Bigger and Better

While most designers would admit that each project they do is vital to expanding their design capabilities (and their bottom line), designing a luxury spa can take on added meaning – both for their business and for the well-being of the client.

In fact, as several designers interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News point out, luxury spa projects offer designers ample opportunity to “wow” clients due to more exotic product choices, more adventurous clients who can afford to go dramatic and change out later, if necessary, and the impregnable need for a stress-free environment that promotes clients’ sense of self.

Steve Meltzer, president of Short Hills, NJ-based Abbey’s Kitchens, Baths and Interiors, Inc. explains: “It seems that since the attacks of 9/11, people are seeing that they are vulnerable and, as a result, are not traveling as much. But, when they do travel, they stay at hotels that have these great bathrooms and [they want that in their home].”

And, as a result, master bath suites are not only getting bigger, but better, as well. “The showers will continue to get larger. Gone are the days of the 3'x3' shower,” he says.

So, what makes a spa luxurious, and how do designers go about creating it? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

“I think what makes a luxury spa are the multiple nozzles, as well as the steam units that clients would normally have to go to the gym to use,” offers Kim Rowley, designer for Evergreen, CO-based The Kitchen and Bath Center.

Carol J. Weissman Kurth, AIA of Bedford, NY-based The Office of Carol J. Kurth, AIA, architect, p.c. adds: “Setting the proper mood is critical, whether it be through textures, colors or a combination of those things, plus lighting – and then, of course, the general lines of the space itself.”

Meltzer adds: “A lot of spa-like bathrooms feature things that are very open. For instance, instead of having closed vanities [for towels], the towels are placed on a bottom shelf to display on racks – almost like a health spa. It is a different look.”

Indeed, the luxury spa – perhaps more than any other room – displays an “anything goes” approach, with exercise equipment, coffee machines, microwaves (for food and towels!) and washers and dryers among the amenities being selected.

Jeannie Fulton, a designer for Ridgewood, NJ-based Ulrich, Inc., notes that technology is making an impact, as well.

“I've seen TVs that are integrated behind the medicine cabinet and the TV is viewed through the mirror glass. When the TV is off, it looks like a mirror, and when it is on, you can watch it,” she offers.

Meltzer adds that the infusion of technology into the luxury spa can be a sign of things to come.

“I think you will see more people accessing the Internet, reading e-mail and using computers with water-resistant, wireless keyboards [in the master bath],” he says. But regardless of the amenities added to a luxury spa, the bottom line is that the client must be comfortable with the space, says Gregory Peters, principal of San Francisco, CA-based Peters & Associates.

“The real driving principle is what is in the mind’s eye of the clients and what they want to achieve, especially within their budget, and within a time frame and schedule,” he notes.

Rowley concurs: “The idea is finding out the needs of the clients, and what their budget is, and exposing them to as [many choices] as possible.”

Meltzer adds that designers should not ignore the fundamental aspects of the design, either.

“Function is the most important thing, followed, of course, by safety. The challenge is to integrate the different areas so that they tie into each other, and a lot of it depends on the actual size of the space. Aesthetics are what everyone sees, but the aesthetics are actually the easiest part,” he stresses.

Margie Little, CMKBD, an independent kitchen and bath designer from Contra Costa County, CA, shares a similar view. “I always start out with layout, not with the look. I have to start with the client’s priorities, because no matter what it is, to make it luxury for them it has to sell their dreams,” she concludes.

Times are changing

The luxury spa will evolve considerably over the years, most noticeably in size, Peters believes.

“People want bigger bathrooms because it becomes their one area of refuge. Everyone is so stressed out – both business-wise and personally. It is also an expression of what they’ve achieved, so they choose huge bathrooms and kitchens.”

Fulton adds: “It has grown immensely, especially in terms of the amount of space that people are allowing for their home spa bathrooms. I see a lot of clients taking an extra bedroom to make it a master bath, or stealing space from closets and taking excess space and putting that into the master bath. It is a very popular thing, and I think it is due to people wanting the spa or gym experience in their home.”

Rowley agrees: “There are definitely more amenities in the master bath; they are bigger, and everything is built-in.”

She continues: “One spa we did features a soaking tub at one end and a shower with adjustable nozzles and an overhead rain shower in the shower area. Next to that is a shaving station, which features a built-in wall nook to hold the client’s things. He also put in two steam units to heat the room. To top it off, we put in a sound system that pipes in spa music.”

This ties in exactly with the luxury spa trend, notes another designer.

“If they are going to do a luxury spa, they are going to want [a lot of] amenities, such as a whirlpool tub. They are also going to want some nice storage cabinetry and glass tiles,” notes Jan Syms, sales manager for Elk Grove Village, IL-based Kitchen & Bath Corner, Inc.

Conversely, Little and Meltzer also note that grab bars – an option that clients declined in the past – are also becoming more widely accepted in luxury spas.

Keeping Hydrated

The need for water – and all of its healing and relaxing properties – in the luxury spa has led to an influx of ultra high-end bath products and applications, the designers point out.

“For an ultimate shower, if there is enough room, you’d like to have a small seating area, as well,” says Meltzer, “especially if there is a steam room built into it, because you need to have a place to sit.”

“I’m doing more steam showers than ever,” says Little. “People are asking for them and finding out that they are not that much more expensive if you want to add a steam unit to a regular shower.”

Syms agrees: “Steam units are important, and you should try to create a nice bench [effect]. We recently took out a closet and created a bench that is 60" – so now the client has his own health club!”

“We put in shower seats and people love it,” adds Little, “but they should also have a hand-held showerhead reachable from the seat, especially for older clients.”

She adds: “If you put in vertical bars next to the seat, then you can lower that head and still have two hands available to wash and use the soap.”

Meltzer offers: “There should definitely be multiple showerheads in the shower – a main showerhead and a secondary, hand-held showerhead, which would not be mounted on a bracket, but, rather, on a bar so it could be slid up and down. This is particularly good for people who want to take a shower, but not get their hair wet.”

Meltzer notes that other options available are body sprays and rainheads, adding that body sprays are typically positioned at different points of the body, such as the hip, calf and torso areas.

“The whirlpool is almost a necessity for every person’s spa, as well,” he adds, noting that there are varying whirlpool sizes for clients concerned about the amount of time it may take to fill a larger tub.

“There are smaller whirlpool jets and larger whirlpool jets available. There are jets for shoulder massage, and there is an air system out now where, instead of jets blowing water, they blow warm air. It creates bubbles along the bottom, and you can have a combination of hydrotherapy and air for a massaging effect,” he adds.

Peters concludes: “I have also seen large showers the size of walk-in closets with shower bars, as well as overhead rainfall showerheads. I am also seeing numerous niches for shampoo bottles and body care products, seating and showers serving dual function as steam rooms.”

Hot hot hot

While the purpose of the shower process is certainly to keep the client wet, it is equally important that they stay hot during, and after, their spa experience.

Therefore, towel warmers and floor heating are very alluring options, the designers point out.

“One of the things I have to remind people is that showers without doors make for a colder shower experience,” says Little. “If you have an open shower, people will tend to take shorter showers. Towel warmers can certainly help with that.”

Says Meltzer: “Towel warmers are becoming bigger and bigger. If the clients take a luxurious bath or shower every day at the same time, they can set it on a timer so the towels will be hot and ready for them.”

“Heated floors are very big here, as are heated towel bars. People are also putting warming drawers in, as well as microwaves and coffee machines,” adds Rowley.

“I have been seeing a lot of radiant heating going into luxury spas,” Fulton concurs. ‘There is also a trend toward installing the microwave or [other] warming device in the bathroom, not only for the towel warming, but for that early morning cup of coffee.”

Kurth adds: “I think that radiant heating is one of the best features you can put into a luxury spa. I would suggest running the radiant heating right into the shower on the floor tile, and, if you have a bench, you can even put it on the bench, as long as it is a built-out bench rather than a slab bench.”

Meltzer also notes that designers can also choose to place a built-in heater into a whirlpool tub, which will keep the water at a constant setting.

“I also suggest installing a thermostatic valve, because you can dial in the temperature of the water you want, and it will not vary more than one or two degrees. This is important because each person gets the temperature setting [that they are most comfortable with], and that is a nice option for people,” Meltzer continues.

Material mix

According to Rowley, many materials are being explored by clients, with glass moving to the forefront.

“You are seeing a lot more of the glass mosaic being used, and fancier trims, as well.

People are being very artistic and creative with the tile work, and they are finding some very exotic tiles and going wild on the patterns they use,” she says.

“Glass tiles are becoming very popular,” says Meltzer, who adds, “We just did a bath that had bluish tile and some whites mixed in to create a spa look.”

“They also want the Euro glass – the frameless glass – in the shower. That is big because it is very clean and opens up the shower,” Rowley continues.

“Glass is very popular, and I am definitely seeing it used for custom shower doors,” adds Syms.

“I have some clients where the homes are on large properties, and the showers themselves have full sheets of glass so that they get the effect of showering in a forest, with the trees providing privacy,’ Peters offers.

Peters points out that clients are becoming much more adventurous with surfacing materials and edge treatments, as well.

“It is almost a given that, rather than the standard granite or marble, people are choosing more exotic stones, such as lapis [a blue-toned stone] or onyx. We have even seen a coelacanth stone used. It looks like a semi-transparent stone, like an onyx, but, if you look closely, you can see the petrified remains,” he explains.

But, regardless of how exotic any of the client’s amenities are, these designers note that the colors chosen for the luxury spa should have a timeless appeal.

“Keep colors as soft as possible, so that you can add all sorts of accessories. If you go with crazy colors, you will be stuck in the future,” says Syms.

To that end, earth tones and lighter blues were among the most recommended color selections suggested by the designers.

Lighting the way

Lighting – whether it be for ambience or tasks – is also key to creating a successful luxury spa, the designers agree.

“Installing proper lighting in [a luxury spa environment] is critical – especially mood lighting. I suggest that designers put everything on a dimmer, and use sconces. If there are cabinets above the countertops, I suggest putting rope lighting up on the top of that to create a nice glow effect,” says Rowley, who notes that lighting is also popping up in the shower.

Peters agrees: “Shower lighting provides functional aspects, and can also create different moods.”

“But, you also need to be careful with glass around the spa and make sure that breakable things aren’t nearby,” Kurth warns, noting, “However, it is very important to have decorative pieces that tie into a theme, but you also have to pay attention to the opposite requirements for make-up lighting versus mood lighting.”

“Lighting is extremely important,” adds Meltzer. “You want to use the lighting that enhances the flesh tones of people. [Then], in the area of the medicine cabinet, for example, [try] magnifying mirrors that swing out and can be brought closer to someone’s face.”

Little offers another creative lighting possibility for the spa, as well: “I like to put the sink on an East-facing wall and have a window on each side of the mirror, or have one row of 8" blocks on each side. To have East-facing light on your face in the morning is the best light you can get, by far.”

Designer beware

When embarking on a luxury spa project, there are a few caveats that designers need to consider.

The unequivocal culprit (and ironically, the greatest boon) to creating the ideal luxury spa is the proper use of space, says Little.

“Where do we get the space?” she asks. “It is expensive to add on, and sometimes financially impossible. You can borrow space from an adjacent room, or do it by fooling the eye. For instance, how you arrange the fixtures and the elements in the bathroom can sometimes give you a feeling of spaciousness.”

She continues: “When you enter the room, I think it gives you a greater sense of luxury if you have wide, long vistas from where you enter the room. You need that first-impression ‘thing,’ and you need to walk into the room and feel like you can look over most of the details that are placed around.”

She quickly adds: “Of course, the first thing most people want to see is the vanities.” “Stepped-up platforms with steps that provide an area of ledges to put decorative items can create a podium of space,” offers Kurth, adding, “However, this only works as long as the steps are appropriately spaced with the height of the [overall] space so that people don’t trip over them when they enter and exit the shower.”

Meltzer also offers some installation advice as well, noting: “[Designers should know that] steam rooms need to be designed correctly. You need to slope the ceiling. If you don’t have a sloped ceiling, the steam goes upward and condenses on the cold tile and you wind up getting cold water droplets dropping on your head. If you slope the ceiling, the water follows the slope and heads down the back of the shower and the client doesn’t get wet.”

Kurth adds that designers should know to tantalize all of the client’s senses as well. “Depending if there is a gym with a treadmill [in the luxury spa], for instance, there needs to be acoustic separation. Many times, if there is gym equipment on the first floor, there will be a vibration and that can be tricky. So, a lot of times people that do spas at home choose the basement level where there is a concrete floor [to mute the sound].”

According to Rowley, the geographic area of the project may have an impact on the final result, of a luxury spa, too.

“[Colorado, for instance, requires that] plumbing not be put on the outside walls. While the best design might be to put your shower on one wall, you can’t do it because you risk having your pipes freeze,” she offers.

But, these seemingly stringent limitations can also lead to some rather creative design alternatives.

“If you want to knock out walls, or if you want two bathrooms back-to-back, you can take plumbing from the downstairs kitchen. The plumbing may be limited, but you can use that as a guideline and will be open to a lot more [options],” she notes.

This is pertinent for other reasons, Peters adds. “One needs to be counseled on whether the home will ever be sold, what the financial investments are, and the appreciation,” he says.

Syms concludes: “The key is to create a layout they will enjoy for the next 20 years. The investment they are making will be a great resale for them.” KBDN

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