Remodeling a high-rise bathroom
By Michael Shymerlyuk
Whether it’s figuring out where to park or dealing with plans, remodeling apartments in downtown high-rise buildings is a bit more complex and unpredictable than your typical single-family project. In this article, I will discuss the steps we took when remodeling a high-rise bathroom as part of a full apartment remodel in downtown Chicago that we completed in spring 2018.
Initial checks for remodeling a high-rise bathroom
- Building association: The first step when remodeling a high-rise bathroom and in any high-rise job is to get an approval from the building association for your scope of work. This includes providing information on liability and workers’ compensation insurance, as well as a detailed description of work to be done, including any architectural plans. The approval process can take anywhere from a week to a month, since some associations meet just once a month. Approval for the project described here took a month, and that required some rescheduling on my part.
- Building managers: The second thing I like to do when remodeling a high-rise bathroom is introduce myself to the building manager and the engineer, as these are the people I’ll be working with the most.
- Reserving the freight elevator: Next, I need to make sure we have the freight elevator available for the days and times we need. Most of the time, I need to reserve the elevator at least 24 hours in advance, which means my work scheduling needs to be spot on. If I miss my window, we won’t be allowed to bring up materials or remove trash.
- Building rules: Another aspect that sometimes slows us down when remodeling a high-rise bathroom is a building’s rules. Some buildings allow work to be done from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., while others permit work only from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
- Close quarters: Demolishing a bathroom in a high-rise requires utmost care, as units usually share walls with neighboring apartments. One wrong move when remodeling a high-rise bathroom and you could get complaints from a next-door neighbor.
- Live water: Practically speaking, for reasons I’ll explain below, you must do demolition work in high-rise apartments with the water turned on. This requires taking special precautions to avoid breaking pipes that could flood apartments below. If that happens, good luck getting another batroom remodel job in the building.
Plumbing a high-rise bathroom
Once the demo is finished and all debris is removed using the previously reserved elevator — a long and laborious process — you can finally move on to the plumbing.
- Cast iron pipes: Often, when we open old walls, we find old cast iron pipes that must be replaced with up-to-date copper ones. Most of the older high-rises we’ve worked on were built in the mid- to late-90’s. Hence all the plumbing was outdated and potentially on the verge of leaking.
- Water shutoff: Replacing pipes, of course, requires shutting off the water, which can be a major hassle in a high-rise because in our experience, most high-rise apartments do not have a central water shut-off valve. Water can only be turned on or off at the floor level by building managers, who typically require at least 24 hours’ notice so they have time to alert residents on that floor.
You might ask, “Why don’t I schedule the shut off before the demo?” Well, you never know what issues or complications might come up. If you have a setback and need to reschedule the shut off, the client won’t be happy, as it costs anywhere from $200–$500 per shut-off request. Also, each shut off is only for a few hours, so it is super important to do all the work in the allotted time.
Once the water is off, you can finally cut off the old iron water pipes and begin replacing them with copper. Before installing new pipes, I like to install hot and cold water shut-off valves. This way, we or anyone else can shut off the water whenever we need to without involving building management.
Once the valves are in, you can tell the building engineer to turn on the water. While the valves are turned off, you can run your copper pipes, install the shower rough-in and redo the drain to fit the stand-up shower.
- Shower rough-in: Each shower rough-in installed in a high-rise apartment needs to be commercial grade with built-in shut offs. Should the shower valve malfunction at any time in the future, the owner or the plumber will be able to shut it off without turning off the water to the bathroom sink and the toilet.
- The drain: Many of our high-rise remodels call for converting a bathtub to a stand-up shower, so the existing tub drain is useless and needs to be rerouted and replaced. One thing to note — no high-rise property manager will allow you to trench the concrete to center your drain in the middle of your shower. You will typically be given about 1 square foot of space to work with to accommodate your drain.
The good news: that is enough space. The bad news: your shower drain will be off center and closer toward the wall. What can you really do? Rules are rules, and you have to make it work without breaking any.
For this specific project, I had to use a drain with a side outlet because we did not have enough space below to accommodate a more standard drain.
Finally, once all mechanical work is finished, you can cover the walls and move on to the finishing portion of the project. This includes waterproofing the shower, installing drywall and cement board, laying tile and applying paint.
- Framing: Due to fire code, you need to use steel studs when framing out walls in a high-rise. No wood is allowed. In addition, you need to be sure to use ⅝-inch drywall rather than the conventional ½-inch sheetrock. The former provides a fire rating of up to one hour, compared to the 30 minutes you get with the ½-inch sheetrock.
- Laying tile: Before installing tile, don’t forget to waterproof your shower. This is super important when remodeling a high-rise bathroom. We have had to redo complete showers due to leaking that occurred because of poor waterproofing. For this project, I used RedGard® for waterproofing, but there are many other excellent products out there. Also, don’t forget to cut out an opening in your bathroom floor tile for the drain cleanout. It won’t affect you personally, but once the drain gets clogged, the owner will be glad you left that access to the drain.