How to Future-Proof Your Family Bathroom

Give your main bathroom the update it deserves to better meet the needs of your family now and in the years ahead

By Nadia Sakey / Courtesy of Houzz.com

Even in a home with the luxury of a master bathroom, the family bathroom is generally where much of the action happens. In a family home, this high-traffic space must work for everyone, from the youngest kids to the oldest houseguests. And that’s a tall order.When you’re planning a functional bathroom for the current needs of your family, you should also be thinking about future requirements too. 

A little more investment in the planning stages of a new family bathroom now will serve you and your home well in years to come. Future-proofing a bathroom doesn’t mean just an age-friendly design, but also one that is safe, healthy and functional for all family members at any stage of life. Here are some commonsense ways to meet the needs of every bathroom user for the future.

Go bigger if you can. The truth is that family bathrooms tend to get a raw deal when it comes to size — they are often one of the smallest rooms in the home. Although there is nothing wrong with that if you know how to use the space well, we expect so much from these hardworking little rooms. 

If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then I say the family bathroom is the engine room. It stands to reason then that if the engine room doesn’t perform optimally, it will affect the way your household performs, setting the mood of how your day starts and ends. Unlike many kitchens, the family bathroom has multiple users — whether children or houseguests — and works twice as hard to accommodate them. In small homes, the laundry is often doing its job in there too.

Marry style with function. While the family bathroom is the unsung hero, today we expect our little engine rooms to also have a Zen-like atmosphere. With our increasingly chaotic lives, the bathroom offers an escape for half an hour’s peace. But future-proofing the bathroom doesn’t mean sacrificing style.

A family bathroom needn’t look like an institution. With careful planning and subtle future-focused decisions, you can create an enviable spa-like quality, no matter what size space you have. 

Engage an expert. Planning a bathroom is complex, so rather than trying to plan the layout yourself, it may be beneficial to engage an expert. Investing in a more developed plan by a certified bathroom designer will save you a lot of stress and money in the long term. These professionals know the industry health and safety guidelines and access standards. They will also have the most current knowledge of available building materials and product developments, to maximize functional use of space without compromising on style. 

A good designer will translate your vision and help you recognize your needs now and into the future. People are surprised when I tell them that professional fees usually represent only 4 percent of the total project budget.

Evaluate the ergonomics.Ergonomics is about the interaction of human movement with the surrounding environment, so you can perform each task with the least amount of effort. Since family bathrooms can be relatively small and have a number of users, the ergonomics for an average user may not suit every age and stage of life. 

A designer can help you clarify needs so that you can accommodate anything from the baby’s bathing ritual or the toddler learning new skills to the teenager who leaves the place looking as if it’s just been hit by a tsunami. Think ahead too — could an aging parent or a grandchild be using that bathroom in the future? Often the family bathroom is also the guest powder room, so you don’t want too much mess to be on show.

In addition to things like size, age and abilities or disabilities of users, also think about how and when they use the space and how habits change as family members grow or work routines evolve. In addition, there are minimum standards for access and clearances that will help determine the most efficient space plan. Analyze the tasks and think about whether you can relocate, say, elements to create more space and reduce the morning congestion in the one area.

Blur the lines. One popular solution for a busy household and small bathrooms is to fit both a bath and a shower in a so-called wet room. Instead of a separate shower stall, an entire area is fully waterproofed and the floor levels adjusted to allow for runoff and drainage. 

This used to be very expensive, but as demand has grown, it has become slightly more affordable. Wet rooms create an illusion of space and are multifunctional, allowing two people to use the area at once. They are useful for those with disabilities or limited mobility because the floor is all on one level with easy access. However, you need to think through the way it will be used. For example, will the shower spray reach the surrounding furniture, towels and toilet paper rolls? And how hazardous is a wet floor?

My favorite approach is to take a step toward a wet room, dividing the space into two separate zones: wet and dry. That way you get the benefits of a wet room at half the expense of waterproofing the whole room. Shower spray is contained behind a glass panel or a large sliding or pivot door, and there is still room for access. The dry zone is kept organized and presentable for guests — so no chance of soggy socks! 

Zone for privacy. Multiple people can use the bathroom at the same time if it is zoned smartly, rather than having all the stations arranged around the wall. Here, the vanity floats in the middle of the room, with partial walls dividing off the toilet behind a closable door on the left and the shower at right. Mirrors and glass walls create the impression of more space, blurring the lines between zones.

If you have more space, a room within a room allows for multiple users. Frosted doors let light flow from one room to the other while preserving privacy.

Test your plan. If you are renovating, you don’t have the luxury of a blank canvas. But whatever layout you decide works best for you, test your plan and don’t assume that the original footprint is all you have to work with. Think outside the box and examine the space around the bathroom. Could you move walls? Recess amenities, like a shower or vanity area, into an adjoining room? Borrow closet space? Designers are used to solving problems like this and can give you a number of possible solutions to test.

Think ahead. Once all the options have been tested and perfected for performance and the layout is finalized, building a future-proof bathroom begins from the ground up. Your existing floor structure, whether concrete or wood-framed, will need to be assessed to make sure that wet areas meet relevant codes of compliance.

Naturally, there are a wide range of nonslip floor finishes, from wood strips to ceramic and stone tiles. If you plan to change flooring types from one zone to another, as seen here with these wood slats in the shower and tiles outside, you need to establish those level changes in the subfloor.

If you plan in-wall plumbing items such as thermostatic mixers, these need to be fitted before the wall is closed. While the walls are open, decide if you want to use the cavities for recessed shelving, a built-in shower bench or a grab bar, which will need extra wood support built into the wall framing.

Outfit it with care. Careful selection of your bathroom furniture, fixtures and hardware makes a bathroom user-friendly for all stages of life. Consider faucets and switches that are comfortable and easy to turn on for youngsters or old hands, interfaces for things like water temperature and pressure, and sink plugs that are easy to understand and use. A double shower is more efficient than a single, as the combination of overhead rain and sliding rail showers provides flexibility, but make sure that levers are easy to access for every user.

Consider the height differences of each user. Where flexible options aren’t available, it is best to position a wall-mounted vanity and toilet to suit the tallest user. It is more comfortable for other users to reach a bit higher rather than lower, and certainly helps when we age. You can then add a step stool for children that can slide neatly away underneath (a safer option than the stools that are built into the toe kick of a floor-mounted vanity).

Vanities should be as long and as large as possible, and include a double sink if you can to reduce the wait time in the morning. Here, a mirrored wall allows some people to check themselves while others use the sink. And a combination of built-in drawers and open shelving for baskets means that there is accessible storage for everyone.

Anything that makes access to storage easier is generally a plus. These cabinets pull out at eye level and may be less noticeable to inquisitive youngsters, though it’s still important to keep medicines and sharp objects in childproof containers. The pullouts also make it easier to see and reach the contents than if you had to bend down beneath the vanity top.

Adding a seat makes grooming more comfortable. Be sure that the bench has secure, nonslip feet to prevent accidents.