The Era of Modernization Part II

Part II: Bathroom Upgrades

By Dennis J. Basquill

In the continuation of The Era of Modernization series, Part II will include how housing authorities throughout Massachusetts are providing upgrades to bathrooms in their buildings that date back to the early 1950’s.  Most of the fixtures and finishes in these bathrooms are either past their life expectancy or outdated and in need of a complete renovation.  The constant maintenance and upkeep of these facilities is not cost effective for the housing authorities, nor is it a permanent solution.  In the long run it is beneficial for housing authorities to provide their tenants with new amenities that will last fifteen to twenty years and reduce the amount of maintenance.

There are several things to consider when designing full bathroom renovations for housing units; the most important being the tenants.  You have to think about the demographics of the people that occupy the space and what fixtures, finishes, and equipment would benefit them the most.  Many housing authority buildings are occupied by elderly and handicap persons, which need special equipment.  In order to provide the best solution for these bathroom renovations, and give the housing authorities a product that will last a long time, it is important to consider durable maintenance free materials.

First let’s discuss fixtures such as the tub, sink and toilet.  Many of the existing tubs you will find in housing authority buildings are cast iron and have either a ceramic tile wall finish or painted drywall above which eventually, without upkeep, will begin to grow mold and mildew.  A common solution that we have used on several projects over the past few years is using a solid surface material such as Swanstone.  The Swanstone product makes full tubs and tub surrounds that cover the walls to just below the ceiling, as well as sinks and countertops.  The high performance solid surface material is very durable, heat resistant, impervious to chemicals, and can withstand abuse and vandalism.  Most solid surface manufacturers provide a wide variety of options for bathroom and kitchen designs which are great for both residential and commercial design, universal design and green design. 

When choosing a new toilet for elderly/disabled tenants, you need to specify an ADA accessible toilet which is elongated and slightly taller (comfort height) than a standard toilet.  Kohler and American Standard make good quality toilets at a fair price, which are made of vitreous china and have a low consumption of typically 1.28 or 1.6 gallons per flush.  This is considered high-efficiency and meets the EPA’s strict flushing guidelines under the WaterSense Program (

Other amenities to consider in bathroom renovations are new vanities and under sink cabinets.  These items are inexpensive, easy to replace, and give the tenants extra storage space.  Many elderly folks gather important personal items over the years, such as knick knacks and decorations.  Including additional cabinets and storage is extremely valuable to them and much appreciated.  

Another amenity we have provided for several past projects are ADA grab bars in place of towel bars, even in non-accessible units.  The grab bars are much more durable and are helpful for elderly and handicap people to stay mobile within the bathrooms.

To some extent major bathroom renovations will involve the replacement of plumbing pipes and connections.  This is a good time to take advantage of replacing the old cast iron pipes that are leaking and rusting with new plastic pipe, better known as PVC.  Plastic piping can also be used to replace old sink traps and sink drain pipes.  Plastic is lightweight, easy to install, and very inexpensive.  As always, copper pipe is the best material to use for the main water supply lines because copper resists corrosion, is required by the code, and the soldered joints are durable.  The original plumbing water lines in buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s are usually copper but should be investigated to determine the current condition and if replacement is necessary.

A complete bathroom remodeling for one standard unit, should take approximately one week, depending on the floor and wall finishes.  The demolition and prep work is done on the first day, followed by the installation of the tub and tub surround, sink, vanity, and cabinets.  If a tile floor is being installed allow two days for installation which includes grout and drying time.  The last day of remodeling will include paint and miscellaneous punch list items.  The approximate cost for a housing facility bathroom renovation/remodeling should be anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000, depending on the finishes and size of the bathroom.

One important note to add is that most of these older buildings do not have the appropriate number of handicap bathrooms necessary to meet the code or, in some cases, do not have any at all.  Even the ones that do have handicap bathrooms do not meet the current code as far as the space requirements within the bathroom.  When providing complete renovations to all the bathrooms you must provide a certain percentage of handicap bathrooms based on the total number of bathrooms in the entire building.  Most housing facilities are considered Use Group R-2, multi-family dwelling units (more than two) which are required to meet all handicap accessible code requirements within accessible units.  Depending on the funding of the project you will need to refer to either the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) or the Universal Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) and the America National Standards Institute (ANSI) to review the necessary code requirements.