The type of flooring you eventually choose should be determined by what you do in the bathroom; who uses it; how wet it is likely to get; the architectural character of the room; the colour scheme; how long you want the flooring to last; how much maintenance it will require; how comfortable you want it to be; how easy it is to lay; whether it must provide access to underfloor areas where pipes are laid, and last, but not least, budget. It’s a tall order by anyone’s standard.
Making your choice
A bathroom floor must fulfil certain requirements. It must be waterproof, non-slip and easy to clean. You will also like it more if it is kind to bare feet, can withstand wear and tear and looks great. Hard floors are the obvious choice stone or ceramic tiles but because of their coldness, they benefit from underfloor heating which is expensive to install. Avoid marble unless you are prepared to set up a long-term relationship with an osteopath.
At the other end of the spectrum are foam-backed carpets specifically designed with bathrooms in mind. Next to them lie the ever-enlarging ranges of natural floorings: seagrass, coir, hemp and jute. Of these, seagrass is reasonably waterproof, tough, firm but bearable underfoot (I used it in the Portuguese Bathroom, coir and hemp are tough but quite unbearable to walk on, and jute is the softest (feeling almost like wool) but equally, since it is usually plain and pale, it wears poorly and shows stains all too easily. I know this all from experience.
Hard ceramic or terracotta floors are usually the most expensive choice, but they are worth the extra money if you are planning on staying in your home for a long time. Ceramic is still the most popular finish not surprising when you consider just how many styles, textures and colours it comes in. You might opt for French Provencal, charmingly irregular handmade designs, glossy Italian colours, or more subtle rustic ones. For something a little more elaborate, opt for a mosaiced flooring. Any of these tiles can be laid onto a floor of waterproof block board or marine-grade plywood that will not warp. However, ceramic is not always the best choice if you have children: not only will toothbrush mugs and other fragile items smash to smithereens if dropped but you run the risk of the tiles chipping under the impact. They are also noisy and cold, and unkind if you slip and fall. But then the same is true of any hard floor.
Quarry tiles are usually slightly softer and cheaper than ceramic ones – although just as durable; the ones I mentioned earlier were laid in the eighteenth century.
Slate has a beautiful, rippled surface making it more slip-resistant than many hard floors; it comes in a surprisingly varied range of greys, but they are perhaps now over-fashionable. York stone, granite and limestone all look handsome in the right setting, although I would not welcome them in my bathroom.
Brick, too, has become popular in recent years and can boast many ideal bathroom qualities non-slip, waterproof, stain-resistant and warmer than ceramic tiles. However, it is really only suitable for ground floors because of its thickness. Even pebbled and cobbled floors have made an appearance in the style-setting bathrooms of glossy magazines. But good luck to them they make a dirty, noisy, toe-stubbing surface. Only terrazzo compares to ceramic: this is a smooth, tough flooring made of marble chips set in concrete and ground smooth. It is thin enough to be made into tiles, sufficiently strong to withstand wear and tear, and has many colour and design options.
Among the hard floorings, wood might seem the last choice for the bathroom because of its antipathy to water but if you can overcome that problem through careful preparation and sealing, then you are on to a winner. Its advantages are warmth, durability, easy maintenance and beauty. But extremes of temperature, combined with frequent wetting, will cause it to shrink or swell. Also, don’t attempt to lay a new wooden floor yourself unless you have checked and double-checked the position of water pipes underneath.
These floors can only be considered if they are waterproof and durable. On the whole, cardboard and chipboard even if painted and varnished are to be avoided, but if you are prepared to apply at least five coats of varnish and regularly touch up the paintwork, you can at least create your own fantasy floor very cheaply. Cork, on the other hand, is wonderfully versatile:
lightweight but resilient; comfortable but durable; quiet but warm. Check, though, that you buy flooring-grade cork, and that it is laid and sealed properly. Underfloor heating will make it lift.
Vinyl is the mainstay of bathroom floors. It offers an incomparable number of patterns, textures, colours and thicknesses, both in tiles or by the metre. Add to that the fact that it is waterproof, stain-resistant, quiet, warm, and often inexpensive, and it is not difficult to see why it remains so popular. A more upmarket version is linoleum. This has shaken off its down-market reputation and been relaunched as a strong, flexible flooring that can be cut and laid in brilliant designs. However, any water caught underneath will cause it to rise.
Rubber flooring, as used in the Hedonist’s Bathroom on, has also taken its place as a tough, warm, safe and sophisticated choice. It offers some bold colour choices and is much favoured by architects and designers who have moved it out of public utility settings and into domestic ones.
Soft floors really come down to different types of carpet. Those recommended for bathrooms often come in the nastiest shades and mixes imaginable, so it’s worth looking at slightly more expensive, general-use carpet and checking whether it can be used in the bathroom. If you are buying a foam-backed one, check that the foam is of good quality. Rub it with your thumb fairly hard and if it flakes, don’t buy it. The foam should be laid over paper or cardboard stop it sticking to the floor, and I would be sceptical about using a foam-backed product if a lot of water is going to get spilt since the foam will degrade when wet for prolonged periods. Don’t lay shag pile in the bathroom it might be soft and comfortable, but it will trap dirt and moisture and become easily matted. A top-quality woollen carpet is nearly always a safe choice.
The final option is to introduce both hard and soft floors into the bathroom – perhaps a ceramic floor with strategically placed rugs for comfort underfoot. For safety’s sake, make sure that rugs have mesh backing or nylon bonding strips to stop them slipping.
Whatever you decide to go for, don’t budget tightly on the fitting. Floors are expensive, and you want them to last. That means making sure the surface is properly prepared, that the right adhesives are used, that the cutting is confident and the edges are clean. They must not allow any water to seep through, and they must be absolutely even for safety. On a decorative level, even the plainest of floors will dominate a room purely because of its size. Don’t be too influenced by fashion because of this: simplicity is often best.