Thursday, 18 May 2017

Plumb crazy and round the U-bend: the ups, downs, and 'I'll know better next time's of a small bathroom renovation

'Just do it, Mum.'
I have already blogged about the problems that beset my newly refurbished bathroom shortly after its completion back in January - multiple leaks that were compounded that same week by spontaneously cracking plaster throughout the house (except the bathroom, as luck would have it, where the plaster was new). I did say at the time that I would write an account of the whole process of renovation: partly because I am myself curious about those 'before' and 'after' kind of transformations and figured others may be too - that's transformations of houses, and also of people in extreme makeover programmes like 'The Swan' - did anyone ever see that? Looking back, such a radical reworking of a human being all in one go, to bring them into line with contemporary conventions of 'good looks', was probably ethnically questionable, but certainly made for compelling viewing. Meanwhile, there is no doubt whatsoever that my bathroom was long overdue a good overhaul. Here is the  relevant snippet from a 2014 'Scent Crimes' post (on that notorious old chestnut of perfume bottles and bathroom storage):

"I have a scratched cast iron bath that is 104 years old at a conservative guess, an extinct model of lavatory that had the local plumbers merchant poring over their catalogue of 'archived designs' to locate a compatible loo seat, plus the bathroom is painted an aggressive shade of peppermint topped off with a mood-disturbing ceiling of bottle green."

You are lucky you can't see the ceiling

Then the other reason for doing a post about the bathroom refurb is simply to share some of the (many!, painful!, occasionally expensive!) lessons I learnt along the way...Some of these will have been peculiar to the size, geometry, and plumbing architecture of my house, while others may have wider relevance...

To manage or not to manage - that is the question

The first decision I had to take before embarking on the work was whether I wanted to use a 'turnkey' bathroom company, or project manage a team of tradespeople myself. I did speak to a couple of the former, but quickly sensed that they would have steered me towards the particular brands of sanitary ware etc that they dealt with, whereas I wanted the complete freedom to put together my own 'look' from scratch. I had compiled a mood board of images from home interior blogs and Pinterest, toured the bathroom showrooms of the West Midlands in my quest to find the perfect fixtures, and even lain in bath tubs and stood under showers without feeling the least bit foolish.

So between that and the fact that I already had a good plumber in mind, who came with a good joiner and electrician, I concluded that solo was the way to go, and proceeded to 'audition' the other trades I needed to complete the set (plasterer, painter & tiler - the 'blind man' and handyman/'shelf putter upper chap' fell into my lap later, as it were). Obviously ignore the above if you happen to be very handy at this sort of thing yourself, but I have no practical skills beyond knitting - and though there are patterns available to knit your own Jeremy Corbyn, Madonna, or even the whole Royal Family, complete with corgis, I have yet to see a knitting pattern for a bathroom, let alone a crocheted one, for porosity reasons you can well imagine.

The old airing cupboard was a tardis in the room!

Research within reason (which this may not be...!?)

I should point out that the amount of research I did into the complete look of the bathroom - from the wc and sink down to the smallest accessory such as a hook that looked like a tap head (the one I liked was sadly discontinued!) isn't really necessary. I have a friend who let her builder design several bathrooms almost entirely off his own bat - which is unthinkable to me ;) - while another friend made a single trip to one of the many showrooms I visited in and around Birmingham, and bought every item in a particular Laura Ashley range of sanitary ware in about five minutes flat. She was admittedly blessed with a big space in which to work, and has a far more business-like attitude to most things in life. And not much disposable time. They both think I am nuts, and may be right at that.

Astor tap hooks, sadly no longer extant!

Measure, measure, and measure again!

But in my case the small space issue was (paradoxically!) huge, and eventually the penny dropped that I could in fact only consider 'cloakroom suites' of sinks and wcs. Given that I had set my heart on a vintage style, my options were actually extremely limited, though it took me forever to bottom all this out.

We have a match!

Not only that, but I was looking for a cloakroom-sized sink with the exact 'footprint' - as in 'basin print' - of the one it was replacing; which could have a recess for soap (but it must on no account be scallop-shaped if so), and must have an upstand (as I wasn't planning on tiling that wall), and a pedestal that was nicely fluted and not overly clumpy or God forbid covered in toile de jouy (trust me, this is a thing!); that in turn had to match the wc, whose cistern could only measure x wide with a projection of y (so as not to block the window frame), along with an overall seat projection of z (to give sufficient clearance from the bath). Oh, not forgetting the all-important nod towards Art Deco styling. And compatibility with a walnut toilet seat that I had my eye on with a particularly nice grain. I know, I know, verily I am the bathroom remodelling equivalent of a 'bridezilla'. 'Bathzilla' - let's give myself a name! And that is just one of many seemingly - and sometimes actually! - impossible constellations of attributes with which I was grappling on a host of fronts, from towel rails to shelving, tiles to lighting, blinds to shower panels and beyond.

Nice, but too dear, and came with bulky if elegant loo!

Now clearly if you don't have such draconian design ideas as me, the measuring imperative is not that critical, but generally speaking it is still the single most important aspect of bathroom planning, I'd say. Otherwise, this sort of thing can happen. ;)

City Club, Augsburg

Leave nothing unspecified that could conceivably come back to haunt you

I realise I may sound a bit like a couples counsellor when I bang on about the importance of communication, and to be honest, this is a point that works really well in hindsight, but is very hard to anticipate at the time.  I will give you one example, but there are others...! When the electrician came to do 'first fix' ie make any necessary adjustments to the wiring to accommodate the new lights, he disconnected the wall mounted light to the right of the basin, after first asking me where the new sink was going. This caught me slightly on the hop, as the plumber and I had yet to have that conversation, but based on the general layout we had agreed, and the fact that the new sink was going to use the existing plumbing, whereas other pipework was going to be majorly reconfigured, I said the sink was going to stay put. So he disconnected the light and promptly went on holiday.

A week later, the plumber was about to install the  new ware at the exact moment that I was due to go to the dentist - the only hour in the entire programme of works where I was not on hand to field questions, never mind one of this magnitude (as it turned out). On my return I noticed that the sink was approximately 5-6 inches further to the right of the spot where the old one had been. The plumber announced cheerily that he had decided to move it closer to the wc, whilst keeping the two items the same distance apart, as the cistern of the new loo was narrower. In this way he had cunningly created extra door clearance and a greater feeling of space overall. All of which was true, and admirable, but the wall light was now three quarters of the way across the sink rather than just to the right of it, such that the plumber had killed any chance of having a mirror above, unless it was derisorily small and silly.

Mocked by a mirror mock up, & directionally conflicted taps

So after his holiday, the electrician had to pop back to chase a sideways channel in the brand new plaster so the wall light could also be moved 5-6 inches to the right and a space created on the wall above the sink for a normal-sized mirror. And the painter and decorator (whom I also fatally left to his own devices, not least because the door was invariably shut when he was working), didn't even ask what this channel was and gaily painted over it, leaving a deep groove that would be visible even when the mirror was up. And more where that came from, even such little things as which way the tap handles should point when in the off position. The plumber inferred pistols at dawn (for ease of operation with your elbow, 'you know, like in hospital toilets'), while I wanted them to be outstretched like wings (the vintage look you see in pictures, and also the way they are styled in the company's own brochure, which I hadn't thought to show him).

The shelf was a head bumper in the making - it went back!

Hold out for what you want (assuming it exists!)

One thing I learnt during this exercise is that to some tradespeople your job is 'just a job', which on one level is fair enough, for that is all it is at the end of the day. Accordingly, if there is any decision left open, they will take the easy option or line of least resistance, in the hope that the customer doesn't know there is another - more complicated, more time consuming, but ultimately potentially more effective or attractive-looking - option. However, when you live alone and are not remotely adept at such things, you really want a tradesperson to care about your house the way you do, and to want the best for it as if it were their own. Now I did have that attitude with the plumber and joiner in spades - they were both really creative and proactive (very occasionally too much so!) - but the same could not be said of the decorator (who painted a hole in the wall, basically), or the tiler.

Or rather the first tiler, as I let him go before he started the work, for muttering darkly about the faff factor of my preferred idea of having a bullnose edge to the tiles - something common enough in the US I gather - from where I got the idea, indeed - but virtually unknown over here, where edging strips in plastic and chrome are favoured. Nothing wrong with those, but I was holding out for a more vintage look here. The second tiler I approached was the polar opposite - wildly enthusiastic about edging tiles or anything the customer wanted to try, and video footage of the work in progress even ended up on his Facebook page. In fairness he seemed to do that with all his jobs(!), but it still felt a bit like the digital equivalent of being featured in Hello magazine. ;)

'Spacers everywhere' (obscure band joke)

And I didn't just come up against brick walls in terms of the fixing of the tiles, but also on the purchasing side. Having set my heart on matching trim tiles, it took a great deal of Internet research and phone calls to suppliers all over the country to identify a source. The local tile shop from whom I had by now bought 9 sq m of field tiles denied there even was a trim tile to go with them. And because tiles are not sold under the various manufacturers' brands, but rather have heir provenance obfuscated by the use of more evocative names like 'rustico craquele gris' or 'Richmond Park' or 'Grey ecru' - or just plain 'Mink' - it takes a good deal of sleuthing to know if you are truly comparing like with like. You can also save an absolute fortune that way. In the end, thanks to a couple of sotto voce tip offs from the trade, the trail led me to a company called Equipe in Spain, who did both field and trim tiles in the style I was after (vintage, glossy, rustic) - snappily named Masia Gris Claro Brillo. Well, it turned out there wasn't even a stockist of these as such in the whole of the country, but I did find a tile shop in Solihull who could order them in at a month's notice. And best of all, I was able to return the tiles I had already bought for a full refund.

I got bullnose! And a different hook. ;)

Plasterers are messy b**gers

That's it really. That's even allowing for the fact that mixing plaster is inherently more messy than stirring paint or fashioning tongue and groove, or daubing big gobs of Plumber's Mait all over the shop. My plasterer was so messy there was a trail of congealed white gunk out the front door, down the drive and all the way onto the road. I half expected a bill off the council for ad hoc street cleaning services, like the time I upended a 5 litre tin of purple paint on the kerb outside my house. They didn't bill me then either, in case you were wondering.

Lighting is a leap in the dark

I learnt a lot about lighting in the course of my research: about incandescent, LED and halogen bulbs, Kelvin ratings, lumens and watts, not forgetting IP ratings for different zones of a bathroom. It's a strangely complex and counter-intuitive subject now, compared with the good old (if somewhat dimmer!) days when you had 60 watt bulbs everywhere and knew exactly where you stood. I just wanted a column-style wall light not unlike the one that was there before, only thinner and with less projection - and settled on this one from Amara.

But even though you can achieve different qualities of light using different bulbs - warm white, cool white, daylight (God also forbid!) etc, insofar as there are alternatives available for your particular fitting, which is by no means certain - it is only when you finally turn the blinking thing on (having long since committed to the fitting being on your wall (in two different places in my case!), that you finally discover what kind / quality of light you have actually got!

For reference, here is my ceiling light. I did try it with a squirrel cage bulb, but you can see right past it to the annoying sticky label. After T K Maxx, light fittings are the world's worst for annoying sticky labels you cannot get off for love nor white spirits.

Compromises are inevitable

Ooh, where to start? There are too many instances to mention, but one that particularly stands out is the emergency sawing job the plumber had to do on the pipe that goes through the wall to make it fit firmly round the waste fitting from the wc. Had the plumber not managed to connect the two securely, even with a ragged edge and on a slight bias, the toilet would currently be floating in the middle of the room - and all my best upfront measuring efforts would have counted for nothing! A wooden batten also had to be inserted in the resulting gap between the wall and the cistern to give the latter extra support. Said batten is now painted white and largely forgotten!

Embrace the disruption (assuming you have another bathroom - of any description!)

I put off doing the bathroom refurb for years, because I was afraid of the upheaval and stress it would cause, but in the end bit the bullet. Omelettes and eggs and all that jazz, and so it jolly well proved. From the day the plumber smashed up the bath outside on the drive with a lump hammer, I knew there was no going back. As did Truffle, who - terrified by the noise - from that day forward switched to using the great outdoors as her bathroom, unless physically confined to the house, as she is when I go away. Which was an unexpected spin off, as I had no idea how I was going to go about that final stage of her toilet training. ;) As for me, I was lucky I had another loo in the utility room - and a shower, as I thought, which I used for months on end before belatedly discovering that every time I did so, the water leaked all over the concrete floor underneath the linoleum, inches away from the trio of fire hazards-in-waiting of washing machine, tumble dryer and freezer. So no sooner had I completed one bathroom refurb when another one popped up, like a hydra's head - or do I mean a hydrant hose? - to take its place.

The time capsule of bathroom floorboards! 

Everything takes longer than you thought

Yes, the whole project took way longer than I would ever have imagined - about five months in all, excluding finding a picture as a finishing touch, the framing of which took four weeks on its own!

Because I was organising the different trades myself - or herding cats, as it sometimes felt, partly in the holiday season to boot - I quickly found out that any delay in the timetables of their other jobs could have knock-on effects on mine. And you could never be sure they hadn't bumped your job to shoehorn in another customer they had just landed with a more pushy 'want it doing yesterday' kind of manner.

Stepping back from everything, my overarching take on the project - of whose associated tribulations this is but a small snapshot! - is that despite the best laid plans, things will still go wrong, and you can only roll with it and accept that nothing is perfect. It will still be worth it in the end to have a room that gives you pleasure to use and that is a 'sanctuary', to use that rather twee Champney-esque expression, rather than one that is depressing to the point of embarrassing.

Also, a friend of a friend has a high end kitchen fitting business, and his rule of thumb is that on any given project three things WILL go wrong. Only three, huh? Well, he is a real pro after all. And he told me that his timetables are always being shunted, domino-style, by problems arising on other jobs his team are involved in.

That all said, having workmen who really own any problems that arise (as with the leaks, that were down to an unfortunate combination of manufacturing flaws, and space issues) makes it so much easier to keep your nerve when the going gets tough.

'What do you mean, there are several kinds of acid toner?'

Finally, as an example of the joiner's creativity, he demolished the old airing cupboard that was fully inside the bathroom, and from it fashioned a shallower one accessed through two small doors from the landing (made from the panels of a reclaimed door). The old airing cupboard door is meanwhile doing sterling service covering up the hole in the garage roof that Truffle fell through. And the extra one the bloke next door inadvertently made. ;) So I guess another lesson could be: don't be too hasty to throw away spare materials, as you never know what might come in useful some day!

Oh, and obviously, don't keep perfume in your bathroom, as I have been saying like a cracked record since the dawn of Bonkers, hehe.

'Go on...!'


  1. Looks really fab now. We did our bathroom 9 years ago and it could do with a refurb already due to a combination of bad choices and poor craftmanship, but frankly....I'd rather sell the flat. :)

    1. Hi Sabine,

      Thank you! I would never have thought that about your bathroom and remember it as being rather swish. I think we tend to notice the flaws in our own homes more for some reason. And don't sell up yet awhile - you have a lovely new kitchen to enjoy!

  2. Oh V, what a time of it you had. It's horrible being at the mercy of tradespeople who have more knowledge than you but aren't willing to share it all or find something you are wiling to pay for too much of a "faff". You've done brilliantly and had great grace under fire. I would have had a nervous breakdown.
    Just reading about it was enough for me!

    It looks great now though and I look forward to see it 'in the round' one day.

    Oh watched The Swan to my shame. Awful but compulsive. They seemed to think beauty was a fixed ideal, turning out women who all looked the same. Scary.

    Great pic of Truffle on the edge of the bath!

    1. Hi Tara,

      If I had known what it was going to be like there is just a chance I might have moved, as Sabine said above about her own home, though on balance I am glad I stuck it out, leaks and all.

      You will see it in the round soon, I am sure! With that very aim in mind, ie for when I have two guests, I have acquired a memory foam topper for the Z bed and it now has more of the feel of a real bed.

      Haha - a fellow watcher of The Swan! The transformations were truly astonishing, not least the teeth.

      We'll make a cat lover of you yet, hehe.

  3. Very nice. the grey tile, white grout is POSH!
    Renovations are so distressing on all levels. If you find good tradesmen, hang on to their number, we have some really good guys now and share them with our friends.
    Portia xx

    1. Hi Portia,

      Glad you approve - who knew white grout was posh? ;) I did look at a lot of pictures on the Internet before deciding which colour to go for. The number of individual decisions seemed to be endless, even with a relatively small room like that.

      Glad you have some good tradesmen down under. Sadly too far away to borrow on a future occasion! xx

  4. How exciting to finally see the pics of your finished bathroom. Incredibly, I didn't skip to the end immediately, but patiently read through everything chronologically, but not before a mildish chock believing the green version WAS your new bath!!!
    Although I was by no means as involved in the process as you, I did meet some of those same problems. Searching online for the perfect basin, ( yes measures and getting comfortably in the shower played a role) I am glad I didn't have to pay for it in man-hours.
    It looks wonderful, and I love the bullnose edge, well done for holding out.
    I think a picture of the picture is missing, and I'm very curious about that, since I want to add a picture or two to my bath, holding me back has been the commitment of drilling into new walls and having to seal the wholes etc.
    Anyway, I great enjoyed this before in between and after post, and as always the gorgeous Truffle; little and large.

    1. Hi Asali,

      I did very much think of you and our conversations about sinks etc as I was writing this post, and hoped you would come across it. ;) Well done for not skipping to the end - that would be very tempting and I figured a lot of people reading would most understandably do so!

      On the subject of showers, the position of the rain head relative to the shower panel, and how far along the bath the panel came, were also tricky things to get right. You need the panel to extend beyond the wetting area under the rain head to prevent splashing, but not so far as to unbalance the look of the bath overall, or make it difficult to access the taps. When I was in the plumber's merchants, they let me step in a similar bath and pretend to shower in it, and we measured out where different lengths of shower panel would come to with post it notes stuck on the side of the bath!

      Glad you like the bullnose edge - it is my pride and joy. The chrome alternative is called 'Schluter strip / trim', I have now learnt.

      I mounted my picture - now retrospectively added to the post (I did mean to include it, so thank you for pointing out its omission!) using a hammer and a picture hook. I guess it depends on the weight of the one(s) you have in mind.

      Yes, Truffle has changed a lot in a year. Still sits on the edge of the bath, though. I wonder if she knows it is the other way round...?

  5. Love the glossy tiles and the huge rain head. I had to look up bullnose, and have to say it is the best way to finish off edges, if you have an option. To me it looks sleek and modern. I think you have found a good balance between vintage and modern, all in all. Here hardly anyone would opt for separate warm and cold water taps, but they go well with a vintage style.

    1. Hi Ingeborg,

      'Bullnose' is a word that I learnt on this project, along with 'escutcheon' (in a plumbing sense). Ooh, and quite a few others - 'banjo waste fitting', there's another.

      Mixer taps are the norm here these days, and I would have that in a kitchen. I have got used to them in the new bathroom - it's like my childhood, hehe. They do do vintage mixers too, as it happens, but I particularly liked the lever style 'singles'.

  6. Truffle is impossibly handsome!

    I'm terrified just of a thought of any remodeling - so 10 hats off to you for seeing it through! It looks amazing. Maybe you should offer your services at that type of the research and supervision? I would have hired you in a heartbeat! :)

    1. Hi Undina,

      Truffle is sitting awkwardly on my lap as I type, wagging her tail in appreciation of your compliment!

      Kind of you to say I could do this type of thing for other people. To be honest, I found the business of making the correct decisions for my own house such a big responsibility that I would probably flip out completely if I was looking after someone else's project. That said, I remember measuring up for the quantity of bullnose I would need, including estimating wastage levels - with a four week leadtime and the risk of slight colour changes from batch to batch, it is key to get the quantity you need first time - and I came up with 49. Then when the tiler was engaged (the bullnose were already on order at this point), he retrospectively checked my estimate and made it 48.7. He would have said 10% wastage on top...I had ordered 6 extra tiles. So that was an endorsement of my measuring skills, haha, but overall I don't think I would trust myself on another person's job!

  7. A gorgeous bathroom and well worth the wait, but your friend the kitchen remodeling expert is conservative in estimating problems. I always seem to toss up four or five in any job, though of course I am usually diy-ing foolishly.
    Truffle looks lovely with the new color scheme!

    1. Thanks, Blacknall! My research suggests I should get about 2/3 of the cost back on the value of the house, plus a nice room to enjoy!

      I am sure you DIY to great effect, and I think quite a few problems may well be more common than not.

      Truffle seems to approve...she often sits there or on the floor looking up.