small square footage,” he points out, “but there are things you can do that work like a charm.”

The first thing people look at is the floor, he states. “Replacing vinyl with tile is the simplest thing.” In some cases, he says, tile can be laid on top of well nailed-down vinyl rather than having to remove the original floor, but it would be wise to check with a professional first. This could also be a golden opportunity to add radiant heat under the new flooring.

Professional bathroom designers agree the floor has the biggest impact so if you have the money to splurge a bit, that’s the place to do it. One clever way to economize is to lay a “rug” with a few square feet of elegant tile, and surround it with larger, less expensive tiles.

“After the floor,” says May, “look at the vanity top and maybe replace the mirror. These things aren’t expensive.” Consider a second sink with a mirror for each or opt for a wall-to-wall mirror, since mirrors are less expensive than tile on a wall. Especially in a small room, mirrors can visually double the space.

New or refurbished cabinets can be wall-mounted or, in some cases, recessed to make a flat surface that makes the area feel larger. A lighted magnifying mirror is a luxurious touch and modern cabinetry often includes chargers and speakers for powering up your devices, to hear the news of the day, or to enjoy music.

Other inexpensive “facelifts” include new faucets—stainless steel, brushed, or oil-rubbed—with coordinated cabinet knobs and towel bars. Most new faucets are water savers and some even work with a wave of the hand to prevent spread of germs.  Curved shower rods, often seen in hotels, add spaciousness and even the simple addition of a new shower curtain, new towels, and a new rug can really jazz up your surroundings. 

REALTOR® May’s final point: “If you have a light fixture from 1952, it’s time for a new one!”

Yes, indeed. Bathrooms need plenty of task lighting and it’s important to have a mixture of fixtures to reduce the chance of shadows. The general choices are light bars or wall lights. Shadow-reducing light bars can be mounted either above the mirror or vertically at about eye level at the side. Wall lights include sconces and brackets to complement other lighting.

Both kinds of lighting come in almost endless style varieties from Mason jars to elegantly marbleized shades. Many people choose adjustable lighting—having it bright for shaving or applying make-up and more subdued for a relaxing soak or shower—so a dimmer switch is a nice addition.

Lighting for the shower or wet room is specifically designed to resist high moisture. A recessed light is best here and there are a variety of water-resistant trims and lenses available.

Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County.  Their main bathroom (with grab bars) is a virtual aquarium of ocean mementos including seashells, a large glass fishing-net float found on Iwo Jima, and a cornetfish skeleton hung from the ceiling.

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