Hydrotherapy Refuge

by Ashley Lapin Olian

While a shower may be the preferred choice for daily cleansing, hydrotherapy products like jetted tubs, soaking tubs, steam rooms and saunas are increasingly used to create an oasis of relaxation in the home.

With the abundance of options available to create a personalized home spa environment, designers should understand the role these products play in the spaces they design, and how to assist homeowners in building a sanctuary away from the constant stress of modern life.

Relaxation is the primary motivator for bathing, says Dawn Jastrow, product manager for Kohler bathing products in Kohler, WI. But relaxation doesn’t look the same for every person. Some prefer a quiet soak, while others are looking for direct targeted massage. And many fall somewhere in between, Jastrow notes. That’s why options are so important.

Mark Wolinsky, president of WETSTYLE, based in Montreal, Canada, notes that hydrotherapy products have shifted from jetted tubs toward tubs that offer a sculptural, craftsman aesthetic. This shift, he believes, is not due to disdain for jet systems, but is attributed to how bathing spaces are defined. “Bathing spaces are no longer just a space of function, but are also now a source for impactful design statements. In turn, hydrotherapy products – ranging from soaking tubs to steam arrangements – have gotten a facelift, donning design-oriented details and silhouettes that truly impress,” he states.

Freestanding tubs are becoming far more prevalent, which has further shifted trends. “We are seeing freestanding bathtubs being treated as the centerpiece of the master bath design,” says Kristina Spindler, director of marketing at Chino Hills, CA-based Jacuzzi Luxury Bath. “Oftentimes, the rest of the room’s design elements are based on the bathtub design chosen, whether it be traditional, contemporary or transitional. Consumers are willing to spend more to get the look and feel of a modern bathroom,” she adds.

As designers help their clients create exactly the space they want, there are some key trends to keep in mind. Controls and features that add convenience are in demand, as are products that can creatively fit into unconventional spaces. The ability to customize is increasingly important. And products that address accessibility concerns while still looking great are also a high priority. That’s according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.


Bathrooms come in all shapes and sizes, and this variety carries over into hydrotherapy products. What matters more than the size, though, is maximizing the space available in the bath.

“Bathtubs aren’t necessarily getting larger or smaller, they’re becoming more adaptable and customizable,” says Wolinsky. “At the core of this trend is the desire of users to transform spaces of every shape and size imaginable into bathrooms, which has catalyzed the popularity of the freestanding tub.”

Jason Clark, product manager for Hansgrohe in Alpharetta, GA, agrees that freestanding tubs are on the rise. “These tubs offer a lot of flexibility in their placement. Interestingly, some people are choosing to put tubs in unexpected places like at the center of a bathroom, or even in the bedroom,” he says.

Jean-Jacques L’Henaff, v.p. of design, LIXIL Water Technology Americas, American Standard and DXV, in Piscataway, NJ, says, “These deep-soak, stand-alone tubs – which become the focal point of the room with their distinctive sculptural lines – are seeing additional features such as air jets, which historically were offered only in alcove or platform-installed whirlpools.” Although consumers want a deep soak, he adds, they aren’t always willing to replace an existing tub. Replacing the drain with an option like the American Standard Deep Soak Drain, which features a unique overflow allowing at least a 2″ deeper water level than conventional drains, can bring the deep soaking experience to a standard tub.

“Large bathtubs are still perceived as a luxurious upgrade and that translates even to the freestanding models we offer,” says Spindler. “Many still want a bath large enough for two! However, more and more homeowners are also pursuing freestanding bathtubs for the smaller or secondary bathroom,” she adds.

And, while the freestanding trend has impacted the jetted tub market, since jets were not historically available in stand-alone models, this is no longer the case, Spindler adds. Jacuzzi introduced its first freestanding jetted tub this year.

Steam showers are increasingly a part of the plan, whether combined with a tub or as a stand-alone enclosure says Martha Orellana, v.p. of marketing & sales at MrSteam in Long Island City, NY. “In large master bathrooms, steam is taking a more prominent position as the anchor of the home spa environment,” she says. And that’s not only in large spaces. “Homeowners are realizing that their limited square footage does not preclude them from incorporating the indulgence of steam.”


Hydrotherapy is all about relaxation, wellness and a customized, spa-like experience. This means the options must be flexible, allowing each homeowner to have exactly the refuge they are looking for.

“There is more emphasis on therapy performance; people want a true spa experience in their homes,” says Don Clarke, president of Clarke Products in Colleyville, TX.

“Bathing and relaxation are very personal, and consumers do customize their experiences,” says Jastrow. Kohler’s consumer research has shown inclusion of many non-plumbing products in the bathing experience, including books, iPads, wine and candles. “Understanding this helps us to better design baths that can accommodate the experience homeowners are looking for,” she says.

“Consumers want choices,” agrees Greg Wells, director of marketing and communications for Bestbath in Caldwell, ID, a manufacturer of walk-in tubs. “At Bestbath, we are seeing more people looking for upgrades and options to enhance their bathing experience. Many are looking for the features offering a more luxurious spa experience, and opting for air and water jets, but also asking about seat heaters to make it more comfortable,” he says.

Though not every bath will include the same components, there are some products that show up consistently, manufacturers say. “We’ve seen a lot of custom features trend, but the most popular mainstays seem to be steam showers and additional lighting,” says Lea Mendoza, senior product designer for TOTO USA in Morrow, GA. “Both features are effective at creating a day-to-day, spa-like experience.”

Health benefits are the biggest driving interest in steam bathing, says John Gunderson, national sales manager for Woodinville, WA-based Amerec. “As baby boomers age, they are looking for natural ways to stay healthy. Steam is one of the best natural ways to reduce aches and pains, rid the body of toxins and help reduce stress.” Consumers are learning more about steam bath design, he says, and expect a consistent flow of steam with minimal temperature fluctuations.

Design elements tie into customization as well. “Finding the right fittings to complement the tub are key,” says Clark.

“When you look at a bathing space, there are the typical components – sink, tub, toilet – but what makes the bathroom a reflection of the user are the smaller details,” Wolinsky believes. “This is where customization comes to play. From slight modifications to decorative elements such as overflow trims, to hue choice and sizing, users are able to tailor their hydrotherapy experiences to their design style.”

This desire for originality carries over to the sauna as well. “Like many other industries where custom is standard, the sauna has experienced a need to broaden the scope of what is available, while refining the quality and design of the features and upgrades available,” says Mark Raisanen, general manager for Finnleo in Cokato, MN. “Whether a homeowner is planning a designer series panel-built sauna as part of an existing home fitness center or drawing plans for a custom-cut sauna in new construction, the sauna needs to be as unique as the homeowner.”

Options include versatile and decorative bench systems and the use of different colored accent woods. Sauna lighting options are focused on providing gentle light to accent features of the room and provide adequate light for the bather’s needs, Raisanen mentions. Dimmable LED lights provide greater flexibility in design and use, he notes, and can be installed as valances, backrest lighting or under bench or bench skirt lighting.


Since the goal is to create a spa-like atmosphere, a variety of sensory features are essential, including music, colored lights, scents and heat.

In saunas, there is a demand for heaters that provide a wider range of sauna bathing experiences, rather than simply dry, hot heat, according to Raisanen.

Aromatherapy, music and chromatherapy are also increasingly added to the bathing environment, manufacturers say.

“Whether the homeowner wants to emerge from the steam shower feeling awake and stimulated, relaxed and ready to sleep, or simply wants relief from allergy or cold symptoms, aromatherapy oils deliver a full sensory experience that transforms a traditional steam shower session,” says Orellana. As awareness of the feature increases, more consumers are choosing to add aromatherapy to their steam experience, she explains. Music and chromatherapy are also popular additions, she adds.

The sensory experience that jetted tubs offer is also important, and can be tailored to meet the needs of individual users. “Hydromassage is a concept that has been around for over 60 years, and the benefits are still recognized today,” says Spindler. “There are significant health benefits to sitting in moving water, whether you are an athlete seeking muscle repair or suffer from an ailment that is soothed by hydromassage. With today’s air and jetting systems, customization options are endless,” she states.


Technology creeps into every aspect of modern life. In the hydrotherapy market, one major impact technology has is on the controls – particularly for steam and sauna.

“As baby boomers age in place and environmental issues become more important, we may see connected solutions that keep us safer and healthier, and facilitate increased water conservation,” Mendoza says.

“Steam showers that integrate seamlessly into a homeowner’s technology-driven world are in high demand,” says Orellana. “Wireless, touch-screen, intelligent controls, innovative steam dispersion and precision temperature control are becoming necessities.” More consumers are choosing smart-home compatible systems, she says, planning for the possibility of adding a smart-home system even if they aren’t currently using one. But design is not suffering, she adds. “Steam shower controls and steam heads that highlight sleek, minimalist aesthetics illustrate this very well.”

Gunderson sees apps that control the steam room from a cell phone driving the market away from dual controls to a single control inside the room and a smartphone. “Having controls that are either recessed or surface-mounted in the field is providing greater flexibility for the designers and installers,” he adds.


Universal Design and accessibility considerations are becoming increasingly important. However, consumers don’t want to sacrifice design for easier access.

“Accessibility should always be considered,” says Spindler. “If you can manage to camouflage an accessibility feature in a desirable design, then you have a home run.”

“Walk-in bathtubs offer true accessibility, of course, and that offering is getting more elegant design elements added like fast-fill faucets, handheld showers and chrome accents,” Spindler adds.

Clarke concurs: “We know we are building for an aging population and are incorporating more features suited to their needs into the tubs.” This is particularly true in walk-in units, he says, which include standard water temperature readouts, ozonators, diverters to control the whirlpool effect to either the entire tub or just the legs and feet, heat pads and a 3.25″ threshold. “Hydrotherapy is being well received by elders who usually have greater need or will benefit from warm water therapy. They often indicate a greater sensitivity to the power of the hydrosystems, but want the adjustability to go from strong to soft, and our systems provide that with adjustable output pumps,” he adds.

Wolinsky says, “As our population continues to age, it’s natural for accessibility and hydrotherapy products to converge. The trend is visible in not only the increased number of product offerings that comply with ADA standards, but also in the increased availability of ADA products that are categorically stylish.”

L’Henaff sees growth in jetted walk-in tubs, which provide the benefits of whirlpool spas for homeowners who are aging in place as well as those with limited mobility.

Orellana says that consumers designing or redesigning their bathrooms to accommodate aging in place are also incorporating steam for personal wellness. “In addition to the many health benefits of steam, by incorporating a no-threshold entry and an installed shower seat, both of which are features of a steam shower enclosure, their steam shower becomes a safe, comfortable personal wellness retreat,” she concludes. ▪

For additional hydrotherapy products, go to our Product Guide.

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