Designer’s Notebook: Complementary Finishes

by Kyle Clapham

When a couple looking to age in place asked Wolf Architects and general contractor King Builders to renovate and expand their 1980s house outside Boston, one priority was to redesign their bedroom suite as a more welcoming and restful retreat.

Its first-floor location was already ideal, as were the views from the bedroom to the verdant site and the conservation land beyond; however, the layout of the existing dressing room and two-part bathroom was awkward and claustrophobic. The spaces were poorly lit, and it was difficult to maneuver through them even if the occupants were not anticipating the possibility of more limited mobility in the future.

Moreover, the dated finishes and fixtures were no match for the couple’s collection of modern art and furniture found throughout their house. For these reasons, creating a new, inviting and convenient modern bathroom became an important design challenge—even if it was just one small part of a larger project.

Distinctive Room

The direction the bathroom design would take was set by our substantial addition and renovation for the house. Modern architecture was on our minds for this transformation, first because of our clients’ furnishings and interests, but also because two remarkable international-style houses are neighbors.

While some buildings in this historic area date back to the 18th century, these two modern residences from 1934 and 1940 were now historic themselves and—not coincidentally—both were already familiar to us. When the older of the two had been threatened with demolition two decades ago, Gary participated in the preservation efforts that helped save the house when he successfully nominated the building to Preservation Massachusetts’ list of the 10 “Most Endangered Resources” in the state.

Several years later, the owners of the 1939 house asked Wolf Architects to design a large addition for their home with King Builders as the contractor. So, when the long-time owners of this more conventional structure across the street came to us to re-envision their house, it was natural to find inspiration in modern design.

Our expansion and renovation of the house introduced two distinctive new materials as cladding to wrap the exterior of both the old and new wings: horizontal siding of charred cedar (or Shou Sugi Ban) on the first floor and white stucco on the second. It was our clients’ interest in using such dramatic, unexpected finishes on the building’s exterior that emboldened us to explore with them equally distinctive materials for their new bathroom.

Our concern, however, was to be careful to make sure that these unusual finishes served a higher end: the creation of a distinctive, welcoming room.

Limiting Conditions

Pursuing that goal first meant developing a new floor plan for this small corner of the existing house—one that was simple, clear and unencumbered. As anyone who has ever been frustrated by the constraints of existing conditions knows, achieving such simplicity is rarely a simple matter.

Among the “givens” that we had to work around were plumbing supplies and drains serving a bathroom on the second floor above; a washer/dryer in an adjoining closet that couldn’t be relocated; and ductwork risers running from the basement below to the rooms above. Each of these conditions limited our options in planning the new space.

Nevertheless, following initial studies of several possible layouts for the confined area, one concept sketch captured the core idea of a rectangular room with carefully spaced fixtures, no trip hazards, a large window offering a view to the conservation land, smaller ones to bring light in, and a cladding-like wall treatment to unify the disparate functional elements that can too easily threaten the serenity of a bathroom.

From that concept, the room’s floor plan, its finishes and its feeling all evolved, with one major embellishment: adding a soaking tub, in the spirit of creating a place of relaxation. The design’s attributes led our clients to agree to alter another of the limiting conditions.

In order to create a sloping floor for a barrier-free, curbless shower and a lower rim height for the deep tub, they authorized Nate to reframe one section of the floor structure, which was possible because the framing was exposed in the basement below.

Visual Background

With the owners playing an active role in selecting fixtures and accessories, we embarked on a design that would be unified and contemplative while safe and convenient. A primary concern was to introduce material and elements that would contribute to the concept through their color, pattern, textures and design.

A continuous plane of white quartz becomes a built-in bench by the shower, a wide deck for the soaking tub, a bench between the tub and vanity, and a base for the vanity. This low white horizontal line organizes and “grounds” these features within the room.

On the walls, oversized, thin-concrete panels present an intriguing visual texture with a recessive, matte finish. They provide an impervious surface suitable for the shower and tub surround and effective as an overall visual background for the room.

Overhead, large porcelain tile panels form a durable, easily cleaned ceiling that reflects the light and landscape. To minimize the distraction of clashing patterns or mismatched grids, we carefully planned the layout of the wall and ceiling panels so that they align from the vertical to the horizontal surfaces. The installation, with tight 1⁄8-inch joints, was perfectly executed by the tile subcontractor.

For the cabinetry—the floating vanity, a free-standing linen closet and a cabinet above the toilet—we chose sequence-matched, quarter-sawn cherry-veneer plywood for its warm color and its distinctive vertical pattern, which balances the horizontality of the wall panels, benches and counter. Adding to the sense of consistency in the bathroom are grab bars selected to relate in design to the towel racks and towel rings.

In this way, we avoided the all-too-common situation where the inclusion of such practical, assistive devices imparts an inappropriate, institutional character to a residential bathroom, with grab bars appearing as “necessary” after-thoughts that are in a style unlike that of the other accessories.

Welcoming Ambience

Alluding to the title of Gaston Bachelard’s contemplative study of the many components of a house, in his legendary book Poetics of Space, we think that paying close attention to the nature and qualities of the finishes in this bathroom is our exploration of the “poetics of materials.”

Having first established a floor plan for a safe, efficient space, we then embraced the goal of selecting materials and elements that together would create a unique, attractive and restful room—one that would enhance our clients’ lives every single day.

We were gratified to learn later that they have hosted friends and neighbors on informal “bathroom tours” on visits to the newly renovated house, and that the small groups linger on the multiple seating areas there to enjoy the room’s welcoming ambience! QR

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