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Restorative Refuge

Hydrotherapy options allow designers to create custom experiences for homeowners with jetted tubs, saunas, soaking tubs and innovative sensory experiences.

authors Elizabeth Richards 

mid the hectic hustle and bustle of daily routines, the idea of self-care and wellness is emerging as an essential part of a well-balanced life. That’s why, more and more often, homeowners are turning their bathroom spaces – particularly the master – into personal sanctuaries where they can relax and recharge. Heat and hydrotherapy products are central to the creation of these personal refuges.

“Bathtubs in general are rising strongly. This is in direct correlation to the wellness trend, which is extremely strong and continues to grow on a global basis,” says Michael Kornowa, director of marketing at MTI Baths, Inc. in Sugar Hill, GA. “People are recognizing the therapeutic value of bathtubs. This includes soaking tubs, whirlpools and air baths, as well as a variety of sensory therapies that can be combined with the various hydrotherapies. Apart from being viewed as a luxurious escape, bathtubs are being perceived for their therapeutic value and as an integral part of people’s pursuit of holistic wellness.”

These home retreats must be set up to exact consumer specifications, creating demand for a wide range of options. “We know that homeowners are increasingly interested in creating their own spa-inspired wellness space in the home and there are a variety of products with personalized hydrotherapy functions on the market today designed to meet these consumer demands,” says Katty Pien, chief marketing officer at LIXIL Americas, home to American Standard brands and DXV, based in Piscataway, NJ. “To meet that demand, we are focusing on products that include deep-massaging air bath systems with customizable settings and mood-enhancing chromatherapy, which can promote physical, emotional, mental and spiritual healing.”

Bathtubs aren’t the only product rising in popularity in bathroom design; the installation of home sauna rooms is also on the rise. In fact, John Gunderson, national sales manager for Amerec in Woodinville, WA says tubs are sometimes being removed to create space for steam and sauna options.

Whatever the therapy selected, a clean, minimalist design and the ability to create a personal experience is key. Freestanding tubs are in high demand, and a range of luxurious options exists to create the precise atmosphere desired. So say manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Custom Features

With the busy lives people lead, bathing is a luxury, and users want an experience custom tailored to their needs that will leave them feeling pampered and relaxed. Because that means something different for every person, myriad features that can be personalized to specific needs are key.

Lynn Schrage, marketing manager at Kohler in Kohler, WI says the ability to personalize the bathing experience is in high demand, stating, “Hydrotherapies have found a creative pairing with freestanding baths, opening up bathroom design possibilities. This allows for a unique focal point as well as a spa-like hydrotherapy experience for consumers.” Combination hydrotherapy experiences, which offer multiple experiences in one unit, are popular, she adds. “This allows bathers to choose one or both of the experiences each time they bathe, and also allows each bather in the home to choose their own experience.”

Erica Moir, v.p. new product development & engineering for Jacuzzi Luxury Bath in Chino Hills, CA says jetted tubs have evolved from their original drop-in limitations, becoming available in more freestanding tubs. Jets are sleeker, and tubs are quieter to promote better relaxation, she notes. “Soaking tubs have also developed, with the introduction of devices that maintain the water temperature so you can stay in longer without having the water turn cold on you,” she adds, noting that infrared sauna and in-home wellness rooms are growing. “Often, a hydrotherapy circuit is created in a wellness room that includes a sauna, a shower and a hydromassage bath,” she points out.

Moir continues, “People love the lit neck-massaging waterfall feature that we offer. I think that, and the LED-lit jets we offer that make the bath water turn into liquid color, are amazing custom options that we see continued growth in.”

Don Clarke, president, Clarke Products, Inc. based in Colleyville, TX says that since 2009, the therapy tub market has been diminishing. In the mid-2000s, the firm produced around 300 therapy tubs per day, but presently that is down to 90 to 100 per day, a pattern he suspects is similar industry wide. Of those produced, whirlpools account for approximately 65% of the total, but “air tubs are growing slightly and appear to have a better future than traditional whirlpools,” he believes.

As far as features go, Clarke sees a lot of requests for inline heaters and adjustable jets. “There is also positive feedback about built-in temperature gauges that we put on some of our therapy tubs.”

Louisanne Bourgeois, product manager, American Bath Group (which includes Aquatic and MAXX brands), based in Savannah, TN agrees that jetted tubs are becoming less popular, but those looking for hydro/air therapy are looking for minimalist jet design, and air therapy tends to be more popular. “Hydro/air therapy used to be perceived as an element that would increase a house value, but now it’s all about freestanding tubs,” she says.

Kornowa, on the other hand, says people are tailoring their experiences by selecting hydrotherapies beyond a simple soaking tub. “This directly correlates to people viewing bathing as an essential part of their pursuit of holistic wellness,” he states.

Lighting adds to the overall experience and is being used in a variety of interesting ways in conjunction with hydrotherapy products. Bourgeois sees integrated lighting being used more frequently on freestanding tubs, such as under the skirt to create an impressive effect.

Mark Raisanen, general manager at Finnleo Sauna in Cokato, MN says that for saunas, low-voltage lighting in the backrest is one of the most in-demand features, lending a softer mood to the sauna. The sauna experience is also being tailored with picture windows overlooking the landscape, or entertainment such as speakers and a viewing window for a flat screen TV.

Freestanding Tubs

Consumer demand for freestanding tubs has been steadily increasing over the past several years, according to manufacturers.

This may explain the drop they’ve seen in demand for jetted tubs. While freestanding tubs work well for soaking tubs, installing therapy jets in these models is more complicated.

Kornowa says that the limited availability of hydrotherapy options in a freestanding tub has some designers and homeowners choosing to install two tubs in the master bath if space allows. They’ll select a freestanding tub as a centerpiece, with a second tub installed as a drop-in, alcove or undermount to provide a broad range of hyrdrotherapy and sensory therapy applications. “This allows for multiple therapies according to the needs of the users – a whirlpool for deep-tissue massage for sore muscles and aching joints, and an air bath for light full-body massage that relaxes, cleanses and detoxifies,” he says.

Clarke believes the main trend in bathroom design is toward freestanding tubs made of solid surface composites or seamed acrylic tubs. “They are almost universally soaking only, given the difficulty of putting therapy components on a freestanding tub,” he adds.

Pien says that the popularity of freestanding tubs that fit in compact spaces but provide a roomy interior prompted the American Standard brand to introduce a new “three-sided” freestanding tub design. “These bathtubs have a finished flat back that provides the option of installing the fixture as the centerpiece of a larger master bathroom, or up against a bathroom wall to save space,” she notes.

“Freestanding bathtubs have been popular [for] several years now and the designs and price points are becoming very accessible, making this stand-out piece part of many master and secondary bath standards,” states Bourgeois. Trends in these tubs include minimalist design, oval shape and a move toward rounded rectangular shapes in transitional rather than modern designs to promote comfort, she adds.

Showrooms are currently displaying tubs with thin edges in one-piece construction, Bourgeois notes. While these used to be very expensive, mainly due to the solid surface materials used, the market now offers options at more affordable price points, often in acrylic, she says. Two-piece freestanding tubs are still popular, mainly because they are easier to install, she adds.

Luxurious Wellness

Though demand for soaking tubs may exceed that of jetted tubs, consumers still want to pamper themselves at home. Manufacturers are offering a range of innovative therapeutic options that promote relaxation, relief for sore muscles and healthier skin.

“Many people are actively involved in self-care and are looking to improve their health and wellness through water…therefore, technology is being incorporated into hydrotherapy products in a lot of interesting ways,” Pien remarks.

Kornowa explains that there are two relatively new technologies offering unique therapeutic benefits to users: stream bath and microbubbles. Stream bath moves water gently through vents on both sides and at the foot end of the tub, so instead of direct impact on the body, a gentle swirl of water surrounds the bather, evoking the feel of sitting in a forest stream. “The trickling sound of the water is extremely therapeutic, and some have told me they find it even more therapeutic than the actual flow of the water,” Kornowa says.

Microbubble technology promotes health and beauty, Kornowa states. The billions of microbubbles in the water exfoliate and hydrate the skin, leaving it soft and supple, he continues.

Clean & Contemporary

While preferred tub shapes vary, a clear trend toward a clean, minimalist look means that neutral colors still dominate the market.

“Both white and off-white shades continue to be popular for bathtubs because they provide a clean look and suit the overall design trend towards minimalist, contemporary styling,” says Pien.

Installation type has some impact on tub shape selected, manufacturers point out. “Clean-lined rectangles and ovals seem to rule the drop-in space, with the more decorative freestanding ovals being used as statement pieces,” Moir says.

Clarke sees the most common shape as skirted tubs, which tend to be very modern and contemporary. These tubs have no adornment, flat fronts and functional interiors, he adds.

Incorporating Accessibility

With an aging population, designers must balance homeowners’ desire for options and style with the need for tubs that are accessible without looking institutional.

Bourgeois says that people are looking for ways to adapt as they age but are still looking for trendy solutions, such as a lower height tub, or reinforcing the tub walls to allow for future grab bars.

Products that incorporate “thoughtful design” benefit all consumers, believes Moir. “Integrating a wider entry ledge or a grab bar that also works as a shelf can help the consumer feel comfortable without feeling that it is a neon sign saying ‘I need a little help,’” she says.

Pien adds that accessible design features can be incorporated into bathtubs and hydrotherapy products in many ways. “Some of the newest accessibility options include everything from full-coverage, slip-resistant surfaces for added safety for the entire family to walk-in tubs that offer luxurious air bath and combo massage systems with convenient outward opening doors for full accessibility,” she says.

Schrage notes that accessibility issues can be addressed through many of the current trends. “Hydrotherapies are offered on numerous undermounted bath configurations that can be designed with a transfer seat, allowing the consumer to access the bath from a seated position for getting in and out of the bath. Also, access can be enhanced with freestanding baths that are placed adjacent to a wall with the use of vertical and horizontal grabs for step-over confidence,” she adds.

Sauna trends
The sauna is an increasingly popular wellness feature in homes, and with more compact infrared saunas available, it’s becoming more applicable for residential use, according to Kornowa.

Gunderson says that demand is high for “custom size, custom design, custom woods!” Top trends include lighting improvements, incorporated music systems and the use of two different types of wood in the same sauna room.

Raisanen agrees that lighting is a top trend, with greater use of low-voltage lighting under benches, in valances and in backrests. He also sees a trend toward mixing woods and colors. The use of glass fronts and smaller designs are also on the rise. “By adding more glass, more low-voltage lighting and modern controls, more and more homeowners see this as a beautiful amenity in their bathroom as opposed to years ago where it was more of a dark box of wood in the corner of the basement. They are definitely moving upstairs and [becoming] more upscale,” Raisanen says.

New technologies in sauna include Blackline sauna heaters and Bio-Water-Technique (BWT), according to Gunderson. BWT uses an integrated water tank that allows for adding humidity to the sauna before entering, creating a softer, more relaxing experience that also allows for multiple sensory experiences using the same heater.

Raisanen notes, “The deep rock mass heater with the BWT technology is giving a whole new ‘game-changer’ feel to the sauna experience. The heat envelops the body and the humidity added automatically creates a comfortable feel the moment you step inside. Additionally, being able to turn your sauna on from the comfort of your living room couch or while sitting out on your deck is a new breakthrough for sauna technology. App operation is still limited by some of the safety restrictions, but having it operate through the home Wi-Fi system helps accomplish the necessary safety measures required to get a sauna heater safety listed.” ▪

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