Bulkhead or Soffit – Remove or Stay?

The other day I went to do a measure and site inspection at a client’s home who had decided to update their bathroom. This particular bathroom was your typical 5 foot wide by 7 foot bathroom. When you swing open the door there is a vanity, followed by a toilet beside it, and the bathtub shower combo at the end.

Above the bathtub is what I would describe as a big box that is dropped down lower than the rest of the ceiling. This box is called a bulkhead, or soffit. No matter the size of house, or size of bathroom, I would say that 90% of the bathrooms that I visit have a bulkhead. They are sometimes built above showers, as well. Typical questions that I hear are whether it can be removed, and what is the purpose of it? My answer to these questions depends on your situation. They do serve a purpose, typically it is to hide pipes, ductwork, and electrical. I find that, most of the time, they are empty or filled with insulation, if it’s on your upper level.

Once the demolition is done and the space is inspected, it can then be determined whether or not the bulkhead can be removed. Some may ask what its purpose is. My conclusion is that it saves the home builder money. Drywall and wood are already specified for the job, and those trades are coming in to do the whole house, so this makes it easy for them. If they were to tile, they would have to order 14sf more of the tile, which means they have to pay the tile guy for 14sf of extra tile. If you do the math, and they are building 1000 homes, it can add up quickly.

In my own experience of having visited many homes over the years, I have observed that homes with bulkheads above the shower or tub typically have worse tiles than homes that do not have bulkheads. Although the tiles themselves are fine, I find the grout in these bathrooms to have been in worse shape than homes that don’t have bulkheads. I feel that when you have a bulkhead over a hot shower, the hot air rises and stays in the shower area for a longer period of time, and this wet and damp environment causes problems. Homes without a bulkhead don’t seem to have the same problems. Add in the fact that these bathrooms did not have to have a fan if there was window, this becomes a perfect recipe for failure or breakdown over time.

Now that I have covered that aspect, let’s talk about the aesthetics. I find that when you remove the bulkhead in a small bathroom, the space is more open, and makes the bathroom feel larger and more airy. Clients have told me that they don’t feel like they are showering in a cave any longer, which brings them not only joy, but a bathroom that feels more open. Who wouldn’t want to have that?