Paradise by the Bathroom Light

The concept of a "spa bathroom" a magical environment that serves as refuge, cocoon and stress-reducer continues to grow and expand, with inventive new products competing to make a client's bathing environment the ultimate luxurious experience.

The punch line is, modern people desperately need a break. "Cell phones, e-mail, pagers and voice mail afford us fewer quiet moments," explains Chris Lohmann, v.p./fixtures marketing for Kohler Co., in Kohler, WI. This spurs the desire for "rejuvenating bathroom improvements that bring the spa experience home," he believes.

"Homeowners are looking to make their little cocoon at home a reality," confirms Kim Frechette, sales and marketing manager for Ultra Baths Inc., in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. "In tubs, especially, manufacturers are getting on that bandwagon. That can apply to showers, too putting in a steam unit, making it a double occupancy shower."

Some of the changes are subtle ones, with improvements in frameless glass doors and more choices in hardware finishes. Others take the spa concept into a whole new arena, according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Going mainstream
It used to be, the luxury bathroom was strictly a high-end phenomenon. But stressed-out, mid-level consumers are finding ways to bring the spa experience into their environment as well.

"People have experienced it in hotels, sitting in the outdoor spa," notes Fred Adams, v.p./marketing for LASCO Bathware, in Anaheim, CA. "They liked that, and then they realize they can have that in their home."

"There's so much more knowledge that the consumers are getting, they're so much more informed," notes Charles Scott, director of marketing for Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath, in Walnut Creek, CA. "With the combination of the Internet and the home centers, the products are getting a lot more awareness, and people are purchasing them more and more."

What defines a spa feeling? "It can involve a lot of things," explains Frechette, "such as the design of the tub, the positioning of the bathroom in the house. Think of the feng shui aspect that's going on in building right now; even a layout in your bathroom that's more 'zen,' a purified place to relax. The bathroom has become much more the spa you always wanted to have.

"Increasingly, the shower and tub are separate entities, which enables consumers to add more spa-style bells and whistles. But space constraints don't always make that possible. Frechette points out that many beautiful older homes have small bathrooms, and renovation can only go so far. "You're always dealing with the size of your bathroom," she adds.

In newer construction, "You definitely see showers separate from the bath," says Scott. "In the '70s, most houses had one bathroom, or 1-1/2. Today, most have 2-1/2 bathrooms. One of them tends to have just a shower, no bath. Showers are here to stay."

Angelo DeCarlo, v.p./marketing and sales for Luxury Bath Systems, in Glendale Heights, IL, notes that conversions from tub/shower combinations to shower stalls are a new hot trend, especially among older consumers who complain about climbing over the tub's edge to take a shower. DeCarlo points out his company's product features a right or left hand drain, enabling easy conversion without extensive re-plumbing. 

Acrylic bathtub liners and conversion kits are also available in marble and granite looks, in addition to the traditional white, biscuit and almond. Faux-ceramic tile looks are also popular, he adds, though the currently hot medallions and mosaic tile looks have yet to translate to pre-plumbed units.

Scott feels that a rapidly growing part of the market is "completely pre-plumbed systems at competitive prices, where a consumer needs to fit it into the space and it's all pre-plumbed. It's just a matter of connecting to water. That's where it'll be a mass market product."

He adds that a pre-plumbed unit can now include a jetted tub, multiple shower heads and a steam generator, taking the components of a full spa bathroom and putting them in an affordable, easy-to-install, mass-market package. He notes that the new all-in-one units also feature more stylish, built-in seats and storage shelves. 

Similarly, Adams cites the importance of "diversity in the product the simulated tile applications, the aesthetics regarding shelving for toiletries, those have been more creative. It's more integrated and not as intrusive. They've become more design oriented, fitting to accommodate better aesthetic values for the end user." Adams also notes more attention being paid to ergonomics in design, as well as a focus on people who need assisted care in the form of grab bars, with more stylish grab bars in a wider variety of styles being an accompanying trend. 

Soaking in style
Previously in danger of being supplanted by the ever-present whirlpool bath, soaking tubs are having a resurgence by focusing on style and functions that add to the spa feel of a master bath. Air or "bubble" jets also provide a different sort of jetted bathing experience. 

"They push air up instead of air and water for hydrotherapy," explains Scott. "You get action in the water but the real benefit is, you can put all kinds of oils in, and do aromatherapy."

Even straight soaking tubs feature some movement of water for a more elaborate bathing experience. 

Overflowing baths allow bathers to submerge to chin level, as a plane of water overflows the tub's rim into a water channel and is re-circulated back into the heat-controlled, air-jetted tub. "Sok combines visual, aural and tactile sensations to relax the body," says Michael Moldenhauer, marketing manager for bathing for Kohler Co., in Kohler, WI. "It creates a destination in the home for relaxation and rejuvenation."

Scott cites ovals and garden tubs as popular choices. "You see a lot more design," he says.

"People are looking for [a soaker bath] that's big enough for two people. They're doing more fanciful baths with claw feet and decorative bases," says Frechette. 

For instance, Kohler's Iron Works collection picks up on 19th century clawfoot design and traditional cast-iron fabrication. 
And, these days, clawfoot styling is no longer limited to soaker tubs: Scott points out Jacuzzi's clawfoot-style tub is available with whirlpool jets as well as a TV, DVD and CD player. "It's not like the old clawfoot," he notes. 

Overall, both whirlpool and soaker tubs have gotten considerably larger, expanding from the standard 60"x30" to 60"x60", with corner-fitting designs to maximize space. 

Frechette cautions, however, that the more-is-more approach to tubs can backfire, and consumers should think about what size bathtub is practical for them. "Otherwise, you're going to look at [your tub] and think, 'I don't feel like filling 
it up tonight,'" she believes. "Practicality reigns in the bath-room these days."

Redefining the shower
Super showers have also entered the mass market in less elaborate configurations, while the upper end of the market is focused more on design and functional elements to make the shower truly special. 

Notes Frechette, "Not everybody can afford major jet systems. You have to have a major renovation to do that, because you have to install all of that in your shower wall." She cites "rain forest" showers, plus an extra jet or two on the wall, as an easier-to-install version that still provides a luxury shower experience. She also points out that some people find the multi-jets too much of a good thing. "They think, 'I'd feel like I was drowning,'" she quips. "Sometimes too much is too much."

Isaacs agrees that showers have peaked in size. "[Consumers are] realizing all a shower has to be is big enough for two people," he notes. "[Some of the] showers are so big, it's gotten ridiculous."

He does note that people want the same number of shower heads, even in a small shower space. 

But most agree that showers are a hot item at any price point. "Showers with multiple jets are a very high-end market [item], more so than a whirlpool tub, because of the amount of work that has to be done. That is a major remodel," claims Scott. 

But, it's a remodel that high-end consumers are more than willing to embark upon, redefining and expanding the luxury components of the super shower. 

"The newest thing is going from mechanical valving to electronic," notes Ari Zieger, v.p./sales and marketing for Interbath, in Los Angeles, CA. With the new systems, mechanical valving is replaced by a single-control, fully programmable, push-button module that selects temperature, time of shower, configuration of shower heads and pulsation intervals of body sprays. The electronic device can also integrate with other electronics in the bathroom, such as lighting. It even can be used to set a maximum hot water limit to avoid the possibility of scalding. 

Zieger notes that the new systems also have a design benefit: "You take a lot of the chrome pieces off the wall and allow the design to take center stage, rather than the chrome," he explains. 

Other developments in the shower area are lower price points and more availability of steam function. 

Frameless function
For the past few years, the thick glass frameless door has been the high-end shower trend du jour. But, the style came in conflict with consumer desire for steam and multi-jet showers. With the latter "car wash" approach to bathing, leakage tended to occur even when using vinyl sealers. However, manufacturers insist that this problem can be solved by using a high-quality door and coordinating the design of the shower heads with the position of the door. 

Leaking "is a problem if you have all of those heads facing the door," notes Paul Williams, v.p./sales and marketing for BASCO Inc., in Mason, OH. "If you have the multiple heads on opposite walls from the door, facing each other [facing away from the door]," leaking is not a problem, Williams insists. 

"We provide a design manual for shower systems," adds Zieger. "One of the first things you want to make sure you do is not point [the shower heads] toward the opening. A lot of people still aren't recognizing that the water will disperse. You create a pattern out from the head, and some of these showers have a wide spray, so the water ends up running down those doors and through the seals."

Zieger notes that shower installers are becoming more sophisticated. "They know more now what to look for than they might have a year or two ago," he explains. 

"It all depends on if they want to buy a $100 door or a $1,000 door," adds Isaacs. "They can do a great job with frameless doors, but how much do you want to pay for it?" He adds that price point issues surround many bathroom items. "People will pay $1,000 for a faucet, [but] they won't pay $200 for a towel bar," he elaborates. 

High-end consumers are also differentiating their spa bathroom from the home center kind by choosing more upscale, unique hardware for their tubs and showers, manufacturers report. "Finish selection is becoming very important at the decorative high end," says Zieger. 

Williams cites "living finishes" such as oil rubbed bronze, which has a natural, matte look that eventually develops a patina, as a particularly hot trend. Long-time kitchen favorites brushed and satin nickel are also a strong trend for bathroom hardware. Isaacs also points out oil-rubbed copper and unlacquered brass as popular upscale choices. "Copper used to be just a kitchen finish, but you're starting to find that in the bathroom," says Zieger. "Chrome is still the most popular, but the satin nickel and brushed nickel has gone way beyond polished brass to become our number two finish."

While hardware grows in diversity, fixture color remains a conservative pick for most homeowners. "I think everyone's come to the conclusion that you can design around white and biscuit if you want to," says Frechette. "There are very pretty colors, but how long are you going to live with them? White and biscuit are still the standards."

In terms of shower walls, granite, marble and slate are popular high-end choices, those surveyed agreed. Within recent years, earth colors have replaced pastels, notes Adams. "The market changed, and now it's become more earth tones, teak colors, contrasting darks."

Whatever the changes that happen this year, the way people look at bathrooms has changed permanently. Scott compares the new bathroom to the new kitchen, which frequently encompasses the former formal dining room to form one open, multi-functional great room. "The bathroom isn't just someplace to go wash anymore," he concludes. KBDN