Heated Havens

by Anita Shaw

The bathroom is a personal refuge for many homeowners, a place to escape the stresses of daily life while indulging in therapeutic heat and hydrotherapy options ranging from steam and sauna to a relaxing soak in a deep tub – with or without jetted massage.

As homeowners seek more ways to relax and create a spa-like retreat in their bathrooms, steam and sauna options are becoming increasingly popular additions. Heat bathing offers a wide array of benefits, from ridding the body of toxins naturally and improving skin condition, to relaxing sore muscles, relieving stress and promoting better sleep, according to John Gunderson, national sales manager for Woodinville, WA-based Amerec.

The desire to pull back from the intensity of everyday life in the digital world also has consumers adding more products to promote relaxation in their spaces. “With the growing awareness of our need for personal wellness and ‘digital detox,’ people are looking more and more for a retreat from the world,” says Erica Moir v.p. new product development at Chino Hills, CA-based Jacuzzi Luxury Bath. “We are seeing our jetted baths being incorporated into ‘Hydrotherapy Circuits,’ where you might have a sauna, a cold shower area and a hydro-massage bath experience to move through,” she says.

Trends in bathtubs continue to hold steady, with freestanding models and air bath options among the most popular choices. The ability to personalize the space with products that meet consumers’ individual needs continues to be important, as does attention to products that offer easy accessibility. That’s according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Continuing patterns

Change doesn’t come quickly, and manufacturers have not seen any drastic shifts in trends over the past year. There are, however, some developments that are holding steady, including the addition of freestanding tubs and the popularity of air jets.

Don Clarke, president, Clarke Products in Colleyville, TX notes that, while there haven’t been radical changes over the past few years, in acrylic tubs they have seen a tremendous move toward skirted tubs rather than drop-in soakers or alcove tubs. Because this shift is so strong, he says, Clarke is introducing a new line of skirted tubs to bring some refreshing changes to the products they offer.

Clarke adds that whirlpools and therapy tubs continue to be a declining category, while freestanding soakers are on the rise.

Bill Strang, president of operations and ecommerce at Morrow, GA-based TOTO USA, agrees that freestanding tubs are increasing in popularity. “Typically, the freestanding tubs have a much more appealing aesthetic,” he says. The goal is to bring a spa-like feel to the bathroom space, he states, and a freestanding tub can highlight the aesthetic and flow of the room.

“Freestanding soaking bathtubs continue to be the most popular in the bathing category, particularly those that fit in a compact footprint while still offering a spacious interior for the bather,” states Jean-Jacques L’Henaff, v.p. – design, LIXIL Americas, the division under which DXV and American Standard operate, based in Piscataway, NJ. American Standard has a new design configuration, the Townsend Freestanding Tub, which L’Henaff says offers unique flexibility with its “three-sided” design. “Its finished flat back provides the option of installing it as the centerpiece of a more expansive bathroom, or against a bathroom wall to save space. This installation alternative allows the tub to be highlighted with either a wall, floor or deck mount tub filler,” he explains.

Sara Pereira, bathing product manager at Kohler, based in Kohler, WI, says that both soaking tubs and air baths continue to lean toward the freestanding styles. “They provide a beautiful centerpiece to the bathroom and can be an impactful addition/statement to the bathroom space,” she says.

When therapeutic tubs are chosen, focus continues to shift toward air baths, manufacturers agree. “We’ve seen an increase in the demand for air baths, as they are perceived to be easier to clean than traditional whirlpool baths. With air baths the user can ‘purge’ or dry the air channels,” says Pereira. “The air channels also provide a little cleaner aesthetic than whirlpool jets.”

L’Henaff adds that the deep soak, freestanding tubs are starting to see the addition of air-bath jets, an option that was historically offered only in alcove- or platform-installed whirlpool tubs.

Connected Controls

Although the bath space is often designed to be a refuge from the digital world, consumers aren’t quite ready to throw out technology altogether.

“People want choices,” says Martha Orellana, v.p., marketing at MrSteam, based in Long Island City, NY. “Even if they don’t have a home-automation system now, they want to install products that will be compatible with one, just in case they want to add one in the future. They also want technology that’s easy to use and reliable. In steam shower systems, that means touch screens, apps, wireless controls, innovative steam dispersion and precision temperature control – and, of course, smart home system-compatible.”

Gunderson adds that consumers want systems with controls that offer different user settings, multiple languages and systems that can be controlled by phone apps.

Pereira also sees smart-home trends moving into the bathing category. Kohler previewed its PerfectFill automatic fill and drain system at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. “Time is a luxury in our consumers’ busy lives, and we are trying to give a little time back to them with this product to enable them to relax,” she says.

Pereira adds that digital showering platforms, like the company’s DTV+, are a popular way to incorporate steam into the bathroom space. “A digital showering system allows enhanced control over the experience a consumer has with the steam system, and can offer additional benefits with the integration of customized showering experiences with steam,” she says.

Personal Experience

While de-stressing is the common goal that drives the demand for therapeutic products, the specific features that promote relaxation are highly personal. That’s why it’s so important for manufacturers to offer a range of options, so designers can truly customize the space.

“In addition to the scientifically researched benefits of steam therapy, aromatherapy, music therapy and light therapy all have very specific benefits as well. Once homeowners learn about each, they customize their shower so that it serves as their personalized wellness retreat,” says Orellana. It’s easy to add wellness features that meet individual needs into a steam shower system, she adds.

Customized features are important in the sauna as well, says Gunderson. Some of the most important are designs that incorporate lots of glass, custom benches and multi-colored wood, as well as sauna heaters that can adjust the humidity and temperature of the room. “The days of the sauna being an old wood room in the basement are over. They are now the show pieces in the bathroom, with warm, inviting wood colors, [an] open glass feeling and soft lighting that induces relaxation,” he says.

One important feature upgrade for tubs, according to Moir, is light therapy. “Great lighting can really change the atmosphere of a space, but it needs to be indirect and adjustable, so you can personalize it. We offer illuminated jets that are lit from behind, so you are not looking at the source. The water takes on the color of the light and it absolutely glows.”

Features that allow for a satisfying experience without needing to replace a tub are also important. For instance, L’Henaff says deep soaking tubs are very popular, but homeowners often want to keep the tub they already have. “Installing a universal Deep Soak Drain, which features a unique overflow allowing a deeper water level than conventional drains, is an easy and affordable option to achieve soaking luxury in almost any tub. Users can turn a standard tub into a soaking oasis with this simple drain replacement,” he says.

Clarke has seen more demand for linear drains rather than circular drains. “It’s a cleaner look, and it also allows the existing bathtub to take on more water so you can have a deeper soak in the same bathtub,” he notes.

The desire to have highly personalized spaces also has an impact on the shape and look of the tub, manufacturers claim. Strang says people are either choosing straight edges and clean, hard shapes or they are choosing the softer, more organic feeling curved lines.

Ultimate relaxation

Products that offer homeowners the opportunity to experience a spa-like atmosphere in the comfort of their own homes are becoming increasingly popular. Steam and sauna options are increasingly incorporated into these spaces, manufacturers say.

“Steam converts the current shower space, and saunas are taking over where large bathtubs used to be,” states Gunderson.

“90% of Americans rate wellness as a top priority and are finding ways to make their homes healthier places,” adds Orellana. “Adding steam shower systems so they can have the health benefits of steam at home is allowing them to create the wellness environment they want and need. Since steam can be added to nearly any size shower, every home can incorporate a wellness sanctuary.”

“Steam showers and saunas are a key element of the ‘Hydrotherapy Circuit’ as a means of relaxation and recovery,” believes Moir. “People often experience the benefits of a multi-therapy circuit at a spa resort and later want to incorporate that into their home.”

Some manufacturers are creating new options that promote extreme relaxation, such as tubs that recreate the feel of a natural hot spring, or tubs that allow users to feel like they are floating.

TOTO has created a tub that gives users a “zero-gravity” feeling, Strang says, noting that manufacturers are paying attention to consumers’ bathtub priorities, with personal well-being at the top of the list.

In designing their flotation tubs, TOTO researched the specific angles of knees, shoulders, elbow and arms that would allow for the sense of weightlessness in the tub. They put jets under the knees and in the back area, and the tub includes a movable pillow that can be adjusted for height.

TOTO also did brainwave scans on those testing the tubs in order to have data that quantifies the level of relaxation a user is able to achieve. Strang believes the U.S. has a big “shower culture” as people rush to get things done, and bringing this kind of science into design allows an opportunity for people to pause and understand the positive effects of taking the time to really relax.

Another new use of technology in the hydrotherapy category is designed to recreate the experience of bathing in a natural hot spring, says L’Henaff. “Later this year, DXV will introduce a new drop-in airbath with an Aqua Moment Waterfall, which uses curtain flow technology to deliver a soft veil of warm water from an elongated spout, wrapping the bather in warm, flowing water. Already popular in Japan, this technology creates a stimulating water experience for the user, enhancing relaxation, while requiring less water than a deep soaking tub.”

Comfortable Accessibility

Designers and homeowners are paying closer attention to what will be needed in terms of accessibility, either immediately or somewhere down the road. With homeowners increasingly wanting to age in place, looking to the future is essential.

“When planning bathroom spaces, homeowners are considering their future just as much as their present needs, and accessibility is big consideration, especially in the shower,” Orellana says. They also consider whether they will be caring for a loved one with physical limitations, she points out. “Changing the shower to a no- or low-threshold [model] and adding wider doorways are just two of the long-term accessibility choices they are making. They’re also adding steam showers for the many wellness benefits they provide at any age.”

“As the population ages, we’re seeing more interest in features designed to accommodate users with mobility issues,” states L’Henaff. “Accessible design can be incorporated into hydrotherapy products in a variety of ways, from full-coverage, slip-resistant surfaces to walk-in tubs that offer luxurious whirlpool, air bath and combo massage systems with convenient outward opening doors for full accessibility.”

Moir adds that popular hydrotherapy features are incorporated into many accessible products, including walk-in bathtubs. “They come with lighting, jetting and experience options, just like traditional bathtubs do. At Jacuzzi Luxury Bath, we try to build hidden accessibility features into standard products, such as wider decks on freestanding bathtubs and grab bars in drop-in bathtubs to facilitate entry and exit,” she notes.

Strang says, “There are several manufacturers working very diligently to make the ‘walk-in tub’ more accommodating of that user.” He adds that walk-in tubs have a couple of unique challenges: the need to fill quickly at a temperature comfortable for the user, who has to get in while the tub is empty; and the need to empty quickly to allow the user to exit. 

All of these considerations have manufacturers becoming more aware of and attentive to accessibility demands. Clarke sees a growing awareness on the part of consumers to build in accessibility features even if they don’t yet need them. There’s more future thinking about whether they will need it later, he believes.

“The addition of accessible options in the bathing category is helping consumers keep their bathing routines, even with changing mobility,” concludes Pereira. ▪

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