By Catherine Sherman
The doorbell rings. You haven't had time to tidy up, so you're hoping you can confine small talk to the foyer. Ten minutes later, your guest turns to leave but asks, "Can I use your bathroom?"
It's a familiar scenario, yet designing a powder bath can seem daunting. How do you combine style and function in such a small space? If you're on a tight budget, should you pour resources into 30 square feet or focus on larger rooms?
Designer Jaque Bethke of PURE Design Environments, Inc. says regardless of space or budget, the powder bath is a room that shouldn't be ignored. "It's the soul of your house," she said. "It's the room that everybody who is a stranger and those who intimately know you might see."
Here are five tips from Bethke and other leading Zillow Digs designers for tackling small bathrooms.
Set the scene
"The most critical thing is to consider how the bathroom will be used," Bethke said. "Entertaining? Children? Will it be used every day or just by guests?"
Jason Urrutia of Urrutia Design says if it's a bathroom you are going into every day, you might get tired of it. In that case, you'll want a classic, timeless design or elements that can be easily swapped out. But if it's a space for guests, he says it's acceptable as a place for fun.
Stephan Sardone of Sardone Construction agrees. "Some of my clients say that it just needs to look great," he said. "They don't need space for towels and soap because it's a guest bathroom where people go in during a party for a minute or two and then leave."
Wallpaper works in this bathroom by Urrutia Design because the space is primarily used by guests.
A bathroom occasionally used by guests also lends itself to different design materials than a full bathroom with a shower or tub.
"If you have a shower, it creates humidity," explained Marta Carvalho, principal designer at Urrutia Design. "For this reason, you should put wallpaper in a powder room without a shower."
Once you know how your bathroom will be used, designers agree that you should prioritize storage. It may seem counterintuitive to think about storage when you're trying to maximize space, but without planning ahead, your room could end up feeling smaller if it's cluttered and disorganized.
What makes storage successful is if it fits your individual needs, Sardone explains. "For guys, a medicine cabinet is all you need. But for women, more cabinet and counter space is often required," he said.
To strike a balance, Sardone found a way to add counter space without changing the dimensions of his own bathroom. "We put in a double vanity but decided to have only one sink on the left," he explained. "This provided more counter space for my wife, and we don't use the sink at the same time anyway."
A wall-hung sink held up by a teak skirt is an elegant, space-saving alternative in this bathroom by S + H Construction.
Dan McLaughlin of general contracting firm S + H Construction has also experimented with how to save space in small bathrooms. In a condo that didn't allow for a separate powder bath, he created one by adding a pocket door in the master bathroom and adding two built-in closets. The wall serves as a divider between the sink/toilet area and the shower; the closets keep linens and toiletries out of sight.
McLaughlin's team also installed a wall-hung sink and toilet to save space by hiding the water tank and pipes in the wall. "All it required was a couple more inches of wall versus 8 inches of tank exposed," he explained. "It allowed us to push the toilet seat right up to the wall."
Let there be light
Another way to make a small bathroom feel bigger and bolder is by bringing in light.
"With the right kind of accent lighting, you can make a space very playful," Bethke said. "I use more shiny surfaces — a lot of mirrors and patterns. As a result, you notice the scale of the items. You don't notice it's a small powder room."
A large mirror reflects light and creates the illusion of space in this small powder bath by PURE Design Environments, Inc.
Sardone says if you can bring in more natural light from a window or skylight, it's a great way to make a smaller space feel bigger and more inviting.
"You can do some great stuff with light fixtures, too," he said. "But if they're too big and bulky or hang down too far, that could be a problem. We use customized LED lighting in every space, adding indirect and direct light."
A lighter color palette can also make a space look larger by keeping the space bright and airy.
"We use colors that are fairly classic," Urrutia said. "Especially for the major pieces in the house — tiles, wall colors and flooring — we keep it neutral."
Accentuate your accent wall
Once you've set the scene and maximized storage and lighting in your bathroom, it's time to think about aesthetics.
"You can go minimalistically, or you can focus on one particular area," Bethke said. "I highly encourage people to go a little bit hog wild. It's a small space, so do that fixture you are scared to do in the living room. Amp it up and be fearless."
The designer's goal in this elderly-care home bathroom by Sardone Construction was to provide a space full of life and color.
Bethke recommends using unique pieces such as an antique mirror that you don't know what to do with. Urrutia uses the accent wall to bring color into the room, making it feel slightly contemporized while still being classic.
McLaughlin also says there's an opportunity to do some fine detailing because people will notice it more in a small space. "If you want to show off a piece of your home, the powder bath is the place to do it because people aren't looking across a huge room," he said.
Splurge on something you love
Despite the tendency to be frugal in order to save remodeling dollars for larger spaces in the home, designers agree that it's precisely because of a bathroom's small size that you can spend more.
"You can be playful without spending the farm," McLaughlin said. "You don't need to cover 150 square feet of floor with tile. Instead, you can cover just 20 to 30 square feet of wall."
A small accent wall is a great place to spend more because you have less square footage to cover. Project by Urrutia Design.
One of Urrutia's clients, for example, splurged on hand-crafted gray subway tile ($15-$17 per square foot) for a bathroom accent wall but balanced the cost with machine-fired white tile ($4 per square foot) on the adjacent, longer walls.
As you think about where you might want to splurge in your bathroom design, Bethke says it's OK if the powder bath doesn't take other rooms' style into consideration.
"There is no right or wrong," she said. "The powder room is an experience. The challenge is to come up with something that represents your style and allow it to become unique to the space."