Are Guest Bathrooms Important? Here’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Half-Baths, and Where to Install One If Your Home is Lacking

The earliest powder rooms didn’t have sinks or even a commode. Their sole purpose was to provide a place for servants to add talcum powder to the white wigs of respectable men. But even though the hairpieces of the 18th century have long ago fallen by the wayside, the powder room (which now, thankfully, includes indoor plumbing) remains an indispensable place to freshen up.

Powder rooms are generally situated near a home’s public rooms (the foyer, the living and dining rooms) as a convenience to guests. As a result, these half baths are now one of the most frequently remodeled and updated rooms in the house, and adding one to an existing home can increase resale value by as much as $20,000. Because they’re so much on display, powder rooms are often treated today as small showplaces and decked out with sculptural sinks, handcrafted fittings, and decorative tile or paneling. After all, given their small scale, they offer a good opportunity to make a big style statement without a huge outlay of cash. But before you go investing in that hand-hammered copper sink or inlaid cherry vanity, here are some things to consider.

With only two fixtures to fit in, the average half bath measures about 20 square feet. After all, there isn’t a huge need for storage, natural lightis a bonus (windows can actually cut down on privacy), and there’s less clutter than in a full bath. But one practicality you do have to consider is the door swing.

Residential Code dictates minimum clearances from side to side, as well as in front of the sink and toilet so they can be used comfortably. There must be 15 inches from the centerline of the commode and sink to the nearest wall or fixture, and 21 inches in front. Allow a minimum of 7 feet for headroom; you may even want to lower a very high ceiling if the room’s footprint is tight, so the space feels proportional. In half baths under the stairs, where the ceiling slants, tuck the toilet under the lowest point. Don’t forget electrical outlets for lighting and, perhaps, an exhaust fan for ventilation and white noise.

Traditionally the sink is the focal point, and the toilet is either placed next to it, where it can’t be seen when the door’s ajar, or on another wall entirely, where it’s even less conspicuous. If space allows, using a vanity that resembles a dresser or sideboard can give the room a handsome, furnished look that ties to other rooms in the house. In a small space, a pedestal, console, corner, or wall-mounted sink can eke out a few extra inches, as can a round toilet, rather than one with an oval bowl.

Many powder rooms lack natural light, and get much of their use at night, so properly placed lighting is key. Designers often rely on wall sconces flanking the mirror to cast flattering, shadow-free task light. But it’s good to have overhead ambient light as well, whether in the form of a pendant lamp or chandelier, or even a skylight to brighten the room during the day. Putting all light sources on dimmers allows you to modulate the glow for evening.

Planning Pointers

•Follow the line. When carving out space for a powder room, think about where water and waste lines can hook up to current plumbing. Adding new lines drives up costs a lot, especially if they’re on an outside wall and need insulation.

•Test-drive the layout. Always dry-fit fixtures before installing them so you know exactly how their placement will work. You don’t want to find out you can’t get around the open door after you’ve installed the wash basin.

•Make it comfortable. In a small powder room, the ceiling should be no higher than 8 feet to avoid a vertical tunnel effect. Any taller and you may want to paint it a deep color to make the space feel more intimate. Putting in a pocket door or installing floor tile on the diagonal will help a small room feel more spacious.

•Make it special. Consider using stone tile, hardwood flooring, or wainscoting; retrofitting a vintage dresser with a sink; or springing for a beautiful basin—after all, the powder room is one of the rooms guests use the most. Plus, its size means such splurges are on a small scale.

Pros of a Secondary Powder Room

Many home-design pros report that an increasing number of recent projects have involved building a secondary powder room for the family in new homes and additions. Characterized by ample storage space and utilitarian fixtures such as an extra-large sink or a small shower stall, these family powder rooms are all about function. Consider placing a secondary half bath in the back of the house, near the mudroom, or off a great-room kitchen in a large home that has a primary powder room located near the front entry.

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