My nature has always been to be highly inquisitive and also helpful to others. This combination prioritizes listening to my clients and creates dialogue which helps me better understand their needs. Mixed with the great group of clients I have had the privilege of working with, it has led to many inspirational moments. Those inspirations compelled considerable empirical questioning on my part which cemented my understanding of the Form Follows Function philosophy and the creation of my “Functional Bathroom Design” concepts.

In the Beginning

Chiger Residence - The Start of the Functional Bath Design Concept

In 1979, my second full year in business, I had already done over 50 kitchen remodels but had never done a bath remodel. After the completion of a small Bay Park area kitchen, the young homeowners instructed me to immediately begin planning work on a bath remodel. After working together on their kitchen, they were confident in my understanding of their aesthetic tastes. They only gave me one functional criteria and were very serious and adamant about it: the countertops in the bath had to be at least the same counter height as the kitchen, 36″ or taller.

When I paused to think about their criteria before I answered, not knowing my complete lack of experience in baths, they mistook my pause as surprise at their request. There I was standing 6’7″ tall, in front of the husband who was no taller than 5’2″ and the wife about 4’10”. The couple went on to explain that even short people have to bend down while brushing their teeth, washing their face, or shaving to minimize water splashing all over the counters. They wanted the counters higher to avoid the stress on their backs and be more comfortable while using the bathroom sink.

This made a great deal of sense to me, but in light of the fact that the official industry standard was (and still is) 32″ for bath counter height, it also bugged the heck out of me. That question led me on a quest to find out why. I found that in the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s, the US government commissioned the University of Illinois to do what is now called an ergonomic study to determine the standards to be applied to residential appliance, plumbing fixture, and cabinet manufacturing to ensure compatibility and unimpeded growth in those industries for the anticipated housing boom of the 1950’s. The model home they used as a basis in their study was a two bedroom one bath home with two adults and two children in residence. The study clearly found that the optimal height for work counters was a minimum of 36″ for the average sized adult female, based on being 6″ to 9″ below the elbow of a 5’2″ to 5’4″ housewife. What confounded the researchers was what to do in the bathroom regarding children. Here is, in my opinion, where they made a very poor choice.

I do not know if the researchers or a committee after the fact made this decision. They lowered the bath counter height to 32″ solely to accommodate the children. In my mind, this 32″ bath counter height makes no sense for children either. Think about it: before a child is 4-5 years old, you don’t want them accessing the sink for fear of flooding the room. By the age of 8-9 most can easily access the kitchen sink. Those 4″ only have a positive effect on a child’s accessibility to the bath sink for less than 4 years of their childhood, the difference between the age at which they can reach a 32″ counter faucet and the age they can reach one at 36″. They grow so darn fast! The remainder of their years living in the household (8-11+ years) they also would benefit from the 36″ bath counter height.

A far better solution is to add a step stool in the bath for the child to use for the short time they will need it. Or as I have done on many projects, add a fold-down stool that mounts to the back of the sink cabinet door, which has been readily available for decades from cabinet accessory manufacturers or a slide-out step below the door.

The Original Component of the Functional Bath Concept: All bath counters should be a minimum of 36″ counter height and they (or the sink’s top rim, when considering vessel sinks) can be much higher.

The Second Component

This came not from one single client but rather the accumulative observation of all my bathroom clients over the next three years. I repeatedly saw bath counters cluttered with all the implements that the client’s family used daily on the majority of my first visits with them. I began asking the few clients whose counters were devoid of these items on first visits if they had cleaned up and put things away knowing that I would be viewing their bath that day. The overwhelming majority said YES!

This observation led me to question the actual purpose of countertops in bathrooms. Again, I began surveying clients to find out exactly what homeowners use their bath counters for, if anything, other than as a bath storage catch-all. What I found was that other than as a storage location for all implements used multiple times daily and decorative items, there were two primary reasons some, not all, clients actually used counter space for functional activities:

  1. Changing diapers
  2. Medical testing and administration, such as blood sugar testing and injections for diabetes. (Remember this was in 1979 – 1982. Now with digital diabetes monitoring devices this need may not be relevant at this time or into the future.)

This finding led me to the following universal conclusions:

  1. Base cabinets in the traditional bathroom layout are not used to store everyday items because it is too big of a hassle to bend over and open drawers, pull items out, plug them in, and then put them away when finished.
  2. What a truly functional bathroom needs is a way to store implements within arms reach of a person standing in front of the sink. If they are electrical implements, there also needs to be electrical outlets in their storage compartment so these items never need to be plugged in or unplugged.

The Second Component of the Functional Bath Concept: With the exception of one bath in each home that has a minimum of two feet of counter space next to a sink for changing diapers and medical use, there is no real functional reason for counters in a bathroom.

What is actually needed: a way to store all the implements and items used daily in a storage area at least 6″ and at most 24″ above the 36″ counter height (42″ to 60″) and within arms reach of an average height person standing in front of the sink. This should be the primary bath storage area for all implements used regularly in that room.

In those early years you will see in our Kitchen and Bath Remodeling Photo Gallery how I began implementing this knowledge into bathroom design through the use of shallow pantry type cabinets within arm’s reach of the sink with electrical outlets inside. It offered a unique and European look to the designs, and these bathrooms really function well, having far more floor space to move around in than a typical bath with the same room dimensions. Since then, I have expanded the implementation options with the use wall cabinets instead of pantry on each side of the sink allowing more counter space below or deeper medicine cabinets that have electrical outlets inside to give more variety and design options while accomplishing the same end: Function Bathroom Storage.

The 3rd & 4th Components

The Third and Fourth Components, Venting and Heating, are closely related. It became obvious to me rather early in my career that the bathroom environment was far more harsh and damaging to its components (cabinets, glass, mirror, paint, tile grout, etc.) than the kitchen environment. Everything was much harder to keep clean and mold-free, and wore out and needed replacement sooner than other environments in the home.

The primary culprit being the high moisture content of the air caused by the shower, which was used multiple times a day by the family. I also realized that the building code, building inspectors, designers, general contractors, plumbers, and electricians either did not address this issue or had extremely limited or no understanding of the physics and needs to vent a room properly. The building code’s requirements are a small window, which is kept closed most of the year anyway, so how can it be used to dry the room? In 4 decades I have not met another tradesman or professional that understands the following facts:

The smaller the bathroom, the larger the vent size you need to keep the air dry; the larger the bath, the smaller the vent needs to be, and some baths are so large or open that venting is optional. I have sometimes had heated discussions with plumbers, electricians, inspectors, or other professionals who do not understand the basic physics of moisture in air.

Why? Air Has a Limited Capacity to Hold Moisture:

  1. The shower head delivers the same amount of water into the air, no matter how big or small the room may be. Big rooms have more air volume than smaller rooms.
  2. When air becomes supersaturated (reached its limit to hold water) it sheds the moisture on all surfaces it comes into contact with: cabinets, painted walls and ceiling, mirrors, windows, doors, etc. The entire point of venting is to get rid of the moisture before this happens so these elements stay dry, mold-free, and lengthen their lifespan.
  3. Bigger rooms have more air and therefore can hold more moisture for a longer time, allowing the vent more time to do its job. A smaller vent motor is needed.
  4. Smaller rooms have less air, therefore can hold less moisture and need to be vented more aggressively to keep the rooms walls and components dry. A larger vent is needed.
  5. I like putting the vent on a 1-hour digital timer switch. It encourages the homeowner to use it more because they are not afraid they will accidentally leave it on. I recommend setting the 1-hour timer when you first turn the shower on, then restart the 1-hour timer again as you leave the room. That way the room will be assured of being moisture free.
  6. Make up air is critical to a vent that gets the job done. If a vent has a duct which is 4” in diameter (a standard size for 110, 80, & 50 CFM panasonic fans), the room must have another opening of approximately equal size to allow outside (not outside the home, outside the bathroom) air to enter as the fan works. If that opening is not there, the fan will not work because a vacuum will be created that will create too much back pressure and will slow the air removal to a trickle and eventually burn out the motor on the fan. All it takes is a little math to see how easy it is to create that return air path. 4” ducting has a surface area equal to πr2.3.14 x 4” = 12.56 square inches of area needed for make up air to remove any back pressure. The door is the easiest place to do this. If you have a 24” wide door, just make sure its bottom is at least ½” off the surface of the floor on each side of the door, including carpeting in the hall or bedroom. ½” x 24” = 12 sq. inches, which is close enough —we are not making watches.

Hot Air has a far greater capacity to hold moisture than Cold Air: In the summer when the air inside the bathroom is hotter, it is easier to vent because the air of any size room will hold more moisture than in the winter or in a home that keeps their air conditioner very low in the summer.

  1. The quietest vents (0.3 sones) readily available come in 150, 110, 80, or 50 CFMs (CFM= cubic feet of air moved per minute). Despite the mild climate here in San Diego during the winter months, in the most common 5’ x 8’ track bathrooms, even 150 or 110 CFM fans will not be able to remove air fast enough to keep it from getting supersaturated because the cold air has very limited capacity to hold moisture.
  2. The solution to give the vent more time to do its job is to also install a heater to preheat the air in the room to increase its capacity to hold moisture. In-wall or in-ceiling heaters will do the trick. A heater also makes the room more comfortable for the person taking the shower.
  3. The heater will also make it easier to dry off after the shower. How many times have you been in a bath where the air was so saturated with water that your body still felt wet even right after you dried off? Every time I have showered in a motel bathroom!
  4. I really like putting these heaters on a digital timer as well. Once the room gets up to temperature it will not lose it soon. A timer also assures it will not be left on by accident and encourages it use.

Third Component of the Functional Bath: Put exhaust vents in baths on a digital timer switch and size the fan properly. The smaller the bath the bigger the CFM rating of the fan, 110 to 150 CFM for typical 5’ x 8’ baths or smaller. Smaller fans can be used in bigger baths. It is all about the volume of air available and its temperature. Don’t forget to allow for Make Up Air return to the bath.

Fourth Component of the Functional Bath: The more you use the shower and the smaller the bath, the greater the need to add a heater on a digital timer to give the fan time to do its job while making the room more comfortable for you. The larger the bath or more open the bath is, the less likely you need a heater to keep the moisture in control. If your shower use currently fogs up your bathroom mirrors, that is good indication a heater could be of great help.

The Final Component: Other Considerations

Shampoo Niches and Storage: We need a place to store all the stuff we use in the shower daily: shampoo bottles, conditioners, wash rags, soap, etc.

I often get clients who show me a picture of a shower niche (recessed shelf) with a mural or very intricate and beautiful tile tile pattern they saw in a magazine or online. They tell me they would love have something like this in their new bath. I tell them the picture looks beautiful and we can do that, but I ask, “what will it look like very day with all the junk you want to store on the shelf? Will you ever see the beautiful tile?” I think it is great to add any decorative items the client wants, but it should be designed so you will always see the beauty, not cover it up with soap, shampoo, or conditioner bottles.

We need to find a place to store this stuff where it will not detract from our decorative elements. Out of sight from anyone standing outside the shower would be ideal. But how can you accomplish that?

How Can I Wash My Feet and Legs Without Falling or Slipping: Whether we are young or old, washing our feet in the shower is a balancing act that can lead to injury.

A seat we can sit down on, or at least a high step on which we can prop the foot we are washing on while we are standing, are both great aids to this balancing act and should be an important part of all showers that function well.

Grab Bars: Are optional elements that both very young and old find useful. Placed properly, they can create a safer environment and be used to hang wash rags, loofahs, or exfoliating products to drip dry. If far enough from the water source, they can also be used as towel bars.
Keeping Glass Clean and Leak-Free: Simple rules to help you.

  1. The less glass there is, the less there is to clean.
  2. Tile-to-tile intersections are much easier to create a long lasting (many decades) waterproof joint than any connection of glass to tile because all glass-to-tile joints are caulk joints, and caulking has a very limited lifespan (one decade) and must be replaced periodically.
  3. The closer to the floor the glass to tile connection is, the more water it will receive daily. In turn, it will fail and leak faster and be harder to keep clean.

Keeping Water in the Shower: Do We Really Need Shower Doors?

The sole mechanical purpose of a shower system is to contain all water generated by the shower head and make sure it exits the area through the drain without getting the rest of the bath floor or walls wet.

If you have a typical 3’ x 5’ three-walled shower with a 5’ sliding glass door, where does it fail? Everywhere, or just one spot? One spot, at the joint where the sliding glass door meets the wall on which the shower head is located. And the leak is always very low on the wall near the dam, not higher up the wall, because the amount of water that hits the joint of the door and tile wall is less the higher up the wall you go. The same joint at the other side never leaks, because water simply does not travel that far to get it wet.

Keeping water in the shower is all about understanding momentum and vectors. Most of the water bounces off the person in the shower onto the wall from which it came or the immediate adjoining walls or partitions — it does not pass through them.

In my practice, I rarely use shower doors. I do use fixed panels of glass that start at the wall that has the shower head and stops 24” (building code minimum) to 28” from the opposite wall, in a standard 60” shower. Fixed glass panels remain water-tight longer than sliding panels, but still fail sooner than tile and are still a real chore to keep clean.

Fifth Component to a Functional Bath: Solutions that incorporates all these points of consideration. A Pony Wall 44” tall by 32” to 34” long with a 30” to 40” tall fixed piece of glass on top, a recessed shampoo box high on the shower side (not visible by someone outside the shower), and a high step in the corner to help brace the wall and aid the user in washing their feet.

  1. Most of the water generated in the shower never hits the glass, because the glass begins so high. Never leaking and far more easy to keep clean.
  2. The tile-to-tile joint from the floor to the top of the pony wall at 44” tall receives the majority of the water from the shower and, if done properly, will last for 5 or more decades.
  3. Shampoo and other items are visible only to the person taking the shower and are within easy reach.
  4. The three visible walls are now free for as much tile design as necessary to meet the client’s needs.
  5. The tile step is in close to where you stand when showering, while also bracing the pony wall structurally.
  6. A shower seat readily fits into the opposite corner from the step without making the usable shower floor area too small.
  7. Grab bars can be easily incorporated below the 44” level of the wall for better visual continuity and safety function.
  8. Proper placement of the shower head, slightly closer to the pony wall than the back 5’ wall, is imperative to minimize water bouncing out over the dam and walk way.

Read Our Latest Posts on Functional Bath Design