The Lap of Luxury
- By Amy Milshtein
- November 1st, 2011
Savvy homeowners put their money in the bathroom. According
to Remodeling Magazine’s 2008-09 Cost Vs. Value Report, a residential bathroom
remodel recoups 74.6 percent of its cost. Not surprisingly, that value
translates to residence hall bathrooms. Not in recoup costs of course, but in
perception. A knockout, residential-style bathroom really sells a residence
hall. But before you bring all the comforts of home, or the amenities of a spa,
to your college residences, there are a few things to know.
Bathrooms are the great equalizer. “Everybody uses them,
several times a day,” says Steve Waller, director of residential life,
Louisiana State University. “They are
the first thing we hear about if they are not clean or in working order.” But today’s bathrooms must do more than
function. “Schools are trending away from the institutional look and moving to
a softer, more upscale, spa-like feel,” says Ron Simoneau, vice president,
Shawmut Design and Construction.
And there needs be some serious muscle behind all of that
comfort. “Bathrooms have to look good and perform well,” says Todd Rasmussen,
associate director of housing, Case Western Reserve University. “It’s a balance
between materials, performance, and maintenance.” Add privacy to that mix.
Schools are shunning double-loaded corridors and moving to suite-style living,
according to Simoneau. “I’m seeing groupings of four to six bedrooms around a
common living room and bath,” he says. “It’s more like an apartment than an
Every Day a Spa Day
Nothing says luxury in private or gang bathrooms like
higher-end fixtures and finishes and larger, more expensive tile. “We’ve used
12-in. tiles,” says Waller. “They look great.” But while they may
look good, tile — especially larger tile — presents a multitude of challenges.
The first is the grout. Standard grout will last between
three to five years before it starts to fail. The better solution is a more
expensive epoxy product that costs more up front, but, “if your dorm is going
to function for 30 to 50 years, you will be paying for that cheap grout over
and over and over,” insists Simoneau.
Tile on the floor needs to be non-slip. This is particularly
true for the larger tiles. “They don’t have a lot of grout space, which is
inherently non-slip,” continues Simoneau. He recommends six-in. by six-in. tile
on the floor. “Four by four would be better,” he admits, “Though I’ve seen some
that are two by two ft.” He also warns that cut porcelain tiles can have sharp
edges and need to be honed so barefoot bathers don’t injure their feet.
Not everyone is choosing tile. Solid surfacing offers high
performance coupled with good looks. “Solid surface material minimizes mold and
mildew issues if properly maintained,” says Rasmussen. “And since it’s a solid
surface it comes in all kinds of shapes and styles, including some that
minimize or even resist scratches or dings.”
Along with countertops, Waller uses the solid surfacing for
vertical surfaces, like partitions. “It looks upscale, and I’ve found that if
you give the students something nice, they want to take care of it,” he says.
“I’ll never go back to the painted metal of the ‘60s. That’s just graffiti
As far as colors are concerned, neutral pallets that will
look current for the 20- to 30-year lifespan of the project remain popular.
But, as with any design, the bathroom provides an opportunity to show school pride. “We will sometimes use a purple accent,” says Waller. “It’s our school color.”
Multiple shower areas, where individual showers are
separated with divider partitions, are a popular model. However, this presents its own
challenges. For instance, each stall must drain to its own drain in order to
prevent cross-contamination. A slope of ¼-in. per foot meets the requirement.
With any wet area, keeping the bathroom from leaking and
growing mold is paramount. Simoneau recommends copper pan for the shower floor
but realizes the cost may be prohibitive. “There are great membrane system
choices,” he says. “They must be flashed at least a minimum of a foot up all
the wall surfaces. All the way to the ceiling is best, but that usually gets
cut during value engineering.”
He says that no matter what the specifications state, his
company will not use a gypsum-based product. “If there is a leak, it will be a constant
problem for the life of the building,” he insists. “That’s why we recommend
waterproofing all the way up the walls to the showerhead to create a waterproof
One of the best products is waterproof membrane Laticrete
#9235; however, it requires a seven-day cure time. Laticrete “Microban” is an
alternate material that takes only one day to cure but costs more. A 24-hour
flood test ensures no leaks under the tile.
Some Like It Hot
No one wants to run out of hot water in the middle of a
shower. Yet that happens often in residence hall situations for a variety of
reasons. Perhaps the hot water heater is overloaded, or old. Or maybe students
had a hand in it.
“We’ve noticed that students will remove the low-flow
devices from the showerheads to get more pressure,” says Simoneau. “This
demands that the hot water system put out more hot water than anticipated.”
Solutions include installing a tamper-resistant showerhead or over-engineering the hot water source.
Sometimes an old boiler just has to be replaced. Such was
the case for California State University, Northridge (CSUN). When their rooftop
systems could no longer handle hot water loads in an energy-efficient,
emissions-compliant manner, the school installed eight tankless water heaters
in their four student apartment buildings. Beverly Watson, associate director
of operations for CSUN, admits to wondering if tankless heaters were the right
“I spoke to several people who had them installed in their
homes, and they all thought tankless was great,” Watson recalls. “But because
ours is a ‘multi-family’ application, I wondered whether tankless could meet the needs of each
resident. I wanted to be sure that two students at either end of a building
could turn on the hot water at the same time and still experience a nice warm
shower whenever they wanted.”
The tankless heaters are a hit. Watson recently conducted a
survey of the students living in the four apartment buildings, and 77 percent
reported themselves content with the new hot-water service. That high
percentage convinced Watson that she had made the right decision, so she is
ready to move forward on other CSUN properties.
Timing Is Everything
No matter what amenities or appliances are specified, the
biggest challenge of a bathroom remodel is the schedule. “You need to be done
before students return after Labor Day,” insists Simoneau. “No one will
tolerate workers in the bathroom once school starts.”
To ensure this, Simoneau suggests starting a bathroom
project on winter break with an exploratory investigation. Cut a patch into the
wall up to the ceiling “Any surprises, like a pipe lined with asbestos, for
example, can be discovered early and worked into the schedule,”
As far as the bottom line is concerned, now may be the best time to perform a major bathroom remodel. “The economy has been our friend,” says Waller. “Materials and labor costs have come way down from their post-Hurricanes Katrina and Rita high.”