How to Design a Perfect Bathroom

Bathrooms are a big deal. People sink a lot of money into them because of the labor and materials involved, but rarely do homeowners take a close look at the usability of their prospective new bathroom before opening their wallets. This post will discuss how we planned our bathrooms and what guidelines you should follow when designing your own.

To match or not to match

Most of this post will concentrate on the master bathroom, but one question that will come up early in your project is “does each bathroom need its own distinct personality?” Because of the wealth of materials and styles available, many people are tempted to design each bathroom to be much different than its peers. We designed our bathrooms in partnership with The NB Design Group and Build and both companies advised against trying to get too cute with individual bathroom styles. Each can have some distinct qualities, of course, but when you walk through someone’s house and one bathroom looks like the “aquarium” one and one looks like the “dark marble” one and another looks like “spartan” one, it tends to look a little forced. For this reason, we decided to follow the same general color and tile scheme for all of our four bathrooms. Some are nicer than others but they all look like part of a family.

It all starts with the shower

To me, the most important thing to get right in a master bathroom is the shower. You’re going to use it every day, and many times — if properly designed — it’s going to transport you from a murky web of morning grogginess and hangovers to a refreshed and invigorated state. Not only do you want to eliminate the common problems with showers but you also want to add the best components you can in order to maximize awesomeness. This is something you can do without building a brand new house by the way: take care of your shower and main bathroom and you’ll leave for work a much happier person.

The showerhead

If the most important part of the bathroom is the shower, then the most important part of the shower is the showerhead. I am a bit of a showerhead snob and we went through six heads before finding the perfect one. I will just go ahead and save you the time and tell you what the best showerhead in the world is: The Kohler Flipside. It is truly an amazing showerhead, and if you’re reading this blog without having started your new home yet, just do yourself a favor and buy it. They are on sale for $71 at Home Depot right now.

Let me count the ways I love this showerhead:

  1. You can easily remove the flow restrictor, creating an torrent of spray even Cosmo Kramer would appreciate.
  2. 3 of the 4 spray settings are wonderful. One feels like you’re going through a carwash. The problem with most multi-setting showerheads is that usually only one setting is good, and on that setting, you’re only using maybe 20% of the head’s nozzles. On the Flipside, you’re using all of the nozzles on whatever face you’re flipped to.
  3. It has a built-in handshower.
  4. It looks great.
  5. Both the girlfriend and I actually agree that it is the best showerhead ever, and we never agree on showerheads.

This showerhead is so good that I may buy an extra to have around for when this one needs to be replaced and it is inevitably discontinued.

Even if you’re not going to take my advice on the Flipside, make sure you have a shower arm installed that fits all standard half-inch showerheads. Originally we had a Kohler Purist showerhead (beyond terrible) and arm installed and unfortunately the arm is not separable from the head. This is a huge design problem, in my mind. A homeowner must be able to experiment with different showerheads and find their favorite.

Pipes and valves

You should have your shower lines run with 3/4 inch piping (as opposed to 1/2 inch) in order to make sure you have enough flow to do what you want. Similarly, pay special attention to what valves you specify. We originally had a standard Kohler thermostatic valve spec’d that not only was meant for a different type of system (the type where you control volume and temperature on the same knob), but also it only allowed about 5 gallons per minute through. If you have anything special in your shower like bodysprays, you’re going to need more than 5 GPM. We ended up installing the excellent Kohler 669-KS which will let a whopping 17.2 gallons per minute through if you want it to (which of course, we don’t).

Shower controls

The most important thing about shower controls is that they should not be placed underneath the showerhead. At least 90% of showers get this wrong, probably just out of builder convenience or laziness. You should be able to step into your shower, fiddle with your knobs, wait until the temperature is right, and then hop into the spray. Consider putting your controls as far away from the showerhead as possible. You’ll thank yourself every morning for it.

The other issue relating to controls is which type of user interface to go with. Most showers these days are controlled from a single knob that turns the water volume and temperature up simultaneous in a clockwise motion. It sickens me that this interface has become standard. I think it coincided with the 2.5 GPM MAX law, the thinking being “why would you ever want the water at anything less than full blast?”. I much prefer a knob for volume and a knob for temperature. That way, the temperature one stays in more or less the same position and the volume one(s) can be turned independently to affect flow. If you are designing a system like this, make sure your plumber knows your intention and make sure you buy the right valves and trim for it. Some plumbers will do this thinking for you. Others will not. Know which type you hired.


We put two bodysprays in the shower just to make sure we had the option of using them, but we rarely actually do. They are nice to have occasionally, but I wouldn’t call them a must, especially if you have the Flipside. If you need to cut bodysprays out because of budget or installation challenges, I say go ahead. If you want them, however, maybe go with three instead of two.


We went with a special type of glass called Starphire that has much less of a green tint around the edges. It is also a bit more etch-resistant than normal glass because it’s coated with something called Showerguard. It’s nice, and I recommend it, but not a must. The company who fabricated and installed our glass is Distinctive Glass.

Radiant heat, in the shower!

Since we did electric radiant heating pads underneath the tile in the master bathroom, Build surprised me and ran the pads right underneath the shower tile as well. Very, very awesome. No more curling of toes in the morning while inching into a cold shower. If you’re already doing radiant in the bathroom, there is no reason not to run it into the shower as well.

Shaving step

We had a small step built into the shower for leg shaving. You can do this with a wooden stool as well, but if you’re starting from scratch, might as well build the little step. It’s only maybe 6 inches deep, 15 inches wide, and a foot and a half tall, but it gets the job done… or so I’m told.

Alcove for bottles

Last but not least, we had a little alcove carved into the side of the shower to hold bottles and other shower-related things. Notably, we specified that the alcove be double-height with a glass shelf in-between. Shower alcoves never hold enough stuff so we were determined to build one that did. And it does.

… and those are the elements of a perfect shower.

The tub

We debated whether or not to have a tub at all in the master bathroom given the hot tub on the roof, but it was only a few thousand dollars extra and there are definitely nights in Seattle which are too cold and wet to want to use mess with a hot tub, so we put one in. We ended up going with a BainUltra Origami, which is an “air tub”. Air tubs don’t use water jets but rather air jets. Because they don’t use water jets, you can safely use bath oils and salts without ruining the system. We call the two tubs Fat Man and Little Boy. I haven’t actually used Little Boy yet, but the girlfriend says it’s the best bath in the world… so there’s that. Also, another bonus about the Origami is it lacks “old man handles”… the ugly clear plastic handles that adorn many popular baths.

Tile strategy

One of the most difficult parts of the entire building process was getting a grip on tile strategy. There are just so many different types of tiles out there (and most will be dated within years or months) that it’s tough to know where to start. Nancy Burfiend at the NB Design Group and the folks at Build gave us some great guidelines that we ended up following:

  • Use big tiles to make small spaces look bigger
  • Use the same tiles up the walls that you use on the floors
  • Use ceramic tile for durability and timelessness
  • Use a tile with a different texture or size as your main tile (but the same color) to add interest without being over the top

Using these guidelines, we chose off-white ceramic tile, ran it across the floor and halfway up the walls and then used smaller and grainier versions of the same for inside the shower. For the backsplash, we went with small glass subway tile. Neric Pro Build did all of the tile installation for a very reasonable price, and with a little bit of coaching and oversight, everything turned out swimmingly.

Faucets and sinks

Sinks are largely a personal affair, but we found what we wanted with these Ronbows. Simple, modern, white, and not likely to be dated any time soon. Vessel sinks are nice and all but every time I see one, I look at my watch and wonder how many months until they are out of style.

For the faucets, we fell in love immediately with the famous Dornbracht Meta series. What we didn’t fall in love with, however, was the price. I searched for weeks online and around town for a decent Dornbracht knockoff, but every single one had something wrong with it. Too fat, too thin, not the right angle, etc etc. None of them matched the beauty of a real Dornbracht.

Then, I finally found one! It’s called the Taron 101 and it’s available for about half the price of the Dornbracht. We ended up doing real Dorns in the master and three Tarons elsewhere around the house, and I have to say, I almost like the Tarons better. They seem very well built, and for half the price, I’m diggin’ em.

The following paragraph is intended to help others in their similar quests for reasonably priced Dornbracht alternatives by indexing some search terms on Google… please ignore if you’re a human:

dornbracht knockoff, dornbracht copy, cheaper dornbracht, dornbracht alternative, affordable dornbracht, imitation dornbracht, generic dornbracht, chinese dornbracht

If you came in from Google because of that paragraph, you’re welcome.


As in the kitchen, we went with quartz countertops in the bathrooms. While the kitchen is Pental Chroma, the bathrooms are Cambria. Quartz is affordable, durable, and modern. A perfect fit for our needs.


While my friend Danny advised putting audio in every bathroom and I felt like I needed one, we went ahead and wired just the master into the whole house audio system. We don’t use it much, but it’s a good move if it’s on your agenda.


Our toilets are Toto Pacificas. Affordable, modern, and a simpler-than-usual design that allows for easy cleaning. Wall mounted toilets are also nice, but we opted for simple, proven floor mounted ones.

Radiant heat

As mentioned above, we ran electric radiant heating pads underneath our tile. These are on a simple digital timer which cranks the tiles up to 85 degrees or so for an hour or two in the morning and then keeps the heat off for the rest of the day. For several hundred dollars, it’s a worthy addition.

A recirc line

If your master bathroom is far away from your water heater, you’re going to want your plumber to run a “recirc line” from the water heater to someplace near your bathroom. The recirc line is on a timer and runs a fresh supply of hot water close to your bathroom so it doesn’t take three minutes for your shower to get warm. Smaller houses or houses with multiple tankless water heaters may not need this, but if your water tank is two floors below your bathroom, you will get great use out of this little bit of technology.


Finally, there is the lighting. We put standard 5 inch cans in our bathrooms with the notable addition of Alinea bars in our master and powder room. Alineas are seldom-used fixtures that provide an interesting type of lighting: linear incandescence. Think of a long florescent tube but with a nice warm incandescent glow instead of a cold harsh florescent one. We put a long one of these above the mirrors. On the upside, it warms up the space nicely. On the downside, it cannot be dimmed without buzzing so it’s either all on or all off. Some people recommend placing lighting on the sides of your mirrors instead of above, but the Alinea seems not to cast the sorts of shadows this advice aims to avoid.

Wrap up

And so there you have it… the elements of a well-designed bathroom. Whether you’re building new, remodeling your current place, or just hate your showerhead, hopefully you can apply principles from this post to your own projects. Bathrooms are only about looks when you sell the place or are entertaining… all other times, they are about usability. Pay close attention to the usability of your bathrooms and you’ll forward to more of your mornings.

UPDATE: For a lot more shots of the bathroom details, check out the Bathroom section in the photo gallery.

There are 3 other sites referencing this entry:

  1. Whereupon I complain about my wife | Brooklyn Dad
  2. The Bathroom Vision | A Better Bungalow
  3. Flattered to be a part of a “perfect bathroom” « Ciao!

44 Responses to “How to Design a Perfect Bathroom”

  1. Jacob Says:

    Missing only 1 thing, a good corner seat to sit down in the shower :-D

  2. Mike D. Says:

    Jacob: Yeah, the step was going to be a full seat but then we realized we never really wanted to sit down in shower. Do you? Just to relax?

  3. Jacob Says:

    Well, it has it’s uses :P Just got done building a house and I had one put in. It does get more use when I’ve come down sick with something and just can sit there and soak.

  4. Greet Says:

    Great post! You thought of a lot of things I wouldn’t think of (the step, the floor heating in the shower, the controls not under the shower head, …) and I will most definitely keep this post in mind when I’ll be designing my own bathroom in a couple of years. :D

  5. Happy to see you included the piping information as well! Many, many homes suffer a lack of proper water pressure for a decent shower, and no good showerhead in the world will make the difference if water is trickling out. A related follow-up: What diameter is the pipe running from the house to the street? Standard for most houses tends to be 2 inches, but you really need at least 3 if you’re planning on any sort of extravagant shower setups (like yours). Did you have to replace the pipe, or was it already in place? If so, how much?

  6. David Says:

    As I wrote on a tweet reply, the right sink is to close to shower glass, with a gap that would allow dirt to accumulate, and tight enough to make it difficult to clean (the dirt and the glass itself). Also, the shower door is close enough, to bother anyone using the sink while you are stepping out of the shower.

    Other than that, very nice bathroom!

  7. Mike D. Says:

    David: We were dealing with horizontal space constraints so that’s why the sinks are where they are. This was a concern of mine as well when I saw the drawings, but it’s actually not a problem at all. There’s probably 5 inches of counterspace to the right of that sink so it’s easy to grab anything that falls around there… also easy to clean. Shower door is also not bothersome. It also swings inward and outward, just in case. All in all, given that this is a “smallish to normal sized” master bathroom, the space tradeoffs worked out great. If it was maybe 20 square feet bigger, it would have been easier to allow more breathing room around stuff.

  8. Mike D. Says:

    Devon: Not sure about the pipe main. I think it had been replaced recently, but not by us. All I can say, however, is that our water pressure is frickin’ explosive.

  9. mikekim Says:

    are your legs smoother now because of the small step that you built in?

  10. > I much prefer a knob for volume and a knob for temperature.

    OMG yes.

    Hot-plus-cold sink and shower faucets are one of my favorite examples of poor standardized UI design. You can’t change the temperature without messing with the volume, and it forgets your temperature setting between uses. But most “simplified” one-knob designs suffer the exact same defects!

    The key UI insight here is that simplifying the hot/cold design involves not reducing the number of controls, but shifting the axis of control. We still want two controls, but one should control temperature and the other volume (commonly, but mistakenly, known as pressure).

    Now then, is there any way to retrofit a temp-plus-volume control onto an existing sink fixture?

  11. Scott Says:

    AirTunes was renamed AirPlay today. Quick, update your system!

  12. Mike D. Says:

    Alex: Well, I do still prefer the one-knob control system for sinks. Reason being, with sinks it’s “pull for on and swivel for temp”. One-knob showers used to at least do this as well. Now they just turn, which screws up the whole thing for me.

  13. David Says:

    Too bad about the space constraints, otherwise there could have been room for a urinal to help eliminate the seat-up versus seat-down tension. :)

  14. Mike,

    The buzzing lighting is surely an issue with the type of dimmer you’re using – one that is actually switching at high frequency rather than actually ‘dimming’, causing the lamp filament to sing. Other types of dimmer are available…

    Great site, by the way, and beautiful home you’ve made for yourself.


  15. Mike D. Says:

    Rob: Actually, the Alineas just aren’t meant to be dimmed. The filament is one wire about four feet long so it can’t react to dimmers the way others can. Even magnetic dimmers won’t work. I believe there is one, more expensive type of linear incandescent that will dim, but not this one.

  16. Hi…

    Surprising – normally long single wires are the easiest thing to dim, aside from their propensity to sing. It’s hard to tell exactly what the lamp is from their spec sheet, but we’ve used (and dimmer) lamps just like that in theatrical productions for a long time and filament noise has never been a particular problem.

    I’d be surprised if (at the low tech end) a proper, old-fashioned resistance dimmer or (at the high end, if they’re available in domestic fittings) a sine-wave dimmer would work.

    Sadly, I can’t immediatey find a source of sine-wave domestic dimmers, so maybe I’ll just stop talking now :-(


  17. Steven K. Says:

    Please be sure to update the photo gallery with a bathroom set.

  18. Mike D. Says:

    Rob: The bulb is called a “linestra” bulb, I believe. The last time I checked, they had one model that was dimmable. It’s not a big deal anyway since it’s not a very bright light. Full power is fine. Right now, we’re using Leviton Z-Wave dimmers across the board, by the way.

  19. > Well, I do still prefer the one-knob control system for sinks. Reason being, with sinks it’s “pull for on and swivel for temp”.

    So you don’t mind that when you adjust one setting, there’s a good chance you’ll mess with the other? My one-level sink control is very fiddly and I can’t, e.g., trim the heat without affecting the flow, or turn it off and on again without inadvertently altering the temp.

    These are, of course, minor quibbles, but you said you are aiming for perfection… :-)

  20. troyd Says:

    One of my favorite posts, Mike. Nice.

  21. Julian Says:

    I was a bit disappointed that after all that luxury you do not have wall mounted toilets… that’s a step back. Have you thought about how easier it would’ve been to clean the floor? And it looks decades more modern!

  22. Mike D. Says:

    Alex: The thing about a sink faucet is that as long as it’s kind of warm, it’s fine. You’re only using it for a minute or less. With a shower, the temperature really has to be perfect.

    Julian: Yeah, the architects kind of talked me out of the wall mount toilets. I like them a lot but they are more expensive and less proven than floor mounted ones. Also, most require you to put a flush switch on the wall so it’s not quite as self contained. Definitely a nice look though.

  23. Dan Says:

    Okay, on your recommendation I bought and installed a Flipside 01. Have not showered with it yet but the spray looks good. I hope it’s everything you say it is.

  24. Mike D. Says:

    Dan: Nice! Are you rockin’ it sans flow regulator?

  25. Mike, Who is the manufacturer of the shower controls that you used? Thanks kindly.

  26. Mike D. Says:

    Cameron: The shower controls are the Kohler Purist line.

  27. Thank you. I thought they looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember the name.

  28. Dan Says:

    Mike: The Flipside is just as good as you said it was, I was skeptical but I love it so far. I never used to change the settings in my old adjustable because it required twisting the showerhead and was clumsy. No problem with the Flipside at all.

    I left the flow regulator when I installed it and haven’t gone back to remove it. The pressure has been just fine with me.

  29. nick Says:


    Hadn’t checked your site for eons. Incredible job on the house. It’s positively gorgeous! The envy is eating me alive. Rgds.

  30. Kevan Says:

    Redoing two bathrooms in the house and just picked up two of the Kohler Flipsides! Should be able to comment on them later this week.

  31. Mike D. Says:

    Stephen K: Just updated the photo gallery with bathroom shots.

  32. Katrina Says:

    Might be a stupid question, but I just bought the Kohler flipside, how do you remove the flow regulator and where is it? Were you just referring to the little mesh insert that came with the showerhead or is there something else? (I put the mesh insert in to start with and then removed it and the pressure improved, but I would still like it to be stronger….)

  33. Mike D. Says:

    Katrina: It’s the little yellow plastic thing inside one of the openings. Grab a pair of tweezers and you can pop it out that way.

  34. Katrina Says:

    Found it! Thanks! Huge difference now.

  35. clay Says:

    Hello! great blog! I’m wondering now that you’re all moved into the house, how well are the textured tiles holding up on the bathroom walls for cleaning purposes?


  36. Mike D. Says:

    Clay: The tiles are holding up great so far. Squeaky clean.

  37. Juli Says:

    Mike, first of all, congratulations on this amazing house that you built! It’s a huge inspiration. If you don’t mind, I would love to know what material/color you used for your countertops, both kitchen and bathroom ones.

    Thank you,


  38. Mike D. Says:

    Thanks Juli. In the kitchen, we used Chroma quartz countertops from Pental. I believe they were a little cheaper than Caesarstone. I’m not sure what the name of the color was but it looks like “Alpine” on this page. Basically, they are white, with a very subtle speckling to them. For the bathrooms, we used Cambria in the Sussex color (looks more like a Lagos Blue color in real life).

  39. Juli Says:

    Mike, thanks for the prompt reply and for sharing that information with me. I think I will go with something similar in my new kitchen.


  40. Juli Says:


    We are as well following your recommendation for the Kohler flipside and are excited to use it!
    Toilets – I love the simplicity of yours and also that it’s just a simple single flush. However I cannot seem to find this model anywhere. Do you mind sharing where you purchased yours from, or if you know where I can find them?

    Also, did you go with the same cabinets (wood and stain) for kitchen and all bathrooms, or did you switch it up?
    Thanks again,


  41. Mike D. Says:

    You’ll love the Flipside. Make sure to pull the yellow flow regulator out.

    You can still find the Pacifica online apparently. Not sure where our plumber got ours. Probably Keller Supply?

    And yes, same wood throughout the house.

  42. Juliana Says:

    Hello Mike. I have another couple of questions for you, if that’s ok (and if you remember). We are getting ready to get our shower doors from Distinctive Glass as well, and I want to know if you got the plastic attachment at the bottom of the shower door, that prevents water from spilling out. Or did you not need to do so?
    Also, do you remember what cabinet handles you got for bathroom and kitchen?

    Thank you Mike. We are getting so close to completing our house (if I could only figure out what to do with exterior colors as well).

    Have a great weekend,


  43. Mike D. Says:

    Hi Juli. Yep, we did the little plastic attachment. Not sure if it’s necessary or not, but it’s barely noticeable, and I think you can take it off if you want. As for the cabinet handles, they are the Linnea 4019. Love them.

  44. Juliana Says:

    Thanks Mike. Our designer recommended those handles as well, so maybe it’s a sign!