Given that 21 percent of new houses are built with three or more bathrooms and some on the scale of the Baths of Caracalla, it’s hard for anyone with an old house to avoid a little Biffy envy. Many houses dating from the 1890s and earlier were built before modern plumbing, and their bathrooms are invariably reworked closets and alcoves, or additions that came with the expansion of a room or wing long ago. Most houses built after 1910 have original bathrooms (building codes made them mandatory in the 1920s), but typically only on the second floor and seldom more than one. That makes adding a powder room on the first floor a common old-house project.
Finding felicitous room in an old house for a half-bath that is, a bathroom sans tub or shower isn’t always easy, especially if you’re trying to stay as small as possible, or work within the confines of a former pantry or storage area. While creative thinking and design help from an architect or good contractor can open up possibilities, so too can knowing what’s available in the way of space-saving fixtures and fittings and the strategies they make feasible.
Tight Quarters Water Closets
Perhaps the key to making a limited-space half-bath work is getting the water closet (toilet) to fit, and that key turns on two critical dimensions: the amount of space on either side of the fixture to a wall or cabinet, and the clearance directly in front between the bowl and the next object. Building codes and design recommendations vary, but common dimensions are 12 to 15 from the center of the fixture to either side, and 18 to 21 directly in front. The idea behind these minimal clearances is, of course, to provide enough space for the toilet user to maneuver comfortably, as well as for working room at other features such as the lavatory and doorway.
3 Options for Small Space Toilets
Where space is precious, one place to consider siting the loo is a corner. This strategy not only takes advantage of some otherwise underutilized space, but with luck it buys extra inches of clearance at the sides and in front of the water closet, while freeing up the geometry in the rest of the layout. The essence of making a corner toilet work is dealing with the tank. While clever remodelers over the years have resorted to partially encasing the ends of a conventional tank in the stud space, a better approach is to investigate the creative use of specialized fixtures.
Tankless or high-tank toilets Institutional-type toilets that flush with a siphon jet have no tank, so the pear-shaped bowl may well be able to nestle deeper in the corner of a half-bath than a standard toilet. The catch is that such fixtures must be fed by a minimum 1″ water supply for the flush valve to work. An alternate version of the same concept is using a reproduction, Victorian-style high-tank toilet that allows mounting the tank to one side of the corner. Though tank piping, which typically enters the bowl at its back, still has to be shoe-horned into the corner, remoting the tank may buy valuable inches.
Corner-tank toilets The most straightforward way to berth a toilet in a corner is to buy a product made for this purpose. Here the tank is cast in a right triangle that fits efficiently in a corner while still being close-coupled to a conventional, floor-mounted bowl. While the installation requires a new rough-in, the potential benefit, of course, is more legroom.
As noted, buying enough clearance around the toilet can be a decisive issue, and in cases where you cannot raise the bridge, so to speak, it may be possible to lower the river by burying part of the toilet in the wall. Concealed-tank toilets are a European idea, intended to minimize the amount of porcelain for aesthetic and hygienic reasons (a wall-hung bowl is easily cleaned underneath). While increasingly popular for barrier-free universal design applications, concealed-tank toilets can have advantages for old-house owners too. Since an average toilet projects 27″ to 30″ from the wall concealing and thereby effectively eliminating the tank reduces the depth of the toilet to only 22 1/2″ or so—a savings of around 6″.
You don’t get something for nothing, of course, and there are limitations to concealed-tank toilets. First, these units are generally not recommended for simple retrofits to an existing bathroom because they require a 6″ stud wall (5 1/2″ of depth) to accommodate the tank carrier, and this usually means building a new wall or partition. Second, any potential for freezing makes them not ideal for installing on an outside wall. Third, these toilets are typically special-order items and more expensive than garden-variety toilets, but their costs can be worth it.
Reducing the Profile
Fortunately, you don’t always have to resort to novel shapes or inventive engineering to make the most of confined bathrooms. As you shop among the profusion of toilets sold, you’ll find that most manufacturers offer models and order options that solve common space problems.
Generally, toilet bowls come in two types: standard, round-front bowls or elongated (ovalish) bowls, preferred by some people for their ease of use. As you plan your powder room, note that in some (but not all) models, the latter style consumes 1/2″ to 1 1/2″ more room—not a monumental increase, but just enough to cause clearance problems with, say, an in-swinging door. Where this is an issue, shop for manufacturers that offer space-saving toilets—units that compress the tank enough to offer an elongated bowl in the same space as a round-front bowl.
If it’s wall area that is precious, look into low-profile toilets. These compact, often one-piece fixtures can conserve space by permitting cabinetry, such as an extension of a vanity, to be built over the part of the toilet typically occupied by the tank. Simple models are the safest bet. Some remodelers report that ultra-fancy, low-water consumption designs can require double-flushing and, like bikinis, the smaller they are, the more expensive they seem to be.
Sinks for Small Bathrooms
To stay legal, most building codes require a lavatory (sink) in a half-bath, and certainly guests appreciate it. Fortunately, manufacturers have been making small and specialized sinks for tight spaces for a long time, and they are readily found on the antique and salvage market as well as in the catalogs of current product lines.
Corner Once again, getting in the corner often helps buy space for a good-sized lav bowl as well as clearance in front. If you can afford the space, a corner pedestal sink or single “peg-leg” model adds period ambiance as well as support.
Wall-hung In tight confines, lavatories that are supported solely by the wall are often the way to go because they are the most flexible to install (requiring neither cabinetry nor precise height dimensions) plus they open up knee space under the fixture.
Hardware More often than not, antique lavatories are built for a pair of single faucets (mixing faucets were not widely popular until the 1930s). This seldom poses problems if the fixture is otherwise uncramped, but where space is really tight, a lone single-handle faucet does double-duty—that is what the smallest, modern, single-hole sinks are designed to use. Fortunately such units today are also in-step with the ease-of-use goals of universal design, and available in understated models as well as period looks that blend with an old house.
More Considerations for Half-Baths
Once you’ve conquered the spatial issues of getting all fixtures to fit, don’t overlook some of the less visible, but equally important, aspects of creating a half-bath.
Ventilation Building codes require some form of ventilation for all bathrooms, and since windows that open are rare in a half-bath, that means a ventilation fan. Ceiling-mounted fans are fine, but also consider venting directly through an outside wall with a wall-mount fan.
Insulation Whenever possible, insulate the walls of your half-bath, especially where they border living spaces. The goal here is not a thermal barrier but soundproofing and the privacy it enhances.
Storage It’s easy to forget, but ultimately your half-bath will benefit from some form of storage space even if only for backup bars of soap and paper products. Building shelves and storage within the stud space, similar to an in-wall medicine cabinet, is simple and effective.
There’s no better way to avoid costly measurement errors in building tricky service spaces like a half-bath than having all actual fixtures right at hand, so order them early. In fact, most plumbers, won’t even stub-in lines until the equipment is on site.
Last, keep your half-bath as unobtrusive as possible. Though it’s hard to imagine that the smallest room in the house will ever upstage any other area, the realities of its function add an important new dimension. When possible, avoid half-baths that open directly into major rooms; halls and back rooms make for more discrete entrances and exits. The door itself should open out, not into the bath, and clear other doors and traffic patterns. (Pocket doors can be ideal solutions here.) With a little care and creativity, people will think your new half-bath has always been there—or is not there at all.Published in: Old-House Journal May/June 2004