The Attack of the 500-(Square)-Foot Bathroom: What a Plumbing Fixture Teaches Me About Modern Family

I was reading a trade publication about industry forecasts for bathroom fixture trends some time ago (don’t ask).

“Large bathrooms are in,” the experts said.

It’s true. American bathrooms have been steadily increasing in size over the last thirty years. Today’s average bathroom is twice as large as its 1970s predecessor. Many a john in an affluent American community would be larger and plusher than an entire home in another country.

“More people are putting the shower and bathtub in separate places,” the publication continued, “and making room for chaise lounges and specialized bathroom furniture. Some are even installing televisions, sound systems, and reading areas.”

The article had pictures of these amazing bathroom chaise lounges, which were nicer than my living room furniture.

I mulled those bathroom chaises a good long time. Who wants to hang out in the john? I mean, really hang out. You could invite guests over to these bathrooms to watch you floss, and not be embarrassed by your sound system.

It’s the kind of forensic question that preoccupies architectural historians. If we are what we eat, we are, also, where we live.

Our domestic habitats reflect, and probably help shape, our domestic habits.

For example, rooms morph in size according to changing norms about family. The bedroom was largely an invention of the early 1800s. Before then, only the richest colonials would have had separate, or private, spaces for the sleeping hours. We’ve gone from no bedrooms to each child ideally having their own—a design for more individuality within the family.

Similarly, bourgeois homes in the 1800s never would have displayed or super-sized a kitchen decked out in granite and stainless steel as a social focal point. Instead, it was part of the utilitarian, backstage domestic spaces for the help, not to be seen in a prosperous home any more than we’d show off boilers today.

The merging of the kitchen, living room, dining room, entryway and front parlor into one omnibus “great room” reflects in design the multi-tasking, time-constrained styles of modern family. Once-distinct, leisurely, and highly-ritualized entertainment and dining functions, from food preparation to dinner to cocktails and coffee, are blurred and compressed into one non-private space.

And the bathroom’s evolved, from sordidly functional to recreational—into a “place to rest and relax,” as another bathroom remodeler writes.

Really? A place to rest?

You can learn a lot about marriage and family through oblique clues like this.

The most elegant interpretation, I guess, is that bathrooms keep getting larger because we want them to be. There aren’t many other spaces for parents to assert the adult privileges of solitude, privacy, and time, or to enjoy the figurative “adults-only swim” in life.

So much space and time in the home has been kid-ified, from the dinner party table (no more the “children’s table” in the hinterland), to the marital bed, to the living/play areas.

Parents whose adult habitats are shrinking find themselves exiled to the margins of domestic space, and life. We make do.  Garages become improvised man-caves. The solitude and “me time” of an otherwise grueling commute make it what 59 percent ranked in a 2002 survey as the “best part of the workday.”  And, we’ve got our super-sized, cherried-out bathroom.

It’s the one remaining space, now that the marital bed has been colonized by children in the philosophy of co-sleeping, that really does feel impenetrable, where it really would be, in that catch-all parenting opprobrium of our age, inappropriate, to invite your potty-trained children in for the festivities.  

At least in the bathroom, we can “hold the line” on adult prerogative. We can luxuriate, in our adult reservation in the home.

The “American Standard Bathroom Habits Survey” suggests as much. In 2008 they asked how people “make use” (!) of their bathroom time, and found that we “aren’t just taking care of business.” We’re “multi-tasking.” Eighty-eight percent are using “at least one” electronic device in the bathroom; 19% listen to iPods and music; 15% talk on the phone. Three percent watch TV.

One in four Americans spends more than an hour a day in the bathroom.

Here’s the most intriguing finding to me: “Having children only increases their desire to escape to the shower, with 58 percent of people with children taking longer showers than those who don’t.” The shower’s popularity continues to grow. The “percent of consumers who have reduced the amount of time they spend in the shower over the past four years is minimal.”

Two hundred years from now, an astute architectural historian will ask, “why did they make such a big deal over the crapper?” And, they might glean in the shards of bathroom chaise lounges and the bathroom’s large footprint in early 21st-century housing the ghost of “Joe.”

I talk to Joe one night at a party, about parenting life, right when my book was coming out. He confessed that he cherished his bathroom time. His kids bickered constantly, or otherwise demanded his attention. Most of his domestic life involved the management and navigation of his children’s lives and behavior. So he’d sit on the toilet and read as long as he could, to enjoy momentary repose in the only place he could.

“It’s still not all that peaceful” he rued. “Because I can hear them, yelling and fighting…. Just on the other side of the bathroom door.”

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Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

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