Baths that wash the blahs away


Remember the bathroom of yesteryear?

Usually, it consisted pretty much of a toilet, a sink with mirror, and a tub with shower. Of course, back then, not much of anyone thought he needed anything else, except for a towel and a bar of soap.

No longer.

"That standard old bathroom is passe today," said Bill Schankel, a spokesman for the National Kitchen and Bath Association. "What people are asking for is two sinks, a shower system in addition to the tub, and toilets in areas away from the rest of the bathroom."

But that's not all. Today, for those homeowners who want to savor the spa experience, there are whirlpools with built-in flat-screen TVs, combination shower and steam units, and, for homes that offer seclusion, there's the opportunity to be one with nature with an outdoor shower.

"They want their bathrooms to be their sanctuary. They want them to be as spa-like as possible," said Natalie Durkee of Ilex Construction Inc. of Baltimore, a builder of luxury custom homes that recently completed one such bath and outdoor spa in Bozman on the Eastern Shore.

"When they wake up in the morning, they can get their coffee. They can have a steam. They can have a warm floor, by putting radiant heating in the floor even if they are using marble or limestone floors. ... It's just a little heavenly piece of their house," she said.

Furthermore, homeowners are willing to pay significantly for such luxury. In 1999, Schankel said, the average amount spent on remodeling a bathroom was $11,605. But to get the full spa treatment, homeowners can "easily drop $50,000," according to Ilex's Dirck Bartlett, to bring the Canyon Ranch effect to their master suite.

At Jacuzzi, which created the whirlpool bath in 1968, the Walnut Creek, Calif., company has designed some of the most sophisticated whirlpool and shower systems to date. And with the suggested manufacturer's price ranging from $10,000 to $20,000, you won't find these at your local home improvement store.

Jacuzzi's most distinctive whirlpool tub is the Vizion, a free-standing whirlpool tub of Italian design that is the first in a series to be known as the Jacuzzi Private Collections.

The two-person tub features a 10-inch flat-screen television that can be angled to the bather's preference, a DVD/CD player, an AM-FM stereo system and four speakers. And don't forget the floating remote control, which also controls the tub's underwater lighting.

Like artwork, the limited edition tubs - 100 in all - will be certified, numbered and signed by Roy Jacuzzi, the company's founder.

Of course, most homeowners don't need a personally signed tub, but they do want some lavishness.

"My husband really uses the Jacuzzi every day because of joint problems," said Susie Palmer, an interior designer with Alexander Baer Associates Inc.

Mark McInturff, the Bethesda architect for the Bozman home built by Ilex, designed the interior bath area to work with the outdoor spa area.

"For the outdoor spa or outdoor hot tub, what we are trying to do is do them in a more integrated way than somebody simply buying a plastic box and filling it with water," McInturff said. He designed the home's bath and spa by integrating the same pool deck, and he camouflaged the inside tub and outside hot tub by sinking them to floor level.

McInturff said the modern luxury spa suite goes upward to 200 square feet compared with the typical family bathroom that ranges around 40 square feet.

Although whirlpool sales have grown by more than 70 percent in the last 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, full-body shower spray systems are gaining popularity. One bath professional likens the shower with its multiple heads and body sprays to "sort of a human carwash."

Joni Zimmerman, a kitchen and bath designer with Annapolis' Design Solutions Inc., agrees that showers are the luxury point of the bathroom.

"More and more people are looking for body spas and steam showers," she said, adding the caveat that these frequently require bigger hot water heaters and pipes.

"People are also putting in whirlpools, although we often hear, 'We don't use the whirlpool, but our Realtor said we had to put one in for the resale value.'"

"Showers are really hot right now - those big steam showers with multiple body sprays, big overhead ceiling shower heads, and adjustable hand sprays on bars," said Robin Barker, of Baltimore's Lee L. Dopkin.

Durkee agreed that the overhead shower, known as a rain-forest shower, is gaining in popularity. The shower head can be as big as 10 inches in diameter, allowing for a unique experience. However, if the home is on a well system, which many luxury homes are, the water pressure may not be sufficient to allow the rain-forest effect to take place.

Barker points to Grohe, a German company, for the rage in upscale showers: "The company really began all this business with body sprays, and thermostats set to keep the temperature, even if someone is flushing a toilet."

Not unexpectedly, such showers do not come cheap, Barker said. A brass Grohe shower runs from $1,200 to $2,500, and uses about 12.5 gallons of water - per minute of use.

She adds that when it comes to finishes, Baltimore is a brass town, although some brave souls are venturing out to the world of satin nickel or antique brass.

Furthermore, Schankel said, the National Kitchen and Bath Association has seen an increase in those who are turning the bathroom into a boardroom by adding computers and faxes. "It's only about 5 percent, but it's on the rise."

Also on the increase, Zimmerman said, are those homeowners who are moving kitchens into their bathroom - well, a few items, such as a bar and refrigerator, a microwave and a coffee maker.

"In some of these really big houses, it is quite a long trip down to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee in the morning."

Still, for the most part, the luxury bathroom is more a retreat than an office or a dining area.

"One of my clients has planned a bathroom with a deluxe whirlpool, vanities that look like French armoire furniture, a gas fireplace and a private toilet room," Zimmerman said.

"I agree that people are really using their bathrooms as retreats," said Schankel. "They're making them into their own personal spas where they can remove themselves from the workaday world - well, except for those few who are putting fax machines in."

Not surprisingly, the hot tub of the 21st century bears little resemblance to the wooden barrel that someone filled with hot water four decades ago and invited the neighbors over for a little "R&R.;"

Hot tubs these days are crafted of acrylic - some types of which have anti-bacterial components - and include sophisticated control systems, filtration systems and jetting systems, which are often geared for specific hydrotherapeutic needs.

Another change, bath gurus report, is that vanities and sinks are rising in height. "If I'm doing a renovation and there is limited space, I can increase storage by raising the height of the sink to about the same height as a kitchen counter," said Palmer of Alexander Baer.

"For one thing, with higher vanities, people don't have to bend over as far when they're brushing their teeth," said Zimmerman.

"While vanities used to be about 30 to 32 inches high, many now are moving up to 36 inches, and even as high as 38 inches, which is still a very comfortable arrangement."

And, for those who can't bear the thought of drying off with an unheated towel, interior designers are taking the warming drawers from the kitchen and moving them to the bath to do duty there as towel heaters.

Along with the technological and hardware changes, styles are changing. "It's no longer that bathrooms are cut and dried - they're becoming as individual as people's kitchens," Zimmerman said.

She adds that much of the stylistic changes are aimed at warming up the feel of the bathroom. "We are trying to take a lot of the heavy marble and stone rooms and make them more cozy by using warmer colors." Zimmerman also notes that wood is growing in popularity and is seen as adding a warmth that paint can't achieve.

"Every client is different," said Palmer, "and I ask a lot of questions about their lifestyle. After we've talked things through, we'll start to establish priorities."

When it comes to color, Palmer expresses a preference for white or off-white fixtures. "They are colors that don't go out of style."

In her own home, which is 2 years old, Palmer and her husband have a shared shower, with two doors, and a whirlpool. Each has an individual toilet and vanity.

"It's not grand and wonderful, but just has a nice feeling to it," she said.

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