The Master Bath Retreat

When I study U.S. bathroom design trends, I see three distinctly different types of bathrooms. These include:

  • The highly decorated - and stylish - powder room on the first floor for guests.
  • The utility bathroom: a shared children's bathroom, the laundry room/pool house bathroom and such.
  • The master bath adjacent to the master bedroom: renamed the "adult retreat." This type of bathroom offers the kitchen specialist new business opportunities.
  • Adults have discovered a great antidote to their overwhelming life outside the home and an over-scheduled life inside the home: a luxurious "mini-apartment" just for themselves.

    The adult retreat starts at the door of the bedroom, not the door to the bath.

    Within this master retreat, along with the sleeping zone, floor space is devoted to new activities not formally associated with the master bedroom/bath.

  • A relaxing/seating area near the sleeping zone which may be complimented by a small "morning kitchen".
  • A wellness center with space for exercise equipment, a spot for sitting when engaged in home spa treatments and – perhaps – a meditation retreat area.
  • A bathing/showering location that facilitates two very different activities: performance showering and, relaxing bathing.
  • The toilet (with or without a bidet) in a private water closet.
  • Special storage arrangements for specific activities: home office, hobby center, outside balcony garden and the like.
  • His/her centers.
  • The vanity/grooming station: individual furniture piece vanities with separate built-in storage for bathroom equipment.
  • The closet: Separate closet space carefully crafted for personalized storage suited to the owners. The closet may include shelving/drawer space planned to eliminate the need for freestanding bedroom furniture (another reason the sleeping area can be smaller).
  • Shower Solutions

    The heart of a master bath retreat, the shower enclosure and bathing pool are essential to this space.

    A key element in these new spaces is what Kohler Company aptly calls "performance showering" and "experience bathing."

    Leading plumbing fixture manufacturers identified the consumer’s interest - and willingness to invest in – water experiences some time ago. They then focused technological innovation and creative thinking toward expanding their product offerings to include customized environments that take cleansing and relaxation to a new level.

    Showering today can include everything from a hydromassage to an experience reminiscent of walking through a gentle spring rain. Bathing has dramatically expanded beyond the pulsating, hard-hitting jets of early hydromassage systems. Kohler Co. describes bathing choices as:

  • The Relaxation Experience: Effervescent air bubbles clinging to and caressing the skin. This bathing pool is often enhanced with oils and foams or new sensory experiences such as chromatherapy.
  • The Spa Experience: Rather than restful air bubbles, the bather enjoys a jetted tub which mixes air and water through controllable, adjustable jets.
  • The Massage Experience: The bath takes the place of a masseuse! Specifically designed special-purpose jets provide a stimulating, stress-relieving massage to the back, neck, feet or legs.
  • The Spa/Massage Experience: This option offers the opportunity to customize the experience by combining all the different jetted activities.

    All of these new choices require a new or expanded set of skills on the designer’s part. To successfully design baths that create the client's dream shower/bathing experience, here's your to do list:

      1. Expand your survey, asking questions about the client’s preferred bathing and showering experience. You need to know what the client is interested in before you plan the space!
      2. Study the products offered: Select one manufacturer and learn its showering products and systems. Join forces with your plumber to learn about significant installation requirements of special shower areas.
      3. Move out of your comfort zone as it relates to shower enclosure doors.

    That means finding a source for partial shower doors and frameless enclosures. Additionally, you should study examples of shower areas that do not use any door. They feature custom shower floor drain systems, as well as the extended use of waterproofing backerboard and ceramic tile products in the transition space between the "wet" (shower) and "dry" (towel) areas.

    An interesting 'shower room' I once designed was in a tiny master bath in my own home. I removed the walls around the vanity so it became part of the bedroom. A door then led to an entirely tiled room (much like a YMCA shower area for the girls!) that included the water closet and shower. With the increased functionality of pedestal bathroom sinks offering more landing space, and the wider selected of wall-mounted shelving systems, the idea of a shower room with a drain in the floor that also includes other fixtures (think sailboat) might work.

    Courtesy of Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, Ellen Cheever & Associates, Wilmington, DE.

      4. Familiarize yourself with ergonomic planning concerns about "people sizing" the shower area.
      5. Devote adequate time to create the necessary detailed elevations for luxury bath designs. In kitchen planning, elevations clarify the details explained by the nomenclature featured on the floor plan. In bathroom planning it's quite different: Similar or dissimilar items are installed above, below or adjacent to one another. While not connected, they have a direct interrelationship that must be planned to assure the functionality of the space.
      6. Understand how the individual's physical size and the shape of the tub dramatically affect the bathing experience. For example, a soaking tub may have a straight back much like a deep Japanese fixture. A relaxing tub encourages a more restful position. Tub sizing and shape need to be "experienced."
      7. Look for new sources of elegantly sculptured freestanding tubs. (Don't overlook the opportunity you have to create your own sculptured tubs by thermal-forming solid surface materials!) Equally as important, be creative as you suggest landing spaces to provide an area for towels, magazines or other such bathing paraphernalia.
      8. Research "low seating" options through chair manufacturers. For example, Design Within Reach ( offers an interesting collection of small cube seating that has a reversible top providing tray storage. Elegant steel and teak contemporary benches designed for exterior use may be ideal in a meditation or resting area adjacent to an exercise space.
      9. Increase your expertise – or partner with an expert – on the external heating systems required for these new spaces. The overhead heat lamps we’re all familiar with are not enough for these new bathrooms. Heated floor systems and auxiliary heat through heated towel bars are just some of the heating system "boosters" that must be included in larger bathing spaces. Remember, the user is nude or scantily clad - and, therefore, will only be comfortable in a room with higher ambient air temperatures than those found in the general living spaces.


    One of the reasons the master retreat is such an intriguing business opportunity for kitchen specialists is that the storage component of the space has grown in importance - and, therefore, demands a bigger portion of the investment dollars allocated for the project.

    In the master retreat today, cabinetry may be specified in any of the following areas:

  • Built-in cabinetry to house the television or the flat screen media center.
  • Cabinetry for a modest home office in the space.
  • Cabinetry for a refreshment center, housing a sink and faucet, coffeemaker, microwave and refrigerator equipment.
  • Built-in wardrobe cabinet to house clothing. These cabinets may be tucked in an available corner or made part of a large, well-organized dressing room-type closet.
  • An efficiently detailed hanging closet system divided into separate areas for both of the adults using it.
  • Built-in mid-height or tall storage closets for typical bathroom equipment (grooming aids, extra paper products, linens, cleaning products, hamper, hanging/drying/air space for exercise clothes), allowing the vanity areas to be created in a more furniture-like setting.
  • Individually sized and detailed vanity areas for the adults sharing the space.

    For kitchen designers interested in these bathroom storage opportunities, here's your "to do" list to getting started.

      1. Survey the available closet system business opportunities: Select one manufacturer to represent. Add a closet display to your showroom in a "real life" setting or in an image library.
      2. Partner with a boutique bath showroom or wholesale distributor’s showroom specialist who will provide you with a complete display area of bathroom products. Your showroom floor space can then be devoted to the cabinetry for these areas.
      3. Expand your design creativity, as well as your image library, to move beyond the rather pedestrian straight run of vanities kitchen designers are accustomed to. Learn to create interesting stand-alone furniture pieces with uniquely shaped countertops and backsplashes for these master suites.
      4. Investigate specific vanity cabinetry now being offered by many plumbing manufacturers that's far better designed for the bathroom space. Many kitchen cabinet manufacturers simply take a kitchen sink cabinet and make it smaller for the bath. This large, open cavity is not well-organized for bathroom storage. By specifically pinpointing the location of the vanity sink drain pipes, cut-away drawers and specialty shelves can be included.
      5. Talk with your plumber about the furniture pieces you’re going to be designing for baths: Think through how he and his helpers are going to be able to access the vanity pipes in these "off-the-floor" cabinets. A big, burly plumber who is accustomed to laying on his back and sliding into the totally open vanity sink cabinet might be a little shocked to see the Queen Anne vanity with its 12" "off-the-floor" leg design allowing only 18" of accessible height for his connection activities!


    In master baths, the optimum placement of the water closet (toilet) is in its own compartment accompanied by a bidet or enhanced with a bidet seat. Ideally, designers should include some type of storage for paper products in that small compartment so the user need not leave the area in search of a new roll of toilet paper when needed.

    Although I have no confirmed statistical data, I sense we are using fewer stand-alone bidets in master suites. The frequent personal hygiene habits of North Americans leads many consumers to "trade off" the space required for the bidet for other items they deem more important.


      1. There have been so many engineering and design improvements in 1.6 gallon flushing toilets that it's important you understand what’s new on the market.
      2. Design wise, there are some innovative, beautiful new toilets that conceal the tank in the wall and create an almost sculptural piece in place of the utilitarian toilet we are all accustomed to.


    It’s telling to note that the number of spas are increasing by 25% each year! Magazines such as Luxury Spa Finder, Healing Lifestyle Spas, and Spa, Healthy Living, Travel and Renewal further prove the consumer’s interest in the spa experience.

    For today's luxury consumer, it's not so much about spa going as it is about the spa lifestyle. The idea of a "spa lifestyle" focuses on the consumer’s lifestyle pursuits of wellness, fitness, stress reduction, healing, vitality and – let's admit it – beauty.

    The spa experience revolves around "wet" and "dry" activities.

    Wet activities include:

  • Power showering and spa bathing as described above.
  • Steam/sauna/swimming specialty areas.
  • These activities may be enhanced by sensory experiences such as:

  • Aromatherapy: The use of pure essence of aromatic plants, flowers and resins designed to help re-establish the harmony between body and mind.
  • Lumentherapy: The use of full spectrum light to help combat the negative effects of seasonal lack of natural light.
  • Thermotherapy: Developing dry heat to raise the body temperature and boost the metabolism.
  • Chromatherapy: Enveloping the body in a captivating sequence of colors created by a predetermined sequence or a custom set sequence, each lasting about one minute, adding to the relaxing experience of bathing or showering.
  • Dry activities, on the other hand, include:

  • Personal pampering such as massage, home facials, paraffin wax foot or hand treatments, home pedicure/massage activities.
  • A wellness center, which redefines the traditional concept of a "workout."
  • As a recent reader of Health Magazine said, "I used to think of working out at the gym as just that - work. Now I see my home gym as a getaway. I work out, but I take my time. I recently began to dedicate Saturday mornings as my 'spa day.'"


    For designers, the challenge is simple: allowing the floor space and storage area for all this stuff!

    Once again, find out what the consumer uses. Learn the space needed around the different pieces of equipment.

      1. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) offers the following minimal square footage for typical equipment:

    Treadmills 30 sq. ft.

    Free Weights 20-30 sq. ft.

    Bikes, Recumbent and Upright 10 sq. ft.

    Rowing Machines 20 sq. ft.

    Stair Climbers 10-20 sq. ft.

    Ski Machines 25 sq. ft.

    Single Station Gyms 35 sq. ft.

    Multi-station Gyms 50-200 sq. ft.

      2. Allow for a resting bench, typically anywhere from 18" to 36" wide by 48"/60"/72" long, 14" off the floor.
      3. A massage table is typically 28" x 72"
        4. A typical yoga mat is 24" x 72". In addition to the mat, a yoga enthusiast will normally have wood or foam blocks, as well as a rolled blanket. In that many yoga enthusiasts enjoy following an instructor on a favorite television program or practicing a routine following a video leader, access to clear sight line to a media screen may be required.

      But what about the towels? Bathroom linens today are a big part of the space. A stay at a hotel used to be an away from home stay that one endured. Over the years, as four-, five- and five-plus-star hotel properties have tried to outdo one another, bed and bath linens have become of paramount importance. As your consumers have pampered themselves by staying in these hotels, they have come to appreciate the luxury of pure Turkish bath sheets and the finest bed linens.

      The key to these linens from a bathroom designer standpoint is they’re fluffier and bigger – therefore, they need more space to store and to hang.

      In addition, here are some final things to consider:

        1. All of these "to do" lists seem pretty extensive – and they are if you’re thinking about capturing some of the business opportunities and design satisfaction of creating master bath retreats. To really "win," design firms should also expand their showroom space to show possibilities.
        2. Designers truly need to understand (and I recommend that understanding only comes through experiencing) the spa concept of wellness, comfort and relaxation. If you are not a spa enthusiast, at least make an appointment with a local day or resort spa in your area and meet with the owner or manager to learn what spa patrons enjoy. Once you’ve created a great showroom display, perhaps some joint cross-marketing programs could be developed between the two firms.
        3. Focus on partnering! For total suites, combining your talents with those of an interior designer who is planning all the fabrics for the adult retreat, a plumbing wholesale or boutique showroom specialist who knows all the details of the fixtures and fittings you'll be specifying, while working closely with heating and plumbing specialists with make for a great project.

      This is part of a quarterly series of "Designer's Notebook" stories, which will run throughout 2005 exclusively in KBDN.