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Pint-Size Powder Rooms

Converting Niches Into Half-Baths Is A Design Challenge

By Deborah K. Dietsch
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page F01

When responding to nature's call means trekking up or down a flight of stairs to reach a bathroom, many homeowners start looking around for a more convenient place to put the toilet and sink.

But where? It only requires a few square feet, but carving out the space can require creativity, especially in the older homes that frequently were built without a half-bath on the main floor.

Chris Handman's powder room features a blue Kohler sink with a chrome faucet designed by Philippe Starck. The small bathroom is one of many renovations he has made in his townhouse in Shaw. (Photos Jessica Tefft -- The Washington Post)

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"We didn't want our guests to go upstairs, but we also didn't want to take space out of the other rooms on this level," said architect Damien Chaves, standing in the entrance hall of his 1898 house in Burke. Opening a small door in the side of the staircase, he revealed a powder room in a space once used for storage.

Chaves designed the half-bath after he and his wife, Arlene, a retired teacher, moved the house from the historic center of Burke to a lot on the outskirts of town and then renovated and expanded the old structure. To gain more space for the powder room, he extended the back wall of the original closet by about 10 inches, so the sloping ceiling under the stairs rises from four feet to eight feet off the floor. The toilet occupies the low end of the space, where people sit, and the sink is at the higher end to provide more head room.

Though tiny -- most people have to stoop to enter -- the 31-inch-by 5-foot-9-inch powder room is convenient; it's between the dining room and kitchen, so guests do not have to walk into private areas of the house. And to make it as pleasant as possible for visitors, the room was recently updated with new fixtures. A washstand-style wood vanity was replaced with a pedestal sink "to give the feeling of more room," said Arlene Chaves, and a new toilet was installed.

Like the Chaveses, most owners of older homes who add or redo a powder room do so as part of a larger overhaul of their house. Just as an upgraded kitchen can boost the value of a home, so, too, can a newly installed or remodeled half-bath, especially when it's outfitted with upscale fixtures and finishes. According to a 2004 survey of real estate agents conducted by Remodeling magazine, homeowners can recoup from about 81 to 90 percent of the costs associated with remodeling or adding a bathroom.

"There is a big bang for the buck in fixing up a powder room," said David Merrick of Merrick Design and Build Inc. in Kensington. "Just upgrading a few fixtures can change someone's impression of the whole first floor."

Decoration is top priority in a half-bath because the space is a place where owners can show off their taste to guests. "The powder room is the wow room," said Catherine Harvey, manager of the upscale Ferguson bath showroom in the Washington Design Center. "Most customers want that room to pop, to be a talking feature with a lot of new and innovative things in there."

Among the hottest designs, Harvey said, are sculptural basins called vessel sinks that are installed on top of tables instead of vanities. Costs depend on the choice of fixtures and finishes. "We can do a simple cosmetic upgrade for $2,500 to $3,000 that includes a new floor, new toilet, new medicine cabinet, pedestal sink, painting the walls and trim," said Merrick. "But it's easy to spend $5,000 to $6,000 on the same job."

Turning a closet or another existing space into a powder room costs $15,000 and up, according to architect Christopher Landis of Landis Construction Corp. in the District. His advice is to carve out a half-bath in the core of the house near the existing plumbing stack to save space and plumbing costs. "Don't put it in a public space like the dining room or take up valuable space at the perimeter where there is light and air."

When the house is maxed out on its lot, giving up a half-bath to gain more room for a kitchen or a family room is enticing. "We considered eliminating it," said Mark Borges, "but in talking to Realtors and friends, we concluded that we needed a powder room on the first floor for resale."

Instead of demolishing the powder room in their 1920s rowhouse in Woodley Park, Borges, a lawyer, and wife Lynne Orton, a nurse, decided to reduce its size to gain space in the nearby kitchen for a pantry with cabinets and a small refrigerator. Landis Construction and District decorator Susan Thompson remodeled the remaining space into a half-bath measuring 30 inches by 5½ feet.

At less than 14 square feet, that's about as small as a half-bath can be. Local building codes, according to several building contractors, require at least a 30-inch-wide space in which to place the toilet. Because closets are typically 24 inches deep, they usually have to be bumped out into adjacent rooms to accommodate a toilet and other bathroom fixtures.

In addition, builders recommend the space between the front of the toilet and the sink be at least 24 inches. Increasing this amount of room by just a little or moving a doorway only a few inches can make the half-bath feel much more spacious. If quarters are tight, a door that swings outward into the adjoining hall or one that slides into the wall provides more space to maneuver.

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