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A Small Bathroom That Feels Big

Updated: Jun. 30, 2017

We'll show you how to find breathing space and beauty in your small bath

FH07FEB_SMABAT_01-2Family Handyman
Create more space in a small bathroom by adding a storage cabinet, changing out the vanity and brightening and updating tile and lighting.

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The small bath problem and proposed solutions

Lead photo

Bathroom after remodeling

The kitchen may be the heart of the home, but over the past 20 years, the bathroom has morphed into the home's soul—a savored refuge from our busy world. Once little more than utilitarian space, the bath has expanded, both in size and in role, to serve as a pleasing retreat.

How to create such a retreat in an ordinary, compact 5 x 9-ft. bathroom could easily leave the owner feeling like a, well, lost soul. Remodeling a bath built to accommodate a standard 5-ft. tub, a toilet and a vanity without adding footage can be a challenge.

Just ask Pam Peterson, who wanted to mine more space from her small 1954 bathroom. She turned to designer Matthew Rain of Abode Drafting, who, along with the remodelers at Mike Otto Construction, “grew” her limited space without changing the room's footprint and added modern elegance to a dated room.

Their solution relied on several fixes: reconfiguring the linen closet; brightening up the fixtures; updating the wall, tile and floor surfaces; and radically changing the vanity.

The Bathroom, Before and After

An oversized vanity and solid-color harvest gold tile visually shrank this already small bathroom.

With the installation of bright fixtures and right-sized pieces, this bathroom gains a big-time feel.

Fewer doors, more space

More storage, fewer swinging doors

This corner is now functional storage with an open look and feel. Eliminating most of the cabinet doors and adding a pocket door created a greater sense of space.

Rain cleaned up the structural clutter by rethinking the original linen closet. It had four cabinet doors in the bathroom and another access door from the hallway. “With all those cabinet doors and the big bathroom door, I felt I was always dodging and weaving anytime I needed to get something,” says Peterson of the old layout. “Some door was always in the way.”

The new design turned a bad closet into a great one by shedding all but one of the bathroom cabinet doors and removing the hallway cabinetry entirely. “The new wall space in the hall allowed us to turn the old bathroom door into a pocket door. Eliminating a door 'in-swing' immediately gives a room a bigger feel,” says Rain.

The new bathroom storage area has five custom open shelves made of red oak (to match the room's new light-toned trim), perfect for stacks of towels (photo). “By leaving these shelves open, it also adds to the room's feeling of spaciousness,” says Rain, “and because you can quickly grab a towel, it's functional as well.”

Tiled for a big feel

Mixed tile colors

The rough edges and rich colors of the tile create the illusion of natural stone, but in reality, it's low-maintenance porcelain. Because the mosaic style breaks up the color pattern, the eye perceives that the room is larger.

Despite the recent interest in retro fashion, there is little nostalgia for the old harvest gold look. In this bathroom, the wall and floor surfaces were replaced with an easy-to-clean porcelain tile in a palette of warm colors—including gold.

While the mosaic tile is beautiful, it also serves a design purpose. “Both the scale of the 2-inch tile and the random arrangement give the feeling of being in a larger room,” says Rain. He found 2-in. tile that could be ordered in a random mix, which took the guesswork out of how much of each tile color to purchase for a mosaic (photo). “The dark floor tiles in a larger format, here a 6-by-6, also add to the spaciousness,” Rain says.

Bright, clean and open for small spaces

Photo 1: Open sink console

To accent the open space underneath the console vanity, a polished chrome finish P-trap was used.

Photo 2: New faucet and a refinished tub

The brushed nickel finish was selected for its long wear and because “it simply doesn't show dirt as much,” says designer Matthew Rain. The bathtub was refinished so it would match the clean white color of the new fixtures.

Peterson wanted a crisp look that wasn't overly modern. “I didn't want anything too elaborate in this little bath. It's hard to appreciate things in such a small room because there is no place to stand back and take it in,” she says. “I wanted a look with simple lines.”

Rain selected nearly all of the fixtures and accessories from Kohler's Memoirs collection. “The style matched up well with my client's tastes and the products were 'right-sized' for the scale of the room,” says Rain, adding that shopping online saved him and his client hours of legwork.

After 50 years of use, the tub was beginning to show its age. Replacement wasn't feasible without either special ordering an expensive custom bathtub to fit the constraints of the room or undertaking a more extensive remodel. “Because it's a high-quality cast-iron tub, I decided to spend $500 to refinish it,” says Peterson (Photo 2). “It looks good and saved money in demolition and installation costs.”

Warranties on tub refinishing vary but usually hover around the five-year mark. “I've found that a refinished tub will last about seven years when it's used every day or around 10 with low use,” says remodeler Mike Otto.

The old vanity was dated and with its clunky style took up too much space in the small bath. A contemporary console sink with square legs was used as a replacement with eye-popping results (Photo 1). The console style offers enough space to place toiletries by the basin but without the chunkiness of a traditional vanity.

“This is probably one of the biggest changes in the room when it comes to opening things up,” says Peterson. “I had wanted some unique pieces in the room and this is definitely one of them.”