Sweetening Suite Design

No longer just practical rooms for bathing, grooming and sleeping, master suites act as well earned retreats both for relaxing and reenergizing. With this in mind, many builders and architects are rethinking the very definition of the bedroom and bath.

April 01, 2006

Once a modestly sized bedroom with an attached bath and his-and-her walk-in closet, the last two decades have seen master suites swell to staggering proportions. Showers are overtaking whirlpool tubs as the height of luxury, sitting rooms are becoming de rigueur, and closets are morphing into dressing rooms.

It's not only the addition of amenities that is striking; the blueprint of the whole suite is evolving. "Clients are generally looking for designs that integrate the many functions of the master bedroom, bath and dressing area more seamlessly than ever before," says Jill Lewis, principal architect of Seattle's Coop 15.

No longer just practical rooms for bathing, grooming and sleeping, these spaces act as well earned retreats both for relaxing and reenergizing. With this in mind, many builders and architects are rethinking the very definition of the bedroom and bath, and effectively breaking the rules so each element is "more closely connected to light, views, and space," as Lewis describes.

We caught up with custom builders, architects and interior designers from around the country to discuss master suite hot buttons — as well as what past fashions have fallen by the wayside. In addition to identifying the trends, we've offered take-away tips that you can bring to the table on your next client meeting.

  • Get personal with your clients, inquiring about their habits as well as their dreams. "Bathing and dressing are being addressed for how they really work into our daily routine rather than reverting to outdated, conventional ideas about clustering plumbing fixtures together," Lewis says. For example, she says now "toilets are often located in their own private nook, allowing the tub, shower and vanity to be a more sculptural."
  • Weigh the ups and downs. Upstairs master suites are still popular, even with empty nesters, says Bill Binn, president of WynTree Construction, Inc. In Lake Geneva, Wisc., Binn's clients have other stairs to deal with, for example to the beach. "They tell me, 'The day we can't climb the stairs to the lake or the bedroom, we'll move,'" he reports. Plus these homeowners are more comfortable having the sleeping quarters a flight above the entertaining floor, although not for security reasons. "They just want a private suite," he says.
  • Design longer lines of sight and more open space, recommends the National Kitchen and Bath Association's Sean Ruck. "Less threshold between the bedroom and bath will give the suite an easier flow from room to room," he says. The big debate in Wisconsin, according to Binn, is whether or not you should have to go through the closet to get to the bath.
  • Raise the ceiling to 10 feet or more, suggests Kent Bryant, vice president of Bryant Builders in Shawnee, Okla. "Double box ceilings start at 9 feet and go up to 11," he says.
  • Take into consideration the suite's natural surroundings. "Sometimes a connection to the outdoors beyond simply a view is on the wish list," says Lewis. "And presents additional challenges and opportunities."
  • Keep counting. In vacation homes, Chip Pierson, principal and general manager of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in San Ramon, Calif., is seeing "more than one master suite or family suites," which are two bedrooms connected with a bath. Georganne Derick, president of Merchandising East and MS Interior Design in Ellicott City, Md., has seen "two master bedrooms and smaller, separate baths — to keep the peace!"
  • Offer a bonus space, such as a laundry room within the master suite, which Pierson says is popular in the 7,000-square-foot home range. Derick has seen mini-kitchens complete with wine coolers, coffee bars, wet bars, refrigerators and microwaves.


Sitting rooms — not just sitting areas — are all the rage throughout the country. Such a separate entity "keeps the bedroom just for sleeping and reading in bed, and gives the whole room the luxury suite feeling, like in a hotel," says Amy Baker of Seattle-based Amy Baker Interior Design.

Offer these ideas for well-appointed sitting rooms to your clients:

  • Add a fireplace. Architect Charles Page of Winnetka, Illinois-based Page Builders adds this amenity to all his second-floor master suite sitting rooms, "so it becomes the family meeting room." In his Houston homes, Allegro Builders president Lambert Arceneaux accents the connection between the two rooms by installing a see-through fireplace between them.
  • Create a sumptuous lair. Baker suggests the addition of lounge furniture, a flat-screen TV, sliding French doors and high-quality speakers.
  • Consider a private terrace instead of a sitting room for first-floor master suites. "This is the trend for empty nesters," says Page. Half of the homes he builds have first-floor suites.


His and her dressing rooms have become much more than just walk-in closets. Don't forget ample space for seasonal storage.

  • Explore the elaborate. The his-and-her dressing rooms that Page builds are very involved. "Lots of built-ins, a sitting area, a sink, a dressing table, and mirrors." Arceneaux is building changing spaces, detailed mirror configuration, glass doors to keep dust out and barrel ceilings with lighting effects.
  • Integrate the dressing room. In the homes Lewis designs, "these dedicated areas for dressing are often closely connected to the bathing area," she says. "Yet [they are] sometimes separated by sliding panels for the ultimate flexibility — in case you want to conceal the mess of your closet."
  • Know your clients. Page specs a suitcase storage room for homeowners who travel frequently but don't want to go up to the attic every time they need a bag. He also adds in a stacked washer and dryer plus ironing board in the "Mrs. dressing room," as he calls it.


Overshadowing the once requisite whirlpool tub, showers are now the hot thing in wet rooms. The options are endless: steam, rainhead spouts, body sprays, shower towers, multiheads, and so on. Although the new air jet technology, as opposed to recirculated water, is giving tubs a healthy resurgence.

  • Rethink the shower and tub enclosures. "Frameless" is the latest buzzword, making the space look cleaner and larger. However, some are taking this one step further: Lewis's firm too has moved away from metal-framed glass, and is now even reducing the amount of glass entirely. "Aren't we all tired of dragging the squeegee down our glass every morning?" she asks. "We are creating shower areas with their own source of natural light, and tiled walls that show the effects of daily water spots less."

Tony Crasi, president of the Crasi Company, a residential design/build firm based in Akron, Ohio, agrees. "Our average home sells for $1 million plus, and people want to feel like they're in a five-star hotel when they're at home. So rather than spend a $1,000 for a frameless glass door, we've been putting the money into body washers and rain type of shower heads" and larger walk-in showers without expensive glass doors.

  • Spec a soaker tub without jets in the bedroom for clients who won't part with their tubs. Some builders have built bay windows and turrets just to showcase these tubs, or surrounded them with pillars.
  • Prepare to pamper. "Many suites have in-home spas, including a steam massage shower and a massage/meditation room for de-stressing in a healthful way," says Derick.


Synthetics like Corian have moved aside for granite, marble, travertine and slate. "Man-made materials come and go, but natural is always in style," says Ruck.

"I do lots of tumbled stone or stuff that looks like tumbled stone," says Binn. "It's tough to clean, but that's not an issue for these clients."

Ruck says Mediterranean, Egyptian and Roman bathhouse looks are popular, "because people are cocooning and nesting, and not doing as much traveling. These themes bring other worlds to the home."

"And with the cost of decorative tiles coming down, we have been able to create the feel of a Roman bath within a reasonable budget," says Crasi.

Mosaic tiles on the floors and tub decks are hot, as they are warmer to walk on than the larger tiles," say Derick. "These larger tiles and tile moldings and details adorn the walls of many luxury master baths. I see less marble in these spaces — cold and slippery — and more exotic, imported tiles, including new metallic tile details complete with semi-precious gems embedded in them." She sees old-world metals like copper, brushed nickel, black or aged iron, and bronze in faucets and lighting. Glass is in high demand as mosaic tiles and as curved block walls.

Lewis tends to select plumbing fixtures that are "sleek, sculptural, and beautiful by their own right. Fussy fixtures with too many details, knobs and buttons are out, while clean designs that express exactly what their purpose is — without sacrificing function — are what we're after," she says.

Grohe and Kohler fixtures, Toto toilets and Duravit tubs were all mentioned as top products. Bidet craze has ended, announces Binn. "It's now only for people with ties to Europe."

For cabinetry and vanities, "the furniture look is big," says Bryant. "Dressers are in baths and always in closets — get the furniture out of the bedroom."


Got cold feet? Not in these baths you won't. Delve into the next generation of heating with these products.

  • Consider radiant heating. "It's the only way to go in the bathroom," says Baker. "No more cold tile floors, which are a shock to the tootsies early in the morning," declares Ruck. Binn also installs radiant heating, especially if the suite is on the main floor. "I haven't done electric radiant heating yet, but it's coming," he says.
  • Look into tankless water heaters. Bryant has added these in master suites so there's no waiting for hot water. He admits, however, that there's not much call for them and they're not energy efficient.
  • Don't forget the towels. "Heated towel racks are the ultimate in luxury," says Ruck.


Make the master suite the jewel it is by providing the appropriate lighting. "The key is combining several types of lighting, preferably on dimmers, along with natural light whenever possible, from as many directions as possible," Lewis recommends. "There's nothing better than having a bathroom bathed in morning light to help you wake up... Multiple lighting options and light levels are critical for adjusting to darker and brighter days or for a relaxing evening soak in the tub."

Position vanity lights on either side of the mirror "for less shadows," says Baker. Lewis suggests an additional light source from above for balance. "Badly lit vanity mirrors are something we've all suffered through for too long," she says.

Author Information
Jennifer Block Martin is a San Francisco-based writer whose articles have appeared in Better Homes and Gardens' Special Interest Publications, Sunset, and Women's Day Home Remodeling & Makeovers.

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