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