Nearly half of the people who remodel their bathrooms do it because they “can’t stand” their old ones anymore, according to a survey released this summer by the design website Houzz. If you’re reaching the breaking point with your tired tiles and unfashionable fixtures, here’s some advice from industry pros for a state-of-the-art face lift.
While transitional, or classic/contemporary, is the most popular style for a bathroom remodel, super-modern elements are gaining traction. They were used in more than two-thirds of remodeling jobs last year, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s 2016 trends report. “Boston is a place of contrasts,” says Craig Webb, editor in chief of Remodeling magazine, whose annual Cost vs. Value report aims to predict approximately what percentage of the price of any given project the owner will recoup when selling a property within one year of the remodel. “There’s lots of tradition, but a desire to be hip once you get inside the brownstone.”
Three ideas are driving design today. First, streamlining. For designers we spoke with, terms like “sleek,” “clean lines,” and “Euro-style” came up again and again, whether they were discussing tubs and toilets, wall and floor tiles, cabinetry, hardware, or lighting. “Simple, crisp design in all areas,” says Pierre Matta, co-owner of Newton Kitchens & Design. “That’s the biggest thing right now.”
Second, replicating the spa experience at home. “People are trying to think of any little way to gain a few minutes for themselves and make their lives simpler or easier,” says Donna Venegas, owner of the Venegas and Company design firm in Boston. “They just want a little luxury for a quiet moment.”
Finally, more people are thinking about aging in place. They plan big-ticket remodels with that in mind, installing taller toilets, for example, and grab bars that in aesthetic terms are worlds ahead of the institutional-looking ones that were once screwed onto tiles as an afterthought. “They’re not just for older people,” says Matta. “You can get injured at any age, and you need to keep your balance in the shower.”
A trend just a few years back, eco-design is now practically de rigueur. “All faucets, tub spouts, and shower heads have restrictors now,” says Susan Brisk, owner of Euro-Plus Design in Wayland. Toilet makers have “reinvented the shape of the bowls and traps, so when less water goes down, it still cleans the sides,” she says. Green countertops of recycled materials are much easier to find. The only areas that remain a “niche market,” says Matta, are low-VOC cabinet finishes, because they make it hard to achieve certain looks and cost about a third more than standard finishes.
GETTING THE LOOK
Perhaps the most noticeable change in materials from, say, 10 years ago is the seemingly ubiquitous move toward large-format tiles. More traditional designs might use ceramic or porcelain tiles that are 6 by 12 or 13 by 39 inches, but at the higher end, very thin porcelain sheets run as large as 5 by 10 feet and can mimic solid marble, with a glossy finish on walls and less slippery matte on floors. “There’s less grout, so they’re cleaner-looking and easier to maintain," says Brisk, "and they make the space look larger because there’s fewer visual breaks.” Even subway tiles, that most timeless of bathroom looks, have gotten larger, at 3 or 4 inches by 12 and up to 12 by 24 inches. “It’s subway with a twist,” says Brisk, “so you can do traditional but a little more up to date.”
The mosaic tiles that caught on in the 1960s and ’70s and started coming back about 10 years ago, circular “penny” tiles, and longer small tiles (½ inch by 3 or 4 inches) are still going strong for shower floors, where the added grout can help keep slipping to a minimum, on backsplashes, and in “feature strips” — the usually narrow accents on a wall of solid color. These strips, laid horizontally a few years ago, are now most often vertical. “It creates a waterfall effect,” says Matta.
As for color, the natural look isn’t going anywhere, nor are serene greens and grays, but more personal choices, like bold patterned tiles and Moroccan style for the floor, have been gaining ground in recent years. “People now are getting more bold and adventurous with color and pattern in the bathroom,” says Venegas, “on the floor or maybe in the backsplash.”
Cabinetry, too, is getting bolder, with exotic veneers like zebrawood and Makassar ebony, as well as dyed woods. “The color range is endless,” says Matta. “We tend to do a lot of bright red and orange, and some blues.” As with tile accents, vertical is a more up-to-date look for wall storage.
Wall-mounted cabinets, sinks, and even toilets — don’t worry, they won’t fall down with your weight — are key to the streamlined look. They allow space for a hotel- style basket of towels or step-stool storage for little ones who need to brush their teeth. “They’re easy to clean under,” says Diane Burcz of Diane Burcz Interior Design in Newton. And if you ever have a leak, she adds, it ensures that any standing water won’t damage the vanity itself.
Also contributing to the tidy lines of the latest bathrooms are frameless shower doors with as little hardware as possible. “If I have the space,” says Burcz, “I like to not use a door at all, because they’re harder to clean and more expensive.” Instead, she installs a fixed glass panel (less to clean) on the shower-head side and keeps the controls on the opposite wall, in reach but not under the water stream. Finally, speaking of space, if you have enough of it, a separate room for the toilet or the toilet and a small floating sink — “a powder room in your master bath,” says Matta — can go a long way toward making your bathroom more beautiful. “That way, you walk in and you’re not staring at the toilet,” he says. “Even hiding it with two walls instead of a door makes a huge difference.”
If you have any lingering doubts that technology is changing everything, consider the time-savers, gadgets, and things you didn’t know you needed until they were invented that are becoming commonplace in bathrooms all over the country.
We’ll start with older technologies. Heated floors are probably the new technology that comes closest to a requirement, especially in chilly New England. “There’s not a lot of wall space, so getting heat into a bathroom can be difficult,” says Brisk. Radiant heat now comes in rolled mats that are easily installed underneath floor tiles and can be controlled by a timer so your bare feet stay toasty, even first thing in the morning. Hands-free faucets, steam showers, hand-held shower sprayers, rain heads, and body sprays have also been around for a decade or so and have now become almost standard equipment.
Less common but quickly gaining real estate in the bathroom are programmable digital shower controls, built-in wireless speaker systems like Moxie by Kohler, towel warmers — either bar or drawer style — and chromatherapy, using colored lights in the shower or bath or under the floating vanity. “People like to light these just for ambience,” says Matta. “You come home from a long day at work and the master bath is a retreat for you. Lighting helps set the mood.” Frameless mirrors now come with built-in LED lights, a feature that not only creates a clean line and provides bright light for shaving or applying makeup but also saves space in the often smallish bathrooms of older Boston-area houses.
Perhaps the most practical technological element to come to bathrooms is electronic toilets. Nightlights, heating, and integrated wash-and-dry bidet technology, introduced in Japan and now in about three-quarters of the homes there, are becoming standard here for those who can afford the $2,500-and-up splurge.
To enhance the spa feel, transitional rooms between the master bedroom and bath, used for yoga, meditation, or just relaxing with a cup of tea, are catching on with those who have the space. And don’t think you have to run all the way to the kitchen for that tea: More and more homeowners are installing drink stations, complete with refrigerated drawers and sometimes even freezer space for late-night ice cream breaks. “Clients are asking for luxury but also efficiency, so if you have 20 minutes before you have to wake up the kids, you can have your shower and your coffee, and it’s quiet time,” says Venegas. “I think convenience is luxury.”
WHAT IF IT’S NOT YOUR FOREVER HOME?
“Bathrooms are very labor-intensive,” says Remodeling's Craig Webb. In a large city like Boston, where labor is pricey, tabs can run high, but on the other hand, “the market is so strong, you’ll probably see better returns than the rest of the country.” Webb’s general rule is that if you plan to stay in a house for at least five years, remodeling an outdated bathroom is worth it. “Life is too short to live in a house that makes you unhappy,” he says.
As far as what kind of look to go for, if you think you might not stay in the house long term, West Roxbury appraiser and broker Eric Klein, with RE/Max Achievers, says a white, clean look is always in style. “Do it for yourself,” he says, but remember that if it’s too far out, “buyers look at it as ‘I need to spend money now to get it back to normal.’ ”
BANG FOR THE BUCK
Some of the latest bathroom trends are so widespread that they’re trickling down to retail stores, where those with an average budget can pick them up for hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.
Check the special-order catalogs at big-box home-improvement stores; websites like Amazon, wayfair.com, and overstock.com for sinks, faucets, mirrors, and lighting; and, of course, Target, the original good-design-for-the-masses retailer, and IKEA, where a double or trough sink top plus wall-mounted cabinet costs less than $1,000 and lighted frameless medicine cabinets top out at $300.
Polished chrome is not only the favored finish for plumbing hardware these days, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s 2016 trends report, but it’s also significantly cheaper. “If you’re doing two sinks, a hand shower, and an overhead shower with controls and tub filler,” says Euro-Plus Design's SusanBrisk, “you’ll save maybe $1,000 overall in the difference between chrome and brushed nickel.”
For a fresh look on an even smaller budget, change cabinet handles to a newer, more square design, and choose a light-colored shower curtain with a horizontal element. “For soft goods, horizontal is the most modern,” says Newton Kitchens & Design's PierreMatta. Then add plush white towels, white or pale gray paint, and some bold new artwork. “A little can go a long way with color,” says Brisk.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.