Wet Areas

Poor wet area design or installation can compromise safety, comfort and convenience for building users, and lead to significant structural damage.

Wet area wall and ceiling linings and finishes

A wide range of wet area wall and ceiling linings and finishes is available, each with pros and cons.

On this page:

  • Code requirements
  • Timber boards
  • Plywood
  • Particleboard and MDF
  • Compressed sheet
  • Sheet vinyl
  • Ceramic and stone tiles
  • Ceramic-based solid plaster and concrete
  • Monolithic applied coatings
  • Plasterboard sheet linings
  • Vinyl and vinyl-coated wallpaper
  • Paint and clear finishes
  • Decorative panels

Code requirements

In accordance with NZBC clause E3 Internal moisture, wall linings and finishes exposed to water splash must be impervious and easy to clean.

Acceptable Solution E3/AS1 lists suitable linings and finishes for wet areas as:

  • integrally waterproof sheet material (such as PVC) with sealed joints
  • ceramic or stone tiles with 6% maximum water absorption and waterproof grouted joints
  • sheet linings finished with a semi-gloss or gloss coating or a hard-wearing low-sheen latex paint containing mould inhibitors
  • water resistant sheet linings finished with decorative high pressure laminate or factory applied polyurethane or resin, installed with impervious joints.

    E3/AS1 makes the comment that other wall linings and finishes finishes may also satisfy performance requirements, but they are outside the scope of the Acceptable Solution. This means that they must be consented as an Alternative Solution.

    Timber boards

    Timber has been commonly used in wet areas since the opening years of the 20th Century but is not included under E3/AS1 and therefore must be consented as an Alternative Solution. Timber is not suitable for shower areas.

    An impervious finish can be a minimum of three coats of semi-gloss or full-gloss paint (oiled finishes are not recommended in wet areas). Timber should also be sealed or primed on the edges and back face before installation

    Timber is dimensionally unstable and susceptible to moisture. Movement of the timber may crack an applied finish, allowing moisture ingress that can lead to swelling, staining and premature coating deterioration. If untreated, timber is also more susceptible to borer attack.


    Plywood is not commonly used as a wall lining in wet areas, but it is more stable than timber and wood-based products. It can be treated, but treatment must be compatible with waterproofing membranes or coatings applied and should be a water-based preservative such as CCA (LOSP is not suitable because of the solvents used). It has a high resistance to impact, is a suitable substrate for tiling and may be used in water splash areas if it has an appropriate finish. It is not suitable as an exposed finish in showers.

    Plywood must:

    • be a minimum of 9 mm thick
    • have edges sealed prior to installation
    • have a minimum of three coats of water- or oil-based, semi-gloss or full-gloss paint (oiled finishes are not recommended in wet areas).

    Particleboard and MDF

    Traditionally, particleboard and MDF are not recommended for use in wet areas as they are very easily damaged by moisture. Some products that have been treated to H3.1 are available and are marketed as suitable for wet areas.

    Compressed sheet

    Compressed sheet is commonly used as a substrate for a tiled finish. It is very stable but must remain dry. It may also be finished with vinyl wallpaper or wall covering. A paint finish is not a suitable finish for compressed sheet lining.

    Sheet vinyl

    Sheet vinyl has excellent resistance to water and is suitable for use in showers (open showers). It must be laid over a rigid substrate such as concrete, particleboard, plywood or compressed sheet and requires heat- or solvent-welded joints to be fully watertight. Sheet vinyl for wall coverings is typically around 1 mm thick. It is not generally used for ceiling lining.

    Ceramic and stone tiles

    Ceramic and stone tiles are popular finishes for wet areas and for showers in particular. They must have 6% maximum water absorption, and glazed tiles should have glazed edges. A tiled finish for a splash zone under E3/AS1 requires:

    • waterproof grout joints
    • a firm, stable, rigid substrate such as concrete, plywood or fibre-cement sheet
    • flexible (mould inhibiting sealant) movement joints at the floor/wall and wall/wall junctions

    In showers, a waterproof membrane laid underneath the tiles in accordance with AS/NZS 4858:2004 Wet area membranes is required.

    BRANZ recommends waterproofing membranes be installed under tiles on surfaces that are vulnerable to wetting, whether or not required by E3/AS1.

    Cement-based solid plaster and concrete

    Cement-based plaster to concrete walls can provide a suitable lining if it has a steel trowelled or polished finish, or has a semi-gloss or gloss paint finish.

    Monolithic applied coatings

    Terrazzo with marble or stone aggregate can be ground to a hard-wearing finish. Prefabricated terrazzo panels may also be used for partitions or screens.

    Plasterboard sheet lining

    Plasterboard is a commonly used wall and ceiling lining, and water-resistant grades are available for use in wet areas. It can be applied directly to timber or steel framing, or to strapped concrete or concrete masonry walls. It must be protected from direct wetting.

    Water-resistant plasterboard must be protected by a waterproofing system when used as a substrate for tiling in a shower or other high risk areas such as around the bath and hand basin. BRANZ recommends protecting plasterboard behind tiles with a waterproof membrane in all water splash areas.

    Standard grade plasterboard is suitable for areas that are normally dry or subject to occasional splashing. An oil-based sealer coat and a minimum of three coats of water- or oil-based, semi-gloss or full-gloss paint should be used.

    Plasterboard should be stopped to level 4 or 5 for a paint finish, and level 3 for a flexible sheet or tiled finish.

    Vinyl-coated wallpaper

    Vinyl-coated wallpaper may lose adhesion at joints in high levels of moisture so should only be used in areas that have minimal wetting. A plasterboard flush-stopped finish must be to at least level 3, or an equivalent finish for fibre-cement sheet, as imperfections may be visible in the substrate.

    Plasterboard and cement-fibre sheet substrates require sealing with a water-resistant sealer before applying vinyl-coated wallpaper.

    Paint and clear finishes

    Paints and clear finishes should not be used on surfaces that are continually wet. In areas where occasional wetting occurs in well-ventilated kitchens and bathrooms, water-based acrylic enamel paint applied over a solvent-based sealer coat is generally satisfactory. The ability to withstand moisture is better if water-resistant grade plasterboard is used.

    High-gloss coatings should be used in areas of high wear and where regular cleaning is required. Semi-gloss coatings may be used in areas of low wearing or wetting. Matt finish coatings should only be used in dry areas.

    In comparison to semi-gloss and matt-finish coatings, high-gloss coatings:

    • are generally more durable
    • have a higher resistance to abrasion and staining
    • tend to highlight substrate imperfections
    • increase glare and diffuse light less
    • are easier to clean
    • are less affected by mould growth.

    Decorative panels

    Factory-finished decorative wall panels for wet areas can be based on wood fibre, plywood, fibre-cement or high pressure laminate (solid) board. Finishes include:

    • high-pressure laminate comprising multiple layers of kraft paper impregnated with phenolic resin on hardboard, particleboard and MDF
    • factory-applied polyurethane coating on fibre-cement or hardboard.

    Low pressure melamine laminate on hardboard is not suitable for wet zones and splash areas.

    Pre-finished panels have visible joints connected by aluminium or PVC jointer sections. Bottom edges must be separated from the floor or shower by a gap, and edges must be sealed before installation.

    Updated: 15 June 2023