plumbing design

Incorporating Plumbing and Electrical Work into Design

Welcome to eLocal’s inaugural Blog-Off article! If you missed reading about what the Blog-Off is and our mission to unite the home improvement industry, you can read more about it in our Blog-Off series announcement.

For this first Blog-Off article, we asked the experts when in the design process homeowners should make plumbing and electrical decisions. If you are considering or starting a remodel, this is a must-read!

The Big Question

Thinking about a major remodel is an exciting time. There’s no doubt you’ve been imagining your perfect dream space, conceptualizing the ideal look and layout you’ve always wanted. During this initial phase, few homeowners think about plumbing and electrical concerns – and why should they, right? After all, this is a dream design; the design should come first and the rest will follow. But, is that really the best way to think about it?

We weren’t sure, so we turned to the experts for help. Taking a master bathroom remodel as a prime case study, we asked interior designers, electricians, plumbers, general contractors, and home improvement enthusiasts whether the concept and creative vision should come first in a remodel or if the concept should be designed around the plumbing/electrical capabilities of the space.

How did our experts answer? Should the dream design come first or should plumbing and electrical considerations be considered before all else? Well, you may not want to fall in love with your dream design before you take a look at the whole picture:

The majority of our experts recommended thinking about plumbing and electrical constraints first. Take these constraints into account and make any necessary decisions, as they may impact the design as a whole. Of course, not everyone agreed. Let’s take a look at what our experts thought about the issue:

The Expert Opinion: Concept First

29% of our experts voted for creating a concept for the space first, saving all plumbing and electrical decisions for later, so as not to influence the creative vision. While they were in the minority, they still had very valuable insights to share. So, why should the concept be first? Several of our experts justified their response by saying the design process should always start with a blank slate. The idea is that your vision of the remodel will “serve as the framework as your project unfolds,” explains Mary Kennedy Thompson of Mrs. Rooter Plumbing.

Lori Gilder of Diary of a Renovation also thinks there’s good reason to start with the design concept first. “At the end of the day,” she says, “all of my clients share one common goal: To re-design their tired, dingy and dated master bathroom by improving its overall function and bring it into the 21st century.” The reasoning here would be that the goal of redesign should not be hindered by the very thing you are trying to redesign; don’t let the old get in the way of the new! Doug Mahoney of Tool Snob agrees homeowners should start with the concept, but does caution: “Be prepared to have reality come crashing down around you when you start talking to contractors.”

With that word to the wise, let’s take a look at what reasons our experts gave for focusing on plumbing and electrical decisions first. Might there be a way to prevent that rude awakening when it comes time to talk to contractors?

The Expert Opinion: Plumbing & Electrical First

71% of our experts voted for making plumbing and electrical decisions first, designing a concept around the appropriate plumbing/electrical capabilities of the space. The prevailing opinion of our experts was that the initial plumbing and electrical layout can constrain design options such that you will either have to overhaul your dream design or face high costs if you design without these constraints in mind. Paul Abrams of Roto-Rooter drives home this message: “When planning to remodel a living space, it’s a good idea for homeowners to plan plumbing, electrical and other utility connections early in the design process, especially if cost is a major concern.”

Terry Peterman of Electrical Online gives us some cold, hard truth: “Depending on the particulars of the home design, it is not very likely that the drain lines can be moved very far from their existing locations due to the constraints of the original construction design.” So, if your dream design included something that required the drain lines to move, you are essentially out of luck unless you have a very large budget.

Also, don’t forget that not all homes are created equal. Lynn Schrage of Kohler tells us that “older homes typically built prior to the 1980s used ½ inch plumbing lines versus today’s ¾ inch standard.” So, she reasons, “as far as plumbing lines go, it is important to take into consideration the size of the water heater and plumbing lines at the design stage.”

Emily A. Clark reminds us that plumbing and electrical constraints don’t need to spell doom and gloom for an amazing design. “A striking chandelier or beautiful tile work,” she says, “can become the focal point, distracting from design limitations that may have been caused by the initial plumbing and electrical layout.”

The Bottom Line

Concept is the key to any design, but when should final decisions be made in order to execute that concept? For example, should a homeowner have her heart set on a claw foot bathtub, only to find out later that her ceiling is too low to create the necessary shower piece? Or should she decide first that her ceiling height only allows for certain types of tubs and design a concept around that? Where in the design process should design and functionality meet? Should homeowners compromise their dream design or should they find a way to make it work?

In the end, a lot is determined by your budget. An unlimited budget means almost anything is possible, but most homeowners don’t have that luxury! For the best results, start by understanding the limitations of your home and the space and let your dream design evolve from there. It may be wise to consult contractors and/or a designer before sketching out your ideal space. Otherwise, you may be in for a rude awakening when you start to make your dream design come true.

Every Expert Opinion

Enjoy the treasure trove of expert knowledge below. We’ve reproduced every expert’s answer to the question, so if you want it straight from the horse’s mouth, you can browse to your heart’s content!CONCEPT FIRST: the homeowner should create a concept for the space first, saving all plumbing and electrical decisions for later, so as not to influence the creative vision.

Lori Gilder, Interior Design Expert, Diary of a Renovation
“I’ve lost count, but I’ve probably designed close to a hundred bathrooms over the years and they’ve come in all shapes, sizes and budgets, yet at the end of the day all my clients share one common goal: To re-design their tired, dingy and dated master bathroom by improving its overall function and bring it into the 21st century. Creating a sanctuary and retreat you could say.

An efficient floor plan, layout and flow is everything – if the original footprint works, that’s great…but if the perfect design solution means re-orienting and relocating plumbing and electrical to accommodate the needs of the homeowner, then function and concept come first and the mechanics easily follow.

Either way, when conceptualizing your new master bath plans, plumbing and electrical considerations really must be made in conjunction with the overall design concept – as they are integral to the ideal design solution.

Remember, if the master bath’s original footprint continues to meet your needs and functions perfectly well, then maintaining the original plumbing walls and other mechanics will save you money in the long run. If, however, you’re borrowing some existing space from within the home or even adding extra square footage to create a larger master bathroom, then it’s more than likely that the plumbing and electrical will likely need to be relocated to make the space work more efficiently. “

Doug Mahoney, Home Improvement Expert, Tool Snob
“I think the design process should always start with a blank slate mentality. Forget about pipes and wires and go ahead and design the bathroom of your dreams. But be prepared to have reality come crashing down around you when you start talking to contractors. And when you’re getting bids, make sure to explain your ‘perfect’ bathroom to each one. All plumbers and electricians are not created equal and just because one of them says, ‘the toilet can’t go there,’ doesn’t mean that another one won’t find a way to make it work. It’s likely that you’ll have to compromise on some things, but you’ll never know what you can do unless you give it a shot.”

Amanda Malson, Interior Design Expert, Domicile ID
“Well, what I believe is that you should form an overall design concept first. For instance, collect imagery, colors finish samples you may want to use. However, I also believe that during the initial phase you should also consider your plumbing and electrical needs. When re-designing a bathroom where you are working with existing plumbing and electrical locations, it is ALWAYS cost effective to consider your plumbing and electrical needs in conjunction with your concept and space plan. Being aware of the hidden cost in relocating plumbing fixtures can sneak up on a homeowner. It’s best to be cautious in your planning. An experienced designer will always have this in mind when creating the best space plan and design concept for their client’s remodel.”

Kia Ricchi, Home Improvement Expert, The Contractress
“Homeowners should submit their design ideas to their architect or plans designer. These professionals have the know-how to determine if the ideas are code compliant and practical.”

Everett Snyder, Home Improvement Expert, Pro Tool Reviews
“In a situation where the homeowner is re-designing a bathroom, you are clearly dealing with a situation that is going to involve more particulars than usual. With the clients we’ve dealt with in the past, it’s rare to do a remodel and not have very specific ideas on what the client wants to accomplish. With that said, questions like electrical and plumbing layout are a function of the intended remodel design. Does the client want a double vanity or split? Will the location of the shower and/or tub enclosure require any special consideration? For some clients, we’ve had them include a waterproof television that was viewable from the Jacuzzi-style tub.

Even in light of this, however, we ALWAYS recommend starting with a clean slate―deciding on the general idea of the room, and then moving forward into the specifics that will be required. To constrain the design with preconceived ideas of plumbing and electrical seems unhelpful at best ―and, at worst, stifling of the true possibilities for the space. As soon as a general sense of the room is established, and particulars addressed, then the details of plumbing and electrical needs should be discussed and introduced. As with all projects, there are exceptions―but most of these will center on homes with limitations for service and design, or homeowners with specific or dramatic budget constraints. In either case, modifications to the “dream plan” can always be made before the final drawing or plan stage.”

Mary Kennedy Thompson, Plumbing Expert, Mrs. Rooter
“Start by creating your vision of the project because it will serve as the framework as your project unfolds. It’s similar to sketching a picture before filling it in with color and details and it will keep you focused on the desired results. Next, you will want to determine your budget. This will help you decide which fixtures you may want to upgrade as well as how much you will have to spend on labor and material. The final stage of your re-design project planning will be deciding where it’s practical and possible to place your fixtures. Most quality contractors will be able to―or at least come close―to making your vision a reality if they know in advance exactly what you want.”

PLUMBING AND ELECTRICAL FIRST: The homeowner should make plumbing and electrical decisions first, designing a concept around the appropriate plumbing/electrical capabilities of the space.

Paul Abrams: Public Relations Manager, Plumbing Expert, Roto-Rooter
“When planning to remodel a living space, it’s a good idea for homeowners to plan plumbing, electrical and other utility connections early in the design process, especially if cost is a major concern. While most drainpipes and water supply lines can be re-routed, such work can be expensive, depending upon accessibility to the current location of the pipes and the desired final location. For instance, if the drainpipes in your home are encased in a concrete slab beneath carpet, tile or wood flooring, it will probably be necessary to remove the flooring materials and use a jack-hammer to dig a new route in the foundation for drainage. This may require a lengthy, messy trench so it should be done before other more decorative work begins.

Nobody likes to do something twice in the building process so it is important to plan ahead. Water supply lines are usually routed through the studs inside the walls. Moving these hot and cold water lines usually means the wall board, plaster, insulation and/or other materials have to be removed altogether and then replaced when the pipes have been successfully re-routed to a different part of the room. Some plumbers may offer alternative methods such as routing new pipes through the attic but that presents new challenges and potential problems that are best discussed in great detail with your plumber. And it should be done in the earliest stages of remodeling.”

Suzy Annetta, Interior Design Expert, Studio Annetta
“The famous quote “Form follows function” applies to more than just architecture. When designing any room (but more importantly for utility rooms like bathrooms and kitchens) you need to figure out the functionality of the space first. There is no point getting your heart set on a design scheme and then finding out later on down the track that it won’t work, or will cost a bomb because the functionality of the space isn’t right. So, make all plumbing and electrical decisions first. Get that right, and then think about a concept!”

Jenna Burger, Interior Design Expert, SAS Interiors
“The homeowner should make plumbing and electrical decisions during the design development stage of the project, instead of later during construction. In the initial steps of re-designing a master bathroom, the schematic design phase allows the designer to explore various concepts to create a space that the homeowner envisions. Once the general concept is decided, it’s time to move forward to the design development phase where the details of the space are determined. The cabinet design is decided; the plumbing and electrical fixtures are chosen. At this stage, it’s important to determine the placement and layout of electrical wiring and plumbing piping. Additionally, if working with a contractor, this would be an appropriate time to discuss the existing plumbing and electrical layout to determine if the envisioned renovation is possible or if it needs to be modified due to existing conditions.

Depending on when the house was built, there could be limitations due to existing wires and/or pipes. Due to restrictions of the existing field conditions, the homeowner’s budget, and building codes, a designer may have to modify the design. Designing the general layout of the plumbing and electrical fixtures during the initial phase of the design process is crucial, especially when renovating a bathroom, due to unforeseen existing conditions (ie: in the walls & in the floor). When working with a talented and experienced designer, they should be able to modify the design concept to work with the existing conditions, yet still create a space that the homeowner envisioned.”

Greg Chick, Plumbing Expert, Ramona’s Plumber
“First of all, a plumbing designer needs to “design” plumbing, not homeowners. When it comes to plumbing, the issues on the table are:

1. Power to circ. pumps needs a location, as well as the knowledge of its possible need.
2. Backsplash locations in relation to faucets and outlets (the space between the basin and wall in relation to the jam nuts below).
3. Power options for a “Wash let.”
4. Motion sensors for lights or circ. system, including the knowledge that code requires “On demand circulation”, not full time pumping.
5. Layout of piping needs to have minimal “Twigs” to limit cold water flush out for hot water pipes.”

Emily A. Clark, Interior Design Expert, Emily A. Clark Design
“The homeowner should make plumbing and electrical decisions first, designing a concept around the appropriate plumbing/electrical capabilities of the space. Since it’s a master bath redesign, it makes more sense that the space works for you rather than you working for the space. The bathroom is an integral part of one’s daily routine, and I believe in this case, function trumps fashion. Once the redesign is complete, good design—when done right—can actually take attention away from the not-so-glamorous, but necessary, elements in the space. A striking chandelier or beautiful tile work, for example, can become the focal point, distracting from design limitations that may have been caused by the initial plumbing and electrical layout.”

Stuart Deutsch, Home Improvement Expert, ToolGuyd
“The homeowner should make plumbing and electrical decisions first, designing a concept around the appropriate plumbing/electrical capabilities of the space. This is not to say that the creative vision should be completely ignored, but it would be better to design around these considerations from the start rather than modify the dream design once it proves to be too impractical. At the very least, this option results in lower costs and reduced complexity without sacrificing too much of the homeowners’ creative freedom.”

Doug Drube, Electrical Expert, Electrical FAQ
“Lighting and plumbing fixtures are an integral part of the design process as the fixture styles and placement influence decor. For example, if you are choosing a brushed nickel finish for your plumbing fixtures then you may prefer to match the finish in your lighting fixtures. The placement of the mirrors and bathtub will affect where you wish to have your lighting fixtures mounted. Some people choose to have decorative lighting fixtures over the bathtub to accentuate the area, while others may choose recessed lighting. In order to provide the proper infrastructure you must preplan type and location of lighting and plumbing fixtures while allowing for style and design to lead the way.”

Kelly Fallis, Interior Design Expert, Remote Stylist
“Obviously you design around the fixtures! It’s useless to have sinks with no water, vanities with no plug for a hairdryer, etc. While you can move and redirect plumbing and electrical, bank on the fact that if it’s not more than a pipes length away, the cost mounts quickly.”

Valorie Hart, Interior Design Expert, Visual Vamp
“I know it’s not the “fun” stuff, but the plumbing and electrical come first, once you have the size of the room decided, if it’s a new build. If you are renovating try and stay in the same footprint, utilizing the plumbing and electrical layout that you already have. “

Michelle Henderson, Interior Design Expert, Second Street East
“I would definitely say the homeowner should make plumbing and electrical decisions first, designing a concept around the appropriate plumbing/electrical capabilities of the space. Unless the homeowner has an unlimited budget, design is often limited by the capabilities of the space and dictates a lot of what designers are able to do. For example, if a client wants to install double sinks in the bathroom but the plumbing won’t allow for it, that is something we need to know at the beginning of the process. Otherwise, you will be unnecessarily reworking the plan. Figure out all of your options first!”

Nancy Marcus, Interior Design Expert, Marcus Design Inc.
“I would always recommend the homeowner make plumbing and electrical decisions first, and design a concept around the appropriate plumbing/electrical capacities of the space. A HUGE limiting factor is the location of existing plumbing pipes and electrical wiring and remodeling a bathroom can be relatively easy if you don’t have to move them!! Moving existing plumbing such as drains and vents can add considerable cost and difficulty to the project. And the problem is not only adding cost; if you make radical changes in the existing layout, you’ll need to investigate whether or not you can even build what you want without making major structural changes. You would then often have to submit detailed plans of your proposed project to obtain a building permit. And how disappointing would it be to put in all the hard work of planning out the fine details of your dream master bathroom to quickly find out it can’t be done!”

Katie Miller, LEED AP, Interior Design Expert, Roomations
“Practicalities such as plumbing and electrical constraints shouldn’t hinder creative vision at all. In fact, more challenges to address require even more creative thinking. Anyone that tells you a creative solution is not possible because of plumbing or electrical constraints is making an excuse for the fact that they haven’t thought deeply enough.

Because electrical and plumbing decisions can impact cost and construction time, assess what is feasible prior to developing your design concept. Make sure you are aware of a space’s existing plumbing and electrical wiring and assess the potential cost implications of relocating major fixtures. Also identify whether you want to add fixtures that will require new plumbing or electrical wiring in addition to what you already have in the space. Thinking through these items will help you set guidelines for the design.

Failure to address plumbing and electrical concerns during the design process can cause unexpected problems, especially if the design concept omits electrical and plumbing details leaving key decisions up to your electrical or plumbing contractor. You could end up with a socket or light switch in an inappropriate location or be told that the project will cost more than anticipated because the design requires a complicated solution. Or you may have implemented parts of the design already that now need to be reworked. Thinking about electrical and plumbing requirements not only helps you manage your budget and timeline, but also prevents last minute decisions that can negatively impact your design vision.”

Terry Peterman, Electrical Expert, Electrical Online
“In any home renovation project, the first step is good planning. The first consideration should be given to the location of the major plumbing fixtures, like the toilet, bathtub and/or shower, the wash basin(s), and any other plumbing fixtures. Depending on the particulars of the home design, it is not very likely that the drain lines can be moved very far from their existing locations due to the constraints of the original construction design.

If the home has an unfinished basement or crawlspace situated below the project area, then you will have a greater chance of being able to move the fixtures around from the original locations, but if the home construction is slab on grade, chances are you will not be able to move fixtures at all without some major modifications to the plumbing infrastructure that is set in the concrete slab. Water supply lines can be shortened or extended and electrical outlets can be moved or altered by the use of strategically placed junction boxes, GFCI receptacles, light outlets and switch locations. How far fixtures are moved from the existing locations will dictate how much of the existing wall board will have to be removed or damaged to accommodate the changes.

So to answer the question, the homeowner should make plumbing and electrical decisions first, designing a concept around the appropriate plumbing and electrical capabilities of the space, or you could find yourself the author of an infamous renovation nightmare!”

Lynn Schrage: Marketing Manager, Plumbing Expert, KOHLER
“Homeowners will typically begin at the inspiration stage or create a “wish list” for their space as they get started. This is a really important step that should not be missed. Put pencil to paper and explore one’s needs, budget, showering and bathing experiences, grooming and storage options, aging in place solutions, and any problems with the existing space.
We believe the most thoughtful bath design will result from the wish list and careful consideration for the renovation details. A bath design expert must take into consideration the size of the existing water heater and plumbing lines, as well as available electrical service at your panel.

Let me give you some examples. An older whirlpool may have used 110/120 Volts of electricity. Consumers are choosing whirlpool models that offer experience zones, heating, music and chromatherapy options requiring 220/240 Volts for electrical. The ability to run a 220 V line to the master bath on the second floor may not be possible without major construction. Don’t get frustrated, many 110/120 V whirlpool and bubble massage bath options are available in the marketplace for just this need.

As far as plumbing lines go, it is important to take into consideration the size of the water heater and plumbing lines at the design stage. Older homes typically built prior to the 1980 used ½” plumbing lines versus today’s 3/4” standard. If you plan to create an experience shower with several showering features, you must review the plumbing to properly design the system. WaterSense labeled products offer both water savings and high performance making this task easier for today’s homeowner.”

Michelle Zuniga, Interior Design Expert, Zuniga Interiors
“The homeowner should make plumbing and electrical decisions first, designing a concept around the appropriate plumbing/electrical capabilities of the space. In the design process, after finding out the client’s needs, we work on a design concept that fits in the needs of the client while working the design concept into the space with regards to plumbing/electrical issues. If need be, the plumbing/electrical may need to be re-worked to fit in the way the design warrants. All plumbing and electrical issues need to be taken care of when the design concept is agreed upon by the client. This is a must for the construction part of the project to move forward. It is important to have these decisions made ahead of time in order to not pay added costs for changes and mistakes as well as avoiding added headaches!”


The Follow-Up

Experts, we have a question for you: How often do you see homeowners make the mistake of ignoring important plumbing and electrical restrictions when designing a space? Do you think it really only comes down to money and how much a homeowner is willing to spend for their dream space? Let us know in the comments!