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The client breathlessly shows her designer photos from a recent resort vacation, asking, “I loved this in our hotel bathroom; can we get one for our shower here?” It’s a question that has been posed by thousands of clients for dozens of years. It’s one I heard in more than a decade of designing residential bathrooms, and one that long-time Northern New Jersey-based interior designer Sharon Sherman hears more than ever today.
Home Spas Go Mainstream
“The biggest difference is the availability of the spa experience to a wider audience,” Sherman observes. In the past, she recalls, “Spa weekends were really limited to a select few who could afford a luxurious retreat. Today, it is no longer an indulgence for the affluent; it is part of travel wellness.” That is true for her clientele, and for millions of other homeowners across the country. “Wellness, mindfulness, health and self-care are on the must-provide-for lifestyle list,” she adds.
San Francisco-based plumbing contractor J. Philip Hotarek is also seeing an uptick in spa feature requests. The most common in his area, he says, are infrared saunas (great for arthritis sufferers!), enhanced steam shower systems and whirlpool tubs, and what he calls “integrating the concept of ‘health and wellness’ overall into plumbing trends.”
The pandemic was certainly a contributing factor in the growing appeal of wellness design and spa bathrooms, the plumber and designer agree. “Having the ability to relax and unwind were no longer an indulgence, but a necessity to deal with the stress of the situation. And not just for women, men are on board as well,” Sherman notes.
Covid accelerated the growing popularity of steam showers, aromatherapy, chromotherapy and tubs with air jets. Sherman also sees the mainstreaming of natural healing as a contributor to the appeal of spa features like these. “It is no longer a ‘fringe’ idea,” the designer points out.
There was also the early 2020 pandemic toilet paper shortage. Anyone who had bidet functionality at home was spared the stress of at least that singular situation. This technology showed up in even more expo booths – including those touting affordable offerings – than ever before at the recent Kitchen & Bath Industry Show. Once mainly the province of $6,000 toilets, you can now purchase bidet functionality in a seat with heated water and drying for less than $1,000.
Hotarek sees the pandemic contributing to “even more demand for having your own spa, in addition to just the allure of creating a luxurious experience.” That’s particularly relevant to those still hesitant to share close quarters with strangers.
Alexa and her competitors have brought technology into the spa bathroom. “Manufacturers are offering voice-activated systems to control temperature, switching between shower heads or body sprays and even turning off the water. Multi-function shower heads are another must. From rain head to massage and everything in between allows you to personalize you shower experience, which is the definition of luxury,” Sherman observes.
Personalization is a huge part of today’s spa shower experience, the designer notes. “You can connect to an on-demand water heater and let the shower advise you on when it hits your preset temperature.” These systems often contain multiple preset options, so you can choose your temperature and spray mode and your partner can do the same with his or hers.
“We have also installed waterproof televisions into our wet rooms. Why not visually visit an exotic location while indulging in your tub?” she muses. Another popular wellness technology feature for spa bathrooms is circadian lighting, which ties into smart home systems and automates brightness and color temperature to fit morning and bedtime schedules.
Hotarek is also plumbing numerous bathrooms with chromotherapy, sound and aromatherapy in the Bay Area, he reports. (Is it any surprise that the country’s leading locale for tech elite would be a leading market for luxury bathroom tech?) Some of the new spa bath technology and features he likes are touchless faucets, Japanese soaking tubs and extra-large rain heads with numerous water modes.
Sherman points out that today’s showering systems are easier to integrate than earlier models. “They’re not complicated like years ago, when you needed a team to configure the shower, the lighting, the sound etc. Many manufacturers are including the technology in simple to specify and install components.”
This is not an excuse to DIY or bring in an unskilled pro, Hotarek cautions. “Purchasing expensive products and hiring unqualified or unlicensed contractors to do the work is by far the greatest challenge we are seeing today.”
Another benefit of technology in the spa bathroom is safety, which has advanced beyond the basic life alert button, notes Rochester, New York-based occupational therapist Brittany Ferri: “There are fall detectors that are especially helpful for those who cannot press a button after a fall or even cognitively recognize that they are in distress. These should be used anywhere, but especially in the bathroom since this is often considered the most dangerous area of the home.”
The OT also points out a tech opportunity that may not occur to everyone: “A lot of newer design trends have loads of natural light,” but this can be difficult for some users, she observes. “It doesn’t help those with low vision, who are often reactive to glare and contrast sensitivity.”
Ferri dispels a common misconception: “Most people think more light will help someone see better, but this is not always the case. It needs to be the right kind of light and, even more, light that can always be adjusted.” That makes an excellent case for remote-controlled window coverings and lighting, which a user can ideally operate by voice.
Hygiene is an intensely personal topic that many of us prefer not to discuss with anyone other than our physicians. Even discussing intimate needs with family caregivers is difficult for many adults, which became an issue when millions of seniors were moved from nursing homes into relatives’ homes in 2020. Some will never return, and require bathroom modifications to handle their hygiene needs without nursing staff.
Bidet functionality, decorative grab bars, wall-mounted toilets and vanities, and spa showers can help tremendously – and can keep those spaces looking more resort than rehab. “Walk-in showers that are zero-barrier are definitely crucial,” declares Ferri. “That design is desirable for a range of people, not just those with mobility challenges,” she comments.
It also happens to be emblematic of today’s spa bathrooms. These walk-in showers are often large areas with benches, handheld showerheads and linear drains that are easy to navigate and use by those with mobility challenges or easily fatigued.
Ferri also points to greater bathroom size, doorways and openness – especially between toilet and shower – as extremely beneficial to clients with mobility challenges. Vanity areas that allow for seated use are another spa feature the OT recommends. Those can be roll-under wall-mounted cabinetry or console or pedestal sinks.
Best in Class
When it comes to suggesting new ideas to her bathroom clients of all ages and abilities, Sherman likes bidet seats that automatically open, close, flush and sanitize. She also prefers anti-microbial materials for fittings, features and surfaces.
These can include large format tiles for shower walls that reduce the need for grout. The aforementioned multi-function showerheads and therapy tubs are on her list, as are heated floor systems and towel bars, good lighting and efficient, quiet vent fans and decorative grab bars for independent living.
Returning to her original observation about the increasing availability and affordability of spa features to more homeowners, Sherman says, “These bathrooms should be more than just a collection of fittings and fixtures sitting in a room with tile. They need to be thoughtfully designed to not only fit the client’s lifestyle, but to enhance the wellness aspect of what a spa bathroom can do for those using it. You can create a bathroom environment that does not cost $100,000. The idea that you need to have a massive space is very limiting for both the designer and the client.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sherman, Hotarek and Ferri will be sharing their spa bathroom insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAY discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays or the Gold Notes design blog here the following Wednesday.