Despite ongoing economic challenges, the bath remains of key importance to consumers seeking a refuge from the stresses of day-to-day life. And the water experience – most often defined by the luxury shower – continues to be an important part of creating that spa-like haven.
At the same time, the growing interest in water conservation is impacting the shower and tub market. But while the two trends might seem at odds with each other, new technology has made it possible to have a drenching water experience with less water than the super soaker showers of years past, satisfying both performance needs and water conservation mandates.
That’s according to manufacturers recently interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News who cite custom shower creations, technologically advanced showerheads, accessible tubs and the use of natural materials and organic forms as hot trends in showers, tubs and enclosures.
BIGGER IS BETTER?
While consumers are less likely to invest in overdone trophy baths, that doesn’t mean they want to skimp on their personal bath space, either. The bathroom is an extension of living space, and for many, the tub or shower is where they go to relax, recharge and rejuvenate. For that reason, showers and tubs that reflect the spa trend remain in high demand.
“People continue to have a love affair with their showers and want to be as generous and luxurious as space permits,” says Diana Schrage, CAPS, CAASH, Senior Interior Designer for the Kohler Design Center based in Kohler, WI.
Rob Larson, director of business development for Woodbridge, IL based Danze, Inc. agrees: “A good shower is considered by many, to be a necessity, not a luxury. We expect showers to remain personal sanctuaries for consumers for years to come.”
Even as homes are being downsized, many manufacturers claim bathrooms are often growing larger. Paul Flowers, senior v.p. of design for Grohe America, Inc. in Bloomingdale, IL says, “Well-being and relaxation remain important grounding factors for individuals, and a premium bathroom environment and water experience can allow for this release.”
Flowers notes that free-standing tubs are typically large enough to accommodate two individuals, and even showers that are not a complete ‘car wash’ style are often incorporating at least a shower head and hand shower with a built-in bench.
But not everyone is on the “bigger is better” bandwagon. Lars Christensten, director of product development at Hansgrohe, Inc’s U.S. headquarters in Alpharetta, GA, sees many consumers moving away from all the shower bells and whistles to more pared-down systems. “Over the last few years, ‘modern’ and ‘simple’ have been the buzzwords in bathroom design,” he says. “[As a result], many consumers are opting for either a large showerhead or a showerhead/handshower combo.”
Christensten also believes the size of shower areas has decreased over the last few years, and he has seen soaking tubs replaced by 3’x4’ shower spaces that have glass doors and walls that make the rooms more open and bright. “In short, while overall space has decreased, the square footage is being used more efficiently and effectively,” he states.
Luxurious, water-drenching showers provide a refuge that many consumers desire, and Larson notes, “Many designers and homeowners want to create that retreat-type feeling in their bathroom [by] mixing/matching an overhead showerhead, a handheld shower and body sprays.”
These can also provide flexibility, according to Larry Jacobs, president, Ashley Harris Marketing, Inc., marketing agency for Strom Plumbing by Sign of the Crab, LLC in Rancho Cordova, CA, who explains: “These [multiple sprays/showerheads] are still very much in demand, primarily because the bathing area is a multi-functional room: showers, baths, infant baths, even dog bathing.”
At the same time, Larson says, “The second trend, on the other end of the spectrum, is the emergence of water-saving showerheads.” However, Larson notes, “We're firm believers that having a water-saving showerhead in your bathroom does not have to mean a lack of performance.”
Judd Lord, Director of Industrial Design for Delta Faucet Company in Indianapolis, IN asserts, “Consumers want to be green without feeling like they are sacrificing their experience with water. Increased industry participation in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WaterSenseprogram, paired with increased awareness among consumers about the importance of water conservation, has led to greater demand for water-efficient fixtures that meet WaterSense standards.”
New shower technology has made providing consumers a satisfying and relaxing experience while reducing their water consumption a reality, according to Lord. He cites Delta Faucet’s H2Okinetic Technology, which creates larger droplets to provide a drenching shower while improving water efficiency as an example of this.
Larson states that regulatory changes are driving the conversion to lower flow showerheads. “The Cal Green initiative in California requires that all showerheads used in new construction and permitted remodeling projects use showerheads that flow at a maximum of 2.0 gpm. And many municipalities throughout the U.S. have revised or will be revising their plumbing codes to limit showerhead flow rates to even lower levels,” he says.
With the DOE initiative to restrict all showerheads in a shower to a combined 2.5 gpm, output has changed significantly, according to Mike Reffner, group product manager for the wholesale business unit of Moen, Inc. in North Olmstead, OH. Rafferty cites legislation that takes effect in March of 2013 which limits the packaging of multiple products. “You can’t package these systems together that put out 16 gallons of water. We can sell components and people can put them together, but we can’t sell them as one schema.”
Technology never stays static, and advances in showers have exploded in recent years. Manufacturers are seeing a lot of research and development going into the areas of spray technology, digital controls and thermostatic valves.
“Showerhead spray technology has evolved very quickly following the
development of the WaterSense standard,” says Larson. “Pressure-equalizing showerheads, Air-Injection as well as novel Spray Patterns are now in use to provide a
optimal spray coverage, distribution and intensity at flow rates that are 20-40% lower than the federally mandated maximum of 2.5 gpm.”
Digital technology has advanced rapidly, and has the potential to change how individuals are interfacing with water in general, according to Flowers. “It can increase the consumer water experience in terms of personalization and consistent flow, while simultaneously reducing overall consumption by digitally managing energy and water for optimum performance.” He qualifies his statement, saying that in the immediate future, digital enhancements and interface in the bathroom are not quite ready for the mainstream U.S. consumer based on current demand.
Digital systems are designed to be intuitive and easy to use, says Reffner. “It’s not about adding features and functionality that people don’t use,” he adds. With digital controls, you can turn on the water, make temperature adjustments and set presets so that when you hit one number, your preferred temperature and flow come up.
Larson says, “Digital mixing valves and controls are considered by many to be the future of plumbing. In fact, residential plumbing today primarily relies on Victorian era technology. We think the digitization of the bathroom and plumbing systems is inevitable.”
He adds that digital mixing valves and controls in the shower offer greater control to the users, and can do so with a minimalist look. Features he finds popular are one-touch operation with preset temperature and spray functions, and warm-up modes that bring the shower up to temperature and pauses operation until the user is ready to enter the shower.
Jacobs says the largest trend for Strom Plumbing is the use of thermostatic valves in the tub and shower area, and he believes, “This area will continue to increase, incorporating the new digital products. We see this primarily in the new construction arena, as that is where they must be specified first. The replacement market is slower to incorporate those advancements.”
Because the bathroom is an intensely personal space, design preferences can vary widely among those looking for a custom shower solution or bath design. Likewise, a broad range of factors impact the desire for customization, from the need to make a space more accessible to the desire to add a personal touch.
Lord says, “People want the ability to customize their shower experience, from selecting various sprays and nozzles, to presetting their ideal water temperature digitally with the tap of a button.”
Manufacturers agree that customization for the purpose of long-term accessibility is also a large factor in the industry. “People want a home that will allow them to live comfortably at different stages of their life, but they don’t want to give up attractive design,” says Lord. “Applying Universal Design principles transforms the bathroom into a multi-generational living space and offers the user support and independence, regardless of age.”
Schrage, too, has seen a rise in demand for products that complement designs for aging in place. The firm’s Elevance tub is a unique solution to the walk in tub – rather than having a door swing, this tub has a rising wall, and fits into the same space as a typical 5’ tub. The user sits in at chair height, and the door pulls up and latches with less than five pounds of pressure, allowing for a deep soaking experience.
Bathtubs are also being customized from a style standpoint, and Jonathan Carter, marketing manager of London based Victoria + Albert, which has North America offices in Mount Pleasant, SC, notes a growing interest in personalizing the look of the tub with paint on the outside in a range of colors and metallics.
Of course tubs aren’t just being customized on the outside, they are also being outfitted with free-standing tub fillers and hand showers to add a custom look from the interior.
Carter notes that freestanding baths are on the rise in general, often replacing the demand for jetted tubs.
When it comes to style trends, a variety of textures, colors and finishes all play into the equation.
Lord finds that the tendency to mix and match materials, textures or colors from different design categories is becoming popular among homeowners looking to turn their space into an extension of themselves. “By selecting the same finish, modern shower fixtures can be juxtaposed with traditional bathroom faucets to create a space that feels personal but is still cohesive,” he says.
There are abundant color and finish options on the market, and manufacturers are not in total agreement about what leads the way.
“After the avocado and peach colored three-piece suites of the ‘70s, white became the only color for bathrooms,” says Carter. “However, we are again noticing an interest in adding a bit of color, or even patterns to bathrooms.”
Flowers agrees. “In the bathroom, we’re seeing designers moving away from the timeless mix of white sink ceramics with chrome fixtures. Black and white are leading the way, and while white remains a bathroom classic, an increasing number of manufacturers are now adding black to their color palettes.
Another trend that manufacturers are seeing is a leaning toward natural tones and materials. Carter sees a move toward organic shapes, wood, and plants in the bathroom space, and a desire for composite materials, noting the popularity of the company’s volcanic limestone content, which adds to the simplicity and natural feel of the bath.
Jacobs says, “The Old World style is very popular, but now consumers have a real choice in the myriad of styles and companies consistently available to them. Oil-rubbed bronze continues with its popularity, with chrome making a big comeback.”
For Hansgohe, chrome has always been what people want to see on display when looking for fixtures, says Christensten. “The second most popular to chrome are the steel optik and light brushed finishes. The third most popular finish is the rubbed bronze and oil-rubbed bronze. Overall, in the industry, finishes like polished nickel and polished brass are very rarely used today,” he adds.
Schrage also sees a migration toward the organic, neutral, “spa-esque” tones. “The bathroom is a respite,” she says. “The serenity that we get from organic materials and colors [that have] clear, neutral, calming effects soothes us.”
While consumers are still investing in their bath spaces, manufacturers agree that they are putting more thought into how they spend their dollars to maximize their investment. This more careful approach means that people are taking longer to decide on the products they ultimately choose, and looking for top quality as well as a good value.
“People are concerned about the quality and longevity of products,” says Carter, who notes that this can impact style choices. “Traditional bathtubs that never go out of fashion are still proving to be a 'safe' choice that you can live with for many years. When people feel negative, be it because of the economy or general life pressures, there is a tendency to revert to designs that are comforting…design classics that will never go out of date.”
Flowers states: “Homeowners are always looking for quality products that will prove to perform well for years to come so they don’t have to worry about continued replacement. Trusted brands are important in this economic climate.”
Reffner believes there are a variety of compromises consumers can make in a remodel or new construction bath to get the look and functionality they want without breaking the bank. He explains, “There are choices they can make to fit their budget…for instance, they may keep a certain style but change to a less expensive finish to save a few dollars on a project. But with the wide range of products available, [even consumers on a tight budget] can often find the same functionality without losing too much.” KBDN