The Lap of Luxury

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 institution.”

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 heaven.”

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.”

Stay Dry

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 box.”

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 choice.

“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,”
he says.

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.”


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