From bathroom to trophy space

February 15, 2013

A full-on view of their master bathroom greets William and Samar Langhorne every time they climb to the top of their Georgetown house. Visible from the staircase as well as the flanking bedroom and walk-in closets, the glass-enclosed space shows off a sculptural bathtub and a pebble-lined shower like artwork in a gallery.

“It’s not for shy people,” says William Langhorne, 38, a professional race car driver. “We wanted to maximize the openness and make it as sleek as high-end automotive design.”

The exposed bathroom, part of an addition designed by D.C.-based Rixey-Rixey Architects, may be awkward for guests. But the wall facing the stairs is fitted with electronically controlled “smart” glass so its transparent surface can turn opaque at the flick of a switch.

Sliding doors pull out from the walls to close off the sides of the room. The toilet, which also functions as a bidet, is in a private cubicle.

The Langhornes enjoy pointing out such features, knowing that they are at the forefront of bathroom design trends. “We like bright, light feeling,” says Samar Langhorne, 37, noting the skylights in the ceiling. “When I’m in the tub, I can see the TV and gas fireplace in the bedroom.”

Much like the kitchen, the bathroom is outgrowing its strictly utilitarian purpose to become a trophy space full of designer fixtures. Huge showers with multiple heads, freestanding soaking tubs and multi-functional toilets — the equivalent of gourmet kitchen appliances — are increasingly common in area homes. (And like the six-burner range, the huge tub may be used just as infrequently.)

“People really invest in their bathrooms to make them more open and more like a spa,” says Julia Walter, who manages the Georgetown showroom of Boffi, an Italian manufacturer of high-end bathroom fixtures. Walter sold the Langhornes their “Iceland” bathtub (retail price: $13,260) and eight-foot-long, walnut-veneered “Zone” vanity.

A place for relaxation as much as hygiene, the bathroom is losing its purely functional reputation to become more sybaritic. “It can be a place of escape, so anything that embraces a spa feeling — body sprays, hand-held showers, rainshower heads — is trending big,” says D.C. designer Marika Meyer. “Creating a sense of luxury is key.”

All those bells and whistles can add up to a hefty price tag. The New Jersey-based National Kitchen and Bath Association reports that the average cost of a bath design in 2012 was $18,850, compared with $16,475 in 2011, according to small, unscientific surveys of its member-
designers.

In the Washington area, the cost of a custom bathroom renovation can run much higher. According to Bill Millholland of Bethesda-based Case Design/
Remodeling, expanding a bathroom, moving a toilet, replacing a tub with a shower and upgrading finishes can total from about $30,000 to $100,000 or more, depending on the scope of the project.

Whatever their size, bathrooms are becoming more unconventional, according to the experts. “People are becoming braver. They are more open to unusual combinations of materials and something more personal in their bathrooms,” says Falls Church designer Savena Doychinov, who specializes in bathroom and kitchen renovations.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association reports that its members, such as Doychinov, are increasingly being asked to create bathrooms in a “transitional” style midway between old-world classical and chrome-and-glass contemporary, rather than strictly traditional designs. The group’s most recent survey shows that the majority of bathrooms designed by its members feature transitional and contemporary designs and finishes in shades of gray.

Consumer demand for edgier design is growing locally, too. “About 70 to 80 percent of our customers want contemporary now,” says David Goldberg, owner of Union Hardware in Bethesda. “They want simpler, cleaner designs. I can barely sell a traditional bathroom vanity with a toe kick.”

Sarah Fishburne, who monitors design trends for Home Depot, relates similar customer preferences. “Bathrooms have a cleaner, more modern look than kitchens. Homeowners tend to be more creative with their bathrooms than their kitchens, which are more traditional because they are such a big-ticket item.”

Some of this creativity stems from the desire to make the most of limited square footage. Many homeowners don’t want to expand their bathroom to swallow an adjacent closet or lose part of a bedroom and prefer to renovate the existing space to save money.

That “pull and replace” approach to bathroom remodeling can cost $10,000 to about $30,000 for putting in a new shower, tub, toilet and tile, according to Millholland of Case.

Faced with a windowless bathroom in her Falls Church townhouse, retired designer Marja Chapman, 68, spent about $12,000 to overhaul the small space with the help of Doychinov. “It was the standard ugly bathroom with a tub and a vanity like a kitchen cabinet,” Chapman says. “I wanted a lighter, more contemporary look.”

So out came the bathtub, vanity and ceramic tile. In went a glass-tiled shower, a Japanese-designed toilet and a stainless-steel sink atop a “floating” cabinet. “The new vanity is attached to the wall, so it doesn’t take up too much space,” Chapman says.

Large, rectangular tiles of limestone on the floors and walls make the space appear bigger because there are fewer grout lines to interrupt the surfaces. Such stone tile and porcelain designs simulating slate, marble and other natural materials are gaining popularity in bathrooms. According to Christina Ginn, who handles product marketing for local tile supplier Architectural Ceramics, “People used to do 12-inch-by-12-inch tiles. Now they are doing 12-inch-by-24-inch tiles and larger sizes. Gray and ivory are our top-selling colors.”

Homeowners like Chapman who replace the bathtub with a shower are becoming more common, Millholland says. “People used to think you had to have a tub for resale, but now they are willing to change that out with a big shower with multiple heads,” he says.

Bathtub lovers are choosing freestanding tubs over whirlpools set within decks. A stand-alone basin “can help create the illusion of more space in the bathroom because it’s not bulky and built-in, and feels like furniture in the room,” says designer Michael Stehlik of Carnemark Design and Build in Bethesda.

In renovating the Palisades home of consultants Karen Merszei, 55, and Richard Stern, 68, Stehlik enlarged the master bathroom by expanding into a bedroom to gain more space for a large shower with rain sprays and adjustable heads.

A new Victoria and Albert soaking tub — the most popular brand sold by Union Hardware, according to Goldberg — now occupies the center of the bathroom, but the homeowners say they use it only “once or twice a month.”

On one wall, his and her Spanish-made vanities are fitted with rectangular sinks and chrome faucets to reflect another design trend in bathrooms. “Vessels have run their course,” says Home Depot’s Fishburne of the once-popular, bowl-like sinks. “We are now incorporating rectangular sinks into vanities in warm woods like walnut, dark cherry and chestnut, rather than espresso and black finishes, which were hot a couple of years ago.”

As for toilets, many homeowners are opting for an elongated bowl at a “comfort” height, which is about an inch taller than standard. “It’s a proportion issue,” Millholland says. “As master baths have gotten larger, the typical round-front toilet looks too small.” He says water-
conserving, dual-flush models and wall-hung European designs are among the newer types of toilets, but they are not yet popular choices for local homeowners.

“The toilet isn’t the bling in the bathroom,” Millholland says. “Most people say, ‘Make it match and make it work.’ ”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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