Mark just retired from a career as a carpenter and general contractor, so what better way to commemorate the transition than by turning our own home into a construction site with a full-blown remodel of our bathroom?
potential marriage breaker domestic disruption has been a long time coming. It was prompted by our recognition that as we, along with many of our family members and friends, have reached the stage of life characterized by the occasional discount on a cup of bad coffee or condescendingly raised voice from pharmacy staff, it would be advisable to replace our high-rimmed, impossible-to-make-presentable clawfoot tub that I bought from a pile outside an antique store in 2004 with something less likely to cause us to trip and fall. What finally set our wheels in motion was the Hallelujah Chorus of stepping into the newly completed bathroom of our clients Nick Detrich and Kathleen Benson, who tiled their walls in seafoam green – a shade that, while not for everyone, proved the perfect evocation of 1930s camp for me (and luckily, for Mark as well). They’d ordered too much field tile and were hoping to sell it. We were happy to oblige.
From the start, we agreed on most of the details. A built-in cast-iron tub, an exhaust fan that’s quieter and more effective than the cheap-motel-circa-1972 model we currently have and a wall-hung basin with intact enamel. The tall shallow cabinet I built years ago with a salvaged door and hardware will stay, as will the shuttered window-like opening that lets light in through the laundry room.
Then there’s the floor. I wanted to keep the black-and-white checkerboard of 12”-square commercial-grade vinyl composition tile that I installed when I first moved in, inspired by a room that Sharon Fugate and Peggy Shepherd had finished in their eclectic home-furnishings store, Grant St [sic.], in the early 1990s.
Mark wanted ceramic tile or unglazed porcelain mosaic. “It’s the highest-quality finish,” he insisted. “It’s thicker and more durable.” Exactly what I would have told customers 20 years ago. And considering that we’re tiling the walls up to about 5’, he said, we should also do away with the baseboard so that moisture condensing on the vertical surfaces wouldn’t drip down onto the square top edge. Hmm, I thought. I have never seen water pool on the baseboard, other than just behind the clawfoot tub, where the wall sometimes gets sprayed when certain tall people (one in particular) take a shower – and that condition will be eradicated when we install a built-in tub.
The idea of a tiled floor didn’t feel right to me for this house. It’s a funky house built and finished on a shoestring budget. The funkiness is its charm, and I know the story behind nearly every house part, from the salvaged sink that lacks a mixer faucet to the gate I made to keep our dog in the mudroom and the lamp my maternal grandma made from an antique hand-cranked coffee grinder. I have never been concerned about using the “highest quality” offerings just because they’re widely considered superior; I don’t want to live in a house where my surroundings are dictated by other people’s often-uncritical judgments. I have always worked with budgetary constraints – at $1 per square foot for a commercial-grade flooring product, my VCT tile reflects a necessarily skinflint period of my history that I have no desire to forget. I feel more at home when surrounded by things that hold meaning for me.
Ceramic and porcelain tile floors are hard. From a purely sensual perspective, I find them unwelcoming, though I have installed plenty of them in rooms where they were period-appropriate. Tiled floors are also cold. If we lived in a tropical climate I might value this characteristic, but we live in a place that has winter. Of course we could address the cold with under-floor heating, but that, too, strikes me as luxurious overkill, at least for our home. So you’re cold when you get out of the shower – dry off and put some clothes on. A little discomfort is good for us; it reminds us we’re alive. For our house, installing under-floor heating as a way to make tile more palatable also seemed a bit like the logic of building houses so tight and well insulated that you need a heat recovery ventilation unit to bring in fresh air. At some point, from a cradle to grave perspective, the efficiency arguably becomes inefficient.
Also, I like the bathroom baseboard, even if its interruption of the transition between a tiled wall and floor may not be typical in contemporary high-end bathroom construction. Does it work? Do we like it? Is it easy to keep clean? The answers to these and similar questions matter more to me than some industry stamp of approval, not least when I remind myself that such stamps appear on many cabinets made with ½” MDF carcases held together with staples and hot-melt glue.
Vinyl composition tile is by definition synthetic – a product of the plastics industry.[i] At a prima facie level, this inclines me to view it with disapproval; it certainly raises all sorts of questions, from which chemical constituents went into its production to the possibility of toxic off-gassing over time.[ii] By comparison, the 1” hexagonal porcelain ceramic tile mosaic we’ve been considering seems more traditional, and so (in theory), safer – it was used in many a late-19th-century bathroom floor, at least in higher-end residences. (The majority of homes occupied by “working people” in that era did not have indoor plumbing.) I thought back to some recent news reports about cases of silicosis among workers in the composite stone countertop industry; even though ceramic and porcelain tile seem closer than VCT to their naturally occurring components, the dust from decanting, mixing and applying the cement and grout, as well as that produced by cutting tile, presents its own dangers to health. And when you’re talking about the industry that mass-produces ceramic and porcelain tile, you’re in the world of heavy materials that have to be mined and transported, often internationally, then processed with complex equipment at temperatures only achieved with significant carbon inputs, coloring additives, glazes and more – in other words, a highly energy- and resource-intensive product in its own right. So much for any “green” advantage, at least insofar as I can make out.
As for durability, while the 1’ x 2’ sheets of mosaic we were thinking of using are somewhat thicker than VCT, the latter is far denser than the resilient sheet flooring most people associate with vinyl; that’s how VCT came to be the flooring of choice for grocery stores around the country during the 20th century (even if acres of the stuff are now being scraped up in favor of an unapologetically bare, polished concrete floor). When properly installed, VCT will last for decades.
“But tile is more waterproof,” said Mark, invoking a common belief. Really, though? Water can’t get through 1/8”-thick VCT. Granted, there are joints where water could in principle penetrate to the underlayment and subfloor. Then again, there are many more potentially permeable joints in a floor made with the 1” porcelain hexagonal mosaic we were considering. Sure, if we installed a waterproof membrane beneath it, the tile floor would be waterproof in a meaningful way – as long as the membrane remained intact. But we use a bath mat when we step out, and how often does a sink in our house overflow or a toilet go bonkers and leak all over the floor? Neither has happened in the 17 years since the house’s construction, and with the two of us aging tradespeople who regularly clean out the gutters, mop up spills, and keep things reasonably well maintained, neither is very likely. Besides, should we design every feature of our homes with a view to its ability to survive a rare and potentially devastating scenario? I’m not talking about basics such as anchoring a structure to keep it on its foundation in an earthquake zone, or bracing it to resist high winds; this is a matter of interior finishes.
You can answer that for yourself, but my answer is no. In aesthetic terms, to make one room of our house State Of The Art would be an affront to the spirit of the entire place. It would also be a concession to dogma – “tile is better because harder, more permanent, more expensive” – the kind of prejudice I think it’s important to make my customers aware of on principle (because you know a friend or relative is going to ask them why they chose what they did, regardless of what they did), but that I don’t think should be the ultimate deciders.
And the VCT floor is already there, in perfectly good shape. Why rip it out and send those materials to the landfill?
For decades, the ethos in the building trade has been “tear out what’s there and upgrade” – more luxury, more comfort, more image-conscious “curation.” Maybe I have just been around for enough years that I recognize the motivations underlying so many real estate and construction industry recommendations, which too often boil down to “buy more.” My life and home have been shaped as powerfully by what I’ve rejected as what I’ve embraced. Mark is persuaded. (It helped that keeping the current floor will mean spending significantly less money.)
[i] Although the word “synthetic” is commonly used to connote poor quality, it simply means that something made by putting constituents together. Strictly speaking, few things we live with, wear, or eat are not synthetic.
[ii] I should add that there was no discernible smell to this flooring, even when it was new. It’s a different product from sheet vinyl flooring.
– Nancy Hiller, author of “Shop Tails,” “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work.”
31 thoughts on “Thinking is Good (aka ‘Bathroom Think’)”
One comment DO THE HEATED FLOOR!
I live in Vermont where a tile floor is cold year round but have lived in Cincinnati and would do it there in a second. I just remodeled my 2nd floor bath and along with patching the ceiling I fell through we opted for In floor heating.. It’s not too much cost wise and pennies to run, it is a luxury that is well worth it..
I share your thoughts on reusing materials and making do. But the day I took out the wall mounted sink with separate hot and cold spouts was a very happy one. There is a reason they stopped making those.
Thanks for a most entertaining trip through your home. I feel like I know you even better as a result. I share many of your concerns about “tear it out and get new ( better). A little discomfort does remind us we are alive. I enjoyed the tour.
Thanks Nancy for the mental walk through process. We had a water leak in our kitchen a year ago requiring a fair bit of repair work and we had to go through a similar process. We ended up going with vinyl floor planking. It cost the same as carpet and at least half of what hardwood would have cost. It looks good and feels good on our feet. I too thought of the lifespan of the products and then came to the realization that while we won’t likely every replace it, the first thing a new home owner will likely do is yank it out to put something else in. For the kitchen, rather than spend a fortune on upgrading it, we had as little done as possible to fix it so the new bank of cabinets matched the rest of the oak 1990s cabinet faces. We are happy with it and it cost less. I know full well that no matter what we do in the kitchen, the next home owner would likely tear everything out to upgrade just because that is what folks do. Wastefull. If you wait long enough, every style becomes fashionable again. My grandma’s house was built in the 1930s or 40s an still has the kind of tile you are putting on your walls in the bathroom. Instead of sea foam green (my favorite color on a 56 Ford F100 pickup by the way) tile, it has pink tile with some blue tile accents. For a while I lived in that home (now my brother does). I never considered wanting to tear it out. It was part of the fabric of the original home and worked well.
From an HVAC/R perspective, HRVs/ERVs are great if the structure was designed with them in mind. So is designing a house that “breathes”. Doing either without planning and expecting the envelope to perform is folly. Mandating either (via code/laws) is just as stupid. The chief benefit of HRVs/ERVs is being able to control(quantify)the fresh air and recover some of the lost energy. Plus in a tight house, a small fan is all it takes to make the house positive/negative. A loose house often requires a very large fan to accomplish the same. The downside is that you are using mechanical ventilation, and if it fails, so does your indoor air quality. Unfortunately most of the time you see HRVs/ERVs they were installed to correct a problem that wasn’t forseen, or because some code required it, and thus it was just a check mark to meet that code and wasn’t properly designed. There is also the occasional HRV in a loose house, which does nothing.
Loved the tour through the logic of vinyl vs. ceramic. It reminds me of how some folks are duped into running out and getting a new Prius, because it’s environmentally friendly. When you add up all the mining and other types of extraction, the energy to make those materials, and the energy to put it all together, how many mpg do you have to save to overcome that initial carbon footprint? Don’t get me wrong….I’m glad most of the cabs I see in Chicago are Prius, or other hybrids….but my guess is you’d have to put in the kind of almost continuous running to wipe out that footprint.
Stats show that the added cost of an EV is recouped in little more than one year in gasoline savings. https://inews.co.uk/news/electric-cars-are-less-green-to-make-than-petrol-but-make-up-for-it-in-less-than-a-year-new-analysis-reveals-1358315
I think the comment above, along with mine about heat recovery ventilation systems, was taking into account the big picture, from the components that go into manufacturing such products to their disposal. Recent reporting on what goes into batteries that power Tesla vehicles (such as this article https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/world/asia/tesla-batteries-nickel-new-caledonia.html) bring attention to this larger picture. Questions of sustainability and true cost, as distinct from dollar costs, need to be considered with this big picture in mind. That said, I am now going to read the article you’ve mentioned.
I’ve always said the right reason to do/build/buy something is because you want to and it makes sense for you and your use. Doing, or mandating, something solely for “environmental” reasons always comes back to bite you big picture. Not to say that you shouldn’t consider these things. The old hippie saying that goes something like ” the most environmentally friendly product is the one already made (used)” tends to ring true more often than not. I find that you don’t always get what you pay for, but quality is always worth the asking price.
As to the flooring, I like most things they put down in a commercial setting. They do wonders with the poured in epoxy that I’ve seen. The seamless (hot welded seams in reality) vynal seems promising also. Saw one of those that looked like wood. It was in a nursing home and it held up well the last time i saw it.
Interesting article, Richard. I appreciate that the author went to the trouble to point out differences in carbon-use calculations and “payback” time from different nations and in the case of different vehicles, such as the Volvo SUV at the end of the piece. Thank you for the link.
It’s great to read pieces from this perspective. From what I’ve seen of TikTok, everyone on there has a thoroughly up-to-date kitchen that’s bigger than my whole apartment.
How is centuries old ceramic tile state of the art compared to VCT introduced in 1933 and containing asbestos until 1980?
I don’t understand the logic of your question.
Unless I misunderstood you’re saying installing ct would be state if the art vs existing vat
I was only pointing out that ceramic and porcelain tile are considered top quality for this kind of project. That’s the sense in which I used the term “state of the art.”
I’m having these same arguments with my cat. She’s in favor of underfloor heating and tile; I’m in favor of replacing the rotted floorboards. It is unclear as yet who will prevail.
Let’s be honest, Megan. The cat always prevails.
I have friends who put a major addition on their home, which had in-floor radiant heat. The old part of the house was steam radiators. They referred to the new radiant heat as an “invisible baby gate.” The little one would crawl until encountering the unheated floor, then turn around and go back into the heated. I figure cats might do that too.
We redid our bathroom a couple years ago in our 50s ranch house. We decided to “senior proof it after seeing the challenges my parents faced with having to step into a tub. We put in a zero-clearance shower with temperature controlled fixtures and a rainfall shower head. We also added more insulation to the walls of what has always been a cold room. We replaced the vintage 50s tiles with porcelain and a programmable heated floor that’s on only for peak use, i.e. barefoot hours.
I built a new vanity with maple plywood and doors with cherry rails and stiles with maple panels; drawers, too.
The linen closet- always a problem organizing and finding stuff in the back- I replaced with carcasses with full-depth drawers and spice-rack-style cabinet inserts; also cherry and maple.
We haven’t looked back.
That sounds ideal (though not for our funky domicile!).
I did the same for my mom. And added solid structure behind the entire shower area, so grab bars could be put anywhere, without searching for a stud.
I recognize an Ekornes stressless recliner when I see one. Nothing else like it! I have slept in one for years due to a back problem (from the only automobile accident I have ever been in, and did NOT cause, after 60 years of driving).
Fine article – as expected!
Did you notice that the left arm has been seriously chewed? Mark bought the chair years ago, long before I was in the picture. Our dog Henny was bored in her crate one night and close enough to chew the arm. One of those perennial reminders.
I’ve seen VCT in every type of building and era of its use. The best stuff was the 9″x9″ asbestos VCT, which with moderate maintenance like in a public school can be in excellent condition 50 years or more after installation. Failure of VCT is usually from prolonged water contact that manages to delaminate it from the subfloor. In one, extreme, case i’ve seen it kind of turn to dust but that was decades of water contact.
Newer, cheaper VCT may be less robust because it tends to be a bit thinner than the old stuff but the larger issue seems to be the adhesive used (or quantity of adhesive used) that leads to delamination from the subfloor. VCT will also take a commercial floor wax and that will pretty well eliminate the potential for water to get through the seems.
On silicosis, its effects and causes have been known since ancient Greece at least. It’s a big deal recently because OSHA finally promulgated a rule that matches with the science of 50 years ago. The greatest exposure danger is handling dry cement/grout/mortar prior to mixing and cutting tile or concrete products. You’re right on manufacturing and worker exposure. Pure silica is shipped in giant totes and then used for mixing the finished products. I’ve never sampled the levels at those facilities but I have sampled in the warehouses at ports and whoa boy.
Nancy, I love the way you think. My wife and I are currently (slowly) “re-doing” our 1920 Craftsman-ish bungalow. By re-doing, I mean that we are simply making it to our taste rather than remodeling to be current with the latest fads and trends and maybe to get a little more storage in our 880 sf house as well. Apparently back in the early 20th century, folks didn’t have as much stuff to store. What’s currently “fashionable” doesn’t even appear on our list or requirements. We try to keep in mind what worked just fine in this house over the past 100 years but is now worn out and in need of some kind of replacement and then act accordingly. And, of course, cost is factored in as well. We make everything ourselves and do everything ourselves. We’re even keeping the old wooden double-hung windows. In one case I had to build a new one to match the old ones. Built storm windows to cover them in the winter and they do just fine. So refreshing to read an article like this and realize that we are not crazy or alone in our thinking.
Century-old windows are worth keeping, and there have been plenty of articles attesting to their superiority (in construction methods, materials, and cradle-to-grave energy efficiency) to most, if not all, replacement options. I don’t have ready access to some of the best articles on this, but they are out there. Well-made old windows plus well-fitted storms take maintenance, but they are so worth restoring and maintaining in cases where houses are lucky enough still to have them.
Wife and I just completed restoring 20-odd century old double hung. Highly recommend metal t track weatherstripping from Accurate Metal Weatherstripping in Chicago. I always feel reassured by near-hostile customer service, tells me there is nothing to hide. And Steve Jordan’s book The Window Sash Bible was invaluable. And Killian Hardware in Philly for all the old hardware you thought you couldn’t find.
Oh and Resource Conservation Tech for all other kinds of silicone weatherstripping! Good stuff! And truly helpful customer service swoon
Think I learned about them from this blog actually, one if Chris’s entries about patching a benchtop with tinted epoxy to look like a mineral streak.
The big advantage of VCT over tile is not having to clean the grout lines. I would like to remove our stone tiles to avoid this chore. My wife, who does not clean, disagrees. Grout lines always get grotty.
In the new extension, 1896, the high cistern toilet finally had, after 125 years, to be replace by a pathetic modern unit with minimal flushing power as demanded by modern codes. The house is a museum piece and as little as possible is going to change in my lifetime. The remodelers will have a field day once I peg out.
Yeah, “the salvaged sink that lacks a mixer faucet” – but it probably isn’t corroded into a disgusting ruin either. My multi-hundred dollar bathroom sink fixture looks like the base of the handle has been dipped in a strong acid. It’s less than ten years old. New is not always better, nor is expense a guarantee of better.
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