Hotels tackle unique bathroom-design challenges

A bathroom at the Ironworks Hotel Indianapolis. Photo credit: Hotel Ironworks Indianapolis

On the surface, hotel bathrooms are fairly standard. A shower, a sink, a toilet and some nice, fluffy towels and the space is ready to go, right? But not so fast—whether the project is a new build, a renovation or an adaptive reuse, designers often must overcome unanticipated challenges when creating bath areas for guestrooms. Not only must the space meet the latest guest demands and brand standards, but a wide range of logistics can affect the overall look of the room.

Here are five rules to remember for efficient bathroom design.

1. Take Advantage of Your Space

Los Angeles-based architect and designer Gulla Jonsdottir oversaw the transformation of the city’s historic Mayfair Hotel from 2016 to 2017, and most recently designed the new-build Kimpton La Peer Hotel in West Hollywood. 

While working on the Mayfair’s bathrooms, Jonsdottir didn’t want to move the building’s plumbing (a task that would be most difficult, she said), so she was faced with turning small 1920s-style bathrooms into something that that would appeal to modern guests. To make the spaces brighter, she clad the walls in all-white tile and then applied broken pieces of black tile to the wall in unique patterns. “It reminds me of what [Antoni] Gaudi did at [Park Güell] in Barcelona, [Spain],” she said. “A bit of eye candy can cure a small space in a historic building that you cannot change.” 

With tubs giving way to walk-in showers in terms of popularity, Don Harrier, principal at HKS, suggested taking advantage of the extra space to include a bigger vanity or to make the shower a “statement piece [with] glass partitions and a great rain shower head.”  

2. Pay Attention to the Water Pressure

The Ironworks Hotel Indianapolis is a new-build property that was designed with a 19th-century vibe. For the guest bathrooms, Sue Griffin, director of interior design at Hendricks Commercial Properties, which owns the property, wanted a spa-like experience with rain shower heads. “To have a really a good rain shower head, you have to have good water pressure,” she said. “And we were fortunate with the new-build that we could make sure we had that ahead of time.” Renovated hotels, she said, require some “brainstorming” to get the same kind of pressure. “You can do it with the right amount of equipment and the right people behind it,” she said.  

At the same time, the water pressure needs to be consistent on all floors—which, Griffin said, can be an issue depending on the size of the pipes and the way the pipes are run through the walls. “We kind of went through trial and error on some of our other properties, and every time, it just gets better because you learn where the issues are.” 

3. Remember the Drain

While walk-in showers have their appeal, Griffin said that they may pose challenges in terms of drainage, especially when the drain is hidden off to the side of the shower tray rather than in the middle. “Make sure that the water drains out so you're not standing in a puddle of water all the time. When you're laying down tile, your tile installer needs to be top notch and know just how to angle everything so it runs toward the drain.”  

4. Go Green

Bathrooms can have a big impact on a hotel's ecological footprint. “Technologies have improved so much over the last couple of years that you can really reduce your water consumption and still provide a great user experience,” said David Scelsi, marketing product manager at T&S Brass. For example, traditional toilets used 3.5 gallons of water per flush, but newer models now only need 1.28 gallons. “And you can now get it down to 1.1 gallons per flush, so you're saving a lot of water,” he said. 

In coming years, Scelsi expects connected technology to change the way hotels operate, including the bathrooms. "You could have your faucets hooked together, tied into a building's management system where you can give a signal to the major system that says 'faucet number three in the third-floor restroom is continually running, so there might be a leak you need to check out.'"

5. Keep the Air Moving

Ventilation may not be top-of-mind when it comes to designing a hotel bathroom, but it should certainly be a point of consideration. “Many hotels use a central stack design to ventilate their hotel rooms,” said Gary Church-Smith, an indoor air-quality specialist with ‎Panasonic Eco Solutions. “They put a fan on the roof, and as result of that, the upper floors get better ventilation than the lower floors do because the lower floors are so far away from the fan.” The farther a room is from that rooftop fan, he said, the less effective the fan is for ventilating that room. “If it's a seven-story building or a five-story building, the upper story might be getting 120 [cubic feet per minute] out of that vent, and the first floor might be getting 20 CFM just because of the distance,” he said. 

Installing a fan in the bathroom helps provide consistent ventilation throughout the hotel and the rooms, he said, and helps extend the periods between deep cleanings and repaintings by lowering the humidity in the space. “A major issue that hotels face is indoor air quality and mold and mildew,” he said. “People are in and out of the room, the ventilation runs for a minimum amount of time and sometimes works at a very, very low rate. And for the most part, the ventilation doesn't even address moisture events—meaning showers.” 

As an example, Church-Smith cited the Best Western Central Hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., which had fans already installed in the guest bathrooms, but faced guest complaints about the noise from the system. Church-Smith recommended an updated two-for-one unit that combined a recessed LED with a fan that brings humidity up through the same hole that the light is in. “It eliminates [the need for] another hole in the ceiling,” he said of the new units. “They had a dropped suspended ceiling in the bathroom, and I realized that this fan would fit into that housing and the ducting could be just redone within that suspended ceiling, and the wiring just pulled over to that fan and light.”  

A side benefit of installing fans in the bathrooms is that the main rooftop fan for the central stack can be significantly smaller because each guestroom can individually control how much air is being drawn out from the space.