Renovation Design Group
Bathrooms can be easily transformed without demolishing what you have and starting over.

We're sure you are as sick as we are about hearing of rising gas prices every time you turn around. Unfortunately, that is just the most obvious symptom of our current economic troubles.

Everyone is feeling the pinch, and all our plans and projects are being scrutinized and re-evaluated. This includes plans for our homes.

One of the most commonly remodeled rooms in the home is the bathroom. It is one room that can become dated and surely needs an upgrade every decade or two. Of course, the ideal approach is to gut the room and re-install new fixtures and finishes. But with the cost running anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 for an average family bathroom, and upward of $15,000 and beyond for a master bath, a complete redo may not be in the cards at the moment, even with your economic stimulus check.

So, what can you do short of demolishing your bathroom and starting over? Cosmetic fixes, such as removing that old wallpaper, repainting with a more modern color and replacing the light fixture and towel racks are easy, inexpensive do-it-yourself projects.

Updating the sink faucet isn't too hard, and replacing the toilet can be done without major disruption to the plumbing or surrounding finishes. (Be aware, however, that older toilets — say from the 1930s or before — can have plumbing that comes up out of the floor farther away from the wall than more modern fixtures. This requires a special-order toilet. Older toilets may also have a lead flange that should be replaced along with the toilet.)

Sinks can be replaced in existing cabinetry, but the counter usually needs to be changed out, too. Cabinets can be easily removed and replaced, either with standard "built-in" cabinets or with pieces of free-standing furniture that are currently popular. The main complication here may be the floor. Hopefully, the flooring was installed before the cabinet; if not, one thing can lead to another, and you may need to change out the floor as well as the cabinetry.

Bathtubs and showers are the hardest areas to update in a bathroom. They generally require major remodeling. Shower pans tend to fail over time, so the best method is to remove all the tile, reinstall the pan if leaking is apparent, and refinish the walls. This is a more challenging project for a homeowner, and a licensed plumber needs to be involved.

Removing a bathtub generally requires removing the wall finishes around the tub. Generally, the tile is laid to come down over the bathtub, so it may be difficult, if not impossible, to remove the tub without disturbing the material surrounding it. The plumbing obviously needs to be disconnected, and older cast-iron tubs are very heavy and difficult to move. It is not unusual for this type of tub to be broken up and carted off in pieces.

In the case of a tub, the flooring would usually have been installed after the tub, so it will not extend under the space. This means if you change the size or shape of the tub, the flooring may also need to be redone. When changing the wall finishes, new waterproof materials should be placed on the walls if it is also a shower. There are specific materials that need to be installed properly and in the correct sequence to assure the area will remain watertight and mold-free for another few decades.

While this is not impossible for a homeowner to do, it requires careful study and preparation. Remember, the tile is for the most part decorative; the waterproofing occurs underneath where it can't be seen.

If changing out your tub sounds a bit daunting, next week we will discuss a few other ways to update a bathtub or shower without completely removing it from the premises.


Architects Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the founding principals of Renovation Design Group, www.renovationdesigngroup.com, a local design firm specializing in home remodels.