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Before + After: Rebuilding Our Farmhouse's Primary Suite Bathroom

When we moved to the farm, the upstairs - where all three bedrooms were located - was not exactly appealing. With 1 1/2 bathrooms upstairs, including one for the primary suite, there was possibility - but a mess to deal with. The primary bathroom was SMALL, DARK, and EXTREMELY 1980s. Ugly linoleum, teal vinyl countertops, ecru plastic shower and matching toilet. Thank goodness we had a working bathroom on the main floor to use while we did this mega remodel - er, rebuild!

The only early stage photo of the primary suite bathroom is, sadly, the 'during' photo, which doesn't show the true ugly, since there were none in the listing for the house and I think I was too grossed out to photograph a 'before' view of it, heh. But I'll try to give you a couple perspectives along the way.

Quick history: Our 'upstairs' of the farmhouse, first of all, was basically the attic for the first 40-45 years of the farmhouse's existence. Our nextdoor neighbor, who lived there with her grandma, the 2nd owner who sold it back in the 90s, said it was basically just a place where her granny would hang clothing. In the mid 1980s, the house went through a cheap renovation and the attic was subdivided into three bedrooms with a primary suite bathroom, a tiny closet literally plonked in the middle of the primary bedroom, and I supposed what was an 'office' in another section of the bedroom. Half-walls everywhere and the teal carpeting reeked of cat pee because the seller had locked her cat in there while she was at work - apparently without a litterbox. When we moved in, I wouldn't even go into the primary bathroom as it was "dark and scary", and after one shower my husband stayed away as well. Whoever designed it was strangely unconcerned about light...particularly ironic in a home with 20+ windows, folks!

With the odd layouts of both the existing primary bedroom and bath and other 'features' (?), the first task was to strip EVERYTHING out of there, and then come up with a redesign. I donated the old toilet and sink on Craigslist, but sadly the bathtub was not coming out without a fight, so the sawzall became my BFF. I removed the wall between the bathroom and the 'office' nook in the bedroom, and then built a new wall (OMG yeah I built a new wall & doorway with scrap 2x4's my neighbor donated, it was one of my more badass projects as a DIY'er, I gotta say - with eternal thanks to the internet for basics on how to frame it!). With that, we were then left with an L-shaped future bathroom to design...not to mention a closet situation to figure out.

After one of those awful un-creative AF 'California Closets' reps drove out to the farm to look at my proposal for a custom walk-in closet integrated into the bedroom - then literally wanted like $5K to basically strap a few cabinets to the floor, following none of my design instructions to integrate it into the sloped wall (clearly no carpentry skills on their team) - I researched including a closet as part of a large bathroom. I've been spoiled with a walk-in closet since my first home (which was literally the coat closet and the tiny bedroom closet in a 1925 bungalow where the wall was torn down between them to create it - so clever), and wasn't about to go back to the closets of my old apartments.

So with this bathroom that was now literally 20' long, over 160 s.f., and a unique L-shape, there was definitely enough room for a killer bathroom fan and more than enough distance from the clothing to the shower. Also, having a husband who got up at 4AM, his being able to go in there to prep for work with no lights bothering my happily snoring self? A VERY good thing. So with that, I used masking tape to outline what I was imagining for the new and improved bathroom, invited my plumber over to ensure it was all viable, and we were off and running.

This is the outline of the plan I drew up (FYI, I then used Lowes' free 3D plan that helped me envision it way better than this drawing):

Ordinarily you don't want to move a toilet, and for the upstairs it would have been nearly impossible, but there were 3 things that were of consequence in planning:

  • I did not want to sit on the toilet and look at our clothes!

  • The L-shaped nature of the room allowed for a bit of privacy from the rest of the room without being a cramped 'water closet'.

  • I wanted a waterless/composting toilet, which required no pipes through the floor (just a rigid ceiling vent, which was easy since this was an old attic).

So with this, the old toilet plumbing ultimately was just closed up, the shower plumbing was moved a few feet over, as was the sink plumbing. We saved a TON of money by doing the deconstruction ourselves, from my ripping out the drywall and old fixtures, to my husband opening up the floors for the plumbers to quickly do what they needed to do, then patching it back up ourselves when they were done. I donated everything I could on Craigslist (yep, people will take an old toilet if it works, just clean it up sparkling!), recycled old metal pipes and fixtures, and then began sourcing the most eco-friendly of materials possible for the job, from using the same eco-friendly gray tiles I did back in Portland for our teeny-weeny bathroom to cover the shower walls and floor, to the Water Sense rain showerhead & sink faucet, to the metal freestanding modern sink/vanity.

For the closet end of the room, I had my husband install an LED sconce which my electrician wired to have a separate switch, then found shelf brackets online that had hooks for closet rods, and just built wooden shelves for them and painted them, along with the walls & ceilings, with zero-VOC paint. I bought a wooden dresser, full-length mirror and wall-mount (rather than inset) medicine cabinet, created some custom window trim, added some inexpensive-yet-custom window shades to keep out the summertime afternoon heat as needed (since it was west facing), sourced an extra-long organic cotton bath mat online along with some inexpensive organic cotton towels from West Elm, and we were done!

Obviously I couldn't have done this without three great people: Wes, our contractor who evened out & tiled the floors and dealt with the house's lack of right angles, not to mention did an incredible job building the shower, helping me find ways to save money (i.e., ordering & picking up the tiles myself, deconstructing, etc) and letting me run multiple ideas by him while educating both of us in such a kind way so we understood what would and wouldn't work; Owen, our plumber, who not only fixed what the original plumber screwed up big time, but also hooked us up with a guy to get on our roof and patch it up after they installed the composting toilet vent (and didn't look at us like aliens for installing this 'hippie toilet'); and Tony, our electrician whose team we used throughout the house who also helped us through the inspection process, taught my husband how to install the bath fan on his own when he ran out of time, and cleaned up a shit-ton of bad wiring work from the 1980s. Certain things are worth the investment not only for quality and speed but for ensuring things are up to code. I think the entire project came out to around $5K which included all the materials, glass shower, fixtures, labor, etc. It would have been easily double that if we'd not DIY'd so much ourselves!

While our other rooms in the house were full of color, having a more neutral vibe in the primary bedroom and bath, using plants for color instead of paint, was something I found really soothing. I'll never have a house - or bedroom, or bathroom - this big again, so while we lived here it was such a fun adventure to recreate a space in both an eco-friendly AND eco-nomical way!


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