How to Turn Your Understairs Area into a Cloakroom
Exploiting underused space for a loo and wash basin can add value, convenience and inclusivity
Read on for top tips from three experts on designing a big-impact, small-space cloakroom.
Professional advice from: Philippa Richard of Ace Your Space; Sabatino Torchitti of Resi; Chris Martell of UK Bathroom Guru
On the whole, internal works such as this shouldn’t require Planning Permission, say our experts.
“However, if the space is against an external wall and you want to add a new window, that may require sign-off from your local authority,” Sabatino Torchitti says.
“Adding a window might also involve Planning Permission if you live in a conservation area,” Philippa Richard says. “As for Building Regulations, yes. The main ones would be around ventilation, plumbing and accessibility.”
“The parts of the approved documents that will most likely affect your project are soundproofing (Part E), ventilation (Part F), water sanitation (Part G) and drainage (Part H),” Sabatino says.
While replacement bathrooms don’t generally need Building Regulations consent, Chris Martell explains that new drainage installed to serve a new bathroom or downstairs toilet does require it.
“You should apply for Building Regulations approval from your local council,” he says. “This will ensure that any new windows, ventilation or drainage all comply.”
This depends on the existing drainage layout and location of the existing soil pipe. As understairs cloakrooms are generally on the ground floor, new connections to the existing drainage system are easier than they would be on upper floors.
“If you’re lucky, you may be able to connect directly to an existing soil vent pipe,” Sabatino says. “Otherwise, you may need to have a new stub stack.” This is a short version of a soil pipe, with a valve at the top that allows air to enter the system to balance the pressure and prevent smells escaping.
“Your toilet and basin and any other appliance will be connected to the stub stack, which will then be connected to the existing below-ground drainage system,” he says. “There are various options to make your drainage work, but you’ll need information on the existing drainage system via a visual inspection for simple projects or a CCTV drainage survey for more complex ones.”
He explains that if you have a cast-iron soil pipe outside, it will have to be replaced in order to make connections to the new cloakroom. “In contrast, plastic soil pipes can often be amended to accommodate new pipework.”
If access to the soil pipe is tricky, a macerating toilet (which liquifies waste) might be an option. “They can be considered when the new cloakroom is too far from the main drain line to work, or at basement or lower-ground level when the new cloakroom is below the level of the main drain line,” Sabatino says. “However, always explore a traditional drainage system first before a macerating toilet.”
To comply with Part F Building Regulations, a cloakroom will need to be ventilated by natural means, such as a window, or by mechanical means, such as an extractor fan.
“If there’s no window, ventilation ductwork will need to go somewhere, probably either under floorboards or through a ceiling void,” Philippa says. “If ventilation has to cross another room and there’s no way to go through the floor or ceiling, then the best option is to hide the ductwork within a soffit and add LED downlights. This turns a problem into an attractive lighting fixture.”
“The most-used solution is an extractor fan,” Sabatino says. “It needs to provide an extract rate of 15 litres per second with 15 minutes overrun in spaces without external openings.”
Feeling inspired? Find a local architect to help design your understairs cloakroom.
“Moving internally sited gas and electricity meters into externally sited meter boxes means involving third-party utility companies,” Chris says.
This can be expensive. “Depending on how far you’re planning to relocate them, an energy supplier could charge £2,000 to £3,000,” Sabatino says. “However, small adjustments can be made by qualified professionals. One common solution is to keep the meters in the new cloakroom area by relocating them at a high level and boxing them in.”
There are requirements to be met when boxing in meters –they need to be accessible, for instance,” Philippa says. “But a cloakroom isn’t a forbidden location.”
For obvious reasons, an understairs cloakroom will normally be the same width as the stairs.
“That’s usually 70cm to 80cm internally, which is fine,” Chris says, “but it does mean the toilet can’t be sited facing the doorway unless your stairs are very wide.”
Adding an understairs cloakroom usually involves building or amending walls to define the space. “Obviously, the further you get to the foot of the stairs, the more un-useable the space gets,” Chris says. “The cloakroom is built into the end with the maximum headroom. I often build a stud wall across the stairs [to separate the useable space from the unusable] and fit the toilet – rather than the basin – against it [as in this design].”
“Once you’ve done that, you know that anyone else can sit to use the toilet without having to worry about the sloping ceiling above.”
The space behind the toilet at the foot of the stairs can then be used as separate storage, accessed from the hall.
“As a rule of thumb, when installing a toilet pan beneath a sloping ceiling, you need to have 140cm head clearance at the back of the toilet and 180cm head clearance at the front to use it in a comfortable way,” Sabatino says. “You also have to consider the width of the door and a recess to install the basin.”
“There needs to be at least 60cm in front of a toilet for a non-wheelchair user to stand, but this will need to be bigger for someone in a wheelchair,” she explains.
She suggests checking whether any space could be stolen from the adjacent hallway. “This might provide the necessary increased clearance in front of the toilet,” she says. “In addition, if the toilet is close to the kitchen, perhaps you could make the cloakroom big enough to house the washing machine and effectively shift that out of the kitchen.”
Chris gives the example of an understairs cloakroom project of his where the cloakroom wall backed onto a kitchen alcove. “We knocked down the wall and rebuilt it approximately 40cm further into the kitchen to steal crucial space for a wash basin,” he says.
Mounting a basin over the toilet cistern can free up space in the layout. “This option works best if access to the cloakroom is from the front, with the sloping wall coming towards you,” explains Philippa. You can buy toilet cisterns that have built-in basins. “Another option is a concealed toilet cistern with a small basin sitting on top.”
If a cloakroom has access from the side, as most do, a toilet/basin combo is less useful. “It probably takes just the same space to have the toilet under the slope and a basin opposite or in a corner,” Philippa says. “Both setups need to be 140cm in length minimum, but double check the ceiling height for standing.”
Positioning the toilet against the stud wall means the basin can be located directly opposite, on the adjacent external wall or on both using a corner basin.
“Wherever the basin is placed, its size and positioning must be carefully considered to allow users to pass by it unobstructed,” Chris says.
“A normal hinged door will do the job,” Sabatino says. “However, you may be able to use a sliding door.”
Sliding doors are also easiest for wheelchair users, Philippa says, “but it depends on whether there’s adequate wall space for the door to slide along.” The same is true of pocket doors, but they also need a false wall each side for the door to slide into, so may only be possible in larger projects.
“Some understairs spaces are limited for head height, so have to be custom-fitted with an irregularly shaped door frame and door,” Chris says. These usually have a triangle-shaped section missing off one of the top edges to fit the slope of the stairs. “If the smaller space under the foot of the stairs is utilised for storage, that can be fitted with a custom-made bifold door,” he adds.
This depends on the layout and ceiling height. “Pendants and wall lights are pretty, but make sure they’re not going to be in the way in such a small room,” Philippa says.
“Using warm, soft-coloured lighting can create a cosy atmosphere in what can be a cold space,” she adds. LED strip lighting can add a touch of drama.
“Downlights are probably the best to account for the low sloping ceiling,” Sabatino says. “Wall lights around a mirror above the wash basin can be added as well.”
You might also enjoy 23 Inspiring Ways to Use LED Strip Lights.
“Boxed-in toilet cisterns are fantastic space-savers,” Sabatino says. “Corner wash basins keep things compact, but don’t offer much in the way of storage, so consider adding wall-mounted accessories, such as an electric towel rail, soap holder and so on.”
Philippa adds a caveat. “By the time you take account of the extra wall thickness required for a concealed cistern, they often need about the same overall floor space as a short-projection close-coupled unit (about 60cm minimum),” she says.
There are lots of short-projection sanitaryware ranges on the market and they’re ideal for understairs cloakrooms, because they don’t protrude far into the room.
“Try to fit in storage somewhere for toilet rolls and other bits and bobs,” Philippa says. “Possible places are above or to the side of a toilet cistern, beneath the basin or above the door.”
“Try using a darker paint shade in the lower portion of the room,” Sabatino suggests. “This helps lower the eye and creates the illusion of distance from top to bottom, as well as increased depth. It essentially tricks your brain into thinking the room is taller than it is.”
Philippa suggests other visual space gains. “Use a mirror, particularly at dado height or above, but be careful with mirrors near toilets for obvious reasons,” she says.
“Light-reflective colours on the sloping ceiling will make the space feel bigger. Or go fun, dramatic or dark, because you don’t spend very long in there,” she continues. “I’ve seen cloakrooms with iridescent mosaic tiles on the sloping ceiling and walls and they look fantastic.”
Are you planning to install a cloakroom under your stairs? Was this advice useful? Share your thoughts in the Comments.