Setting Up a Home Spa
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Setting Up a Home Spa

Today's hectic lifestyles often prevent even a quick trip to a day spa. Hence the increasing popularity of the home spa, where you can bubble, steam, and soak yourself -- privately and at your own convenience.

The Great Escape

Bathroom designers define the home spa as a step (or many steps) above the regular bathroom. Instead of a standard tub you'll find shapes that are extra deep or long, usually with jets or bubbles. Showers have more than one shower head, and extra fixtures offer massaging and cascading sensations. Home spa design is luxurious but meant to take you away from your everyday world, so the emphasis is on natural materials and colors. Because this is a special getaway space, unique artistic touches are also welcome.

Home spas are frequently incorporated into a house addition, usually a master suite. It's a bit easier to create a home spa in a new space, because specialized fixtures and designer surface materials usually necessitate beefed-up structure and plumbing. But many consumers are achieving the spa in the course of remodeling an existing bath. Designers are saying they see a wide cross-section of people building these private getaways, from childless professional couples with a lot of money to harried boomer parents to empty nesters who now want to focus on themselves.

Even if you're not rolling in money, you can still incorporate spa features into your existing bathroom. In the past few years, a greater number of manufacturers have been producing a wider range of bathroom fixtures, making prices competitive and products more accessible.

Tubs & Showers

At a commercial spa, it's the employees who pamper you. In your home spa, specialty fixtures do the work.

Tub Talk

Do you want the calm that comes from floating in a tranquil pond or the invigoration that comes from being pummeled by a waterfall? Whichever you prefer, there's a bathtub for you. The most typical upgrade is to a bathtub with whirlpool jets. The jets force out air to create a massaging effect, and individual jets can be adjusted to hit target areas, such as your neck or back. Many tubs offer a pressure control feature so you can adjust jet flow. If your favorite spa service is a massage, this is the tub for you. For many people, one disadvantage of a whirlpool tub is the inability to use bath oils or salts, which cause bacteria growth in the jet tubes.

While whirlpool jets have been the rage for the last two decades, they now need to make way for air systems -- the latest and greatest bathtub feature. These tubs have about 30 to 70 small holes drilled around the radius of the tub, with each hole emitting a soft bubble. This tub experience would be akin to sitting in a vat of sodium bicarbonate. Best of all, you can use bath additives with this feature. Some tubs come with both jets and the air system, but you can use bath additives only in conjunction with the air system.

For those who prefer a soak without the motion, a soaking tub is the answer. Popularized by the Japanese, soaking tubs are usually narrow and deep, so you can sit on a ledge and be submerged in water up to your neck. This is a space-saving solution for smaller bathrooms.

Some homeowners forego a tub in the bathroom in favor of a hot tub -- often located outdoors, just outside the master bathroom. Design consultant Rhonda Knoche, of Neil Kelly Designers-Remodelers, says her firm is doing this in many homes in the Portland, Oregon, area. Lots are usually wooded, so bathers can step outside in privacy. Knoche recommends smaller two-person tubs, because they are long and narrow and can snuggle up close to the house.

If you're upgrading to a special tub, don't forget to consider the accessories. A wide waterfall faucet allows water to cascade into the tub. A hand wand is essential for rinsing yourself off as well as cleaning the tub.

Shower Power

Tubs are the mainstay of traditional bathrooms, but today's home spa connoisseurs are basking in their custom showers. That may be because an oversize tub takes time to fill. Today's showerheads and sprays offer the massaging action of whirlpool jets without the wait.

In home spas, shower stalls are almost always separate from the tub, though it's common to see the tub deck extend into the shower stall to serve as a bench. Even in smaller, less-expensive bathrooms, a second showerhead is standard for couples who may want to shower together. The heads should be mounted on separate walls and tailored to the heights of the individuals. Knoche says even a 3- x 4-foot stall is big enough to justify a second head. You can find inexpensive standard showerheads with multiple settings -- including massaging action -- to replace the one that came with your bathroom.

Typical showerheads are positioned to hit the body first (in case you don't want to get your hair wet). For a drenching, whole-body shower, look to a rain dome. A rain dome is a wide-diameter head mounted on the ceiling; it emits a large volume of water but a gentle flow. For head-to-toe directed spray, install body jets. Between four and ten jets are positioned in a vertical column to reach all parts of your body.

If you're going to the effort to add specialty showerheads, be sure to include pressure-balance valves or the more accurate thermostatic valves. These valves control temperature, so when you turn the shower on, the water comes out at exactly the temperature you prefer.

Commercial spa aficionados frequently return home to request spa shower features, such as a steam shower. In a residential setting, a steam generator is built into the shower stall; two may be needed for an oversize stall. The moist steam rids your body of impurities and leaves you feeling refreshed. For maximum relaxation, include an oversize bench, long enough to lie down on. When not reclining during a steam, use the bench for sitting while you soak your tootsies in a whirlpool foot bath. The foot bath is recessed (or built up) in the shower stall floor. Jets focus on the feet. Use the feature as part of your overall shower or as a separate foot soak at the end of a hard day.

Pampering Extras

While bathing is a necessity, the majority of our bathroom time is spent outside the tub or shower. To make those moments their most comfortable, start with an electric heated towel bar. The bar keeps towels warm and dry, and portable units are available for any size or style bathroom.

Stone floors are popular, but their coolness is not. To compensate, install a floor warmer underneath (especially in cold climates). Floor warmers can be used with almost any type of flooring, not just stone. Different configurations are available, so ask your bathroom designer about what would be appropriate.

For added warmth, cozy up to a fireplace. Many new master suites have two-way fireplaces, which face both the bathroom and the bedroom.

If you want to watch the news while you get ready in the morning, include a TV. Sandra Steiner, president of design for Steiner & Houck, Inc., an interior design-build firm in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, says hidden TVs are hot. For the past few years she has been mounting a two-way mirror on the wall, usually framing it, then setting a flat screen TV behind it. "It cuts down a little bit on the clarity, but it's fine for what most people want," says Steiner. When the TV is off, it just looks like a mirror.

If meditative music is preferable to watching news, then make sure your home's integrated sound system reaches the bathroom. At the very least, plan space for a boom box.

To avoid that long trek to the kitchen first thing in the morning, remember to include a bathroom coffee maker and mini fridge. Outfit bathroom cabinets like kitchen cabinets to hide these utilitarian appliances.

The Look of Relaxation

Textures, colors, and decorative accents of a spa should take you away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. In the home spa, here is what designers are doing today to create the great escape.

Natural materials. Limestone and slate win hands down for most popular home spa surface materials. When used on the floor and up the walls of the shower stall, stone and slate?s earthy, mottled patina becomes the room's dominant feature. Pair with granite for the countertop and tub deck. For a less expensive option, investigate natural-look synthetic materials, such as slate-like concrete products or ceramic tiles that simulate limestone.

Glass. In some parts of the country, designers turn to glass instead of slate. This contemporary look is both luminescent and minimalist, reflecting the design of some commercial spas. Lorin Moch, the executive director of sales, design, and marketing for International Bath and Tile in San Diego, says her firm is doing a big business in glass tile. A home spa floor may be covered in 1-inch glass tiles while the walls sport 12-inch tiles with mosaic insets. Sink bowls and countertops are also glass. Colors are soothing, such as soft blue or green.

Matte finishes. Shiny is out; matte is in. Decade(s)-old builder homes are shedding their shiny bathroom items. Highly polished marble is being replaced by honed slate or polished slate (which feels like raw silk). Faucets are now coming in brushed nickel or oil-rubbed bronze for an old-world look.

Wood cabinets. Cabinet trends are moving away from laminate, painted wood, or medium wood tones. Today, designers are more apt to use either light or dark wood cabinets. One of the hottest looks right now is deep mahogany cabinets with clean lines. The look is a cross between Asian Zen and Hollywood glamour.

Furniture-like pieces. Some home spas boast built-in cabinets with contemporary, clean lines. But those who favor traditional style are using cabinets that look like freestanding furniture. Cabinets have more curves, angles, moldings, and panels. Legs raise the cabinet off the floor.

Undermounting. Increasingly, both tubs and sinks are being undermounted to deck and countertop material. This puts the visual emphasis on the surface material instead of the tub or bowl. And the effect is a tidier look.

Special sinks. Freestanding sink bowls are all the rage. The bowl rests on top of the counter and the faucet comes out of the wall. With this style, the counter should be kept nearly clear except for the sink. Other people make sinks the focal point by using artistic bowls, such as hammered or sculpted metal, glass, or handmade stone. For an unobtrusive look, pedestal and semi-pedestal sinks take up less space and appear to float in the room.

Barely-there shower doors. Some homeowners are opting for no shower door at all -- a narrow, and possibly angled, opening does the trick. For those who have shower doors, frameless, thick glass doors are replacing metal-framed glass doors. With less metal, your eye moves past the door straight to the surface materials in the shower.

Hidden storage. Countertop appliance garages, similar to what you'd see in a kitchen, hide the hair dryer and electric toothbrush. The garage can have a regular cabinet door or a roll-down top. In some bathrooms, designers are using tip-down vanity areas. The door tips down like a secretary or writing desk. When up, it hides cosmetics and toiletries.

Planting areas. The spa experience is enhanced by the presence of live plants. Sandra Steiner, of Steiner & Houck, Inc., likes to integrate a planting area into the tub deck between the tub and shower stall. The opening contains a copper liner and is filled with plants that can tolerate the heat and steam a bathroom generates.

Practical Matters

Before you jump feet first into your oversize, whirlpool jet, air system, soaking tub, here are some things you need to consider when building a home spa.

  • Luxury will cost you. According to the 2001 Design Trends Survey conducted by the National Kitchen and Bath Association, the average price of a typical bathroom remodeling costs $14,500. But upgrade to a home spa, and designers say you're looking at $20,000 minimum and $100,000 isn't unheard of. Fixtures, such as tubs and showerheads, will cost about the same for everyone. Types and amount of surface materials and artistic extras usually make up the difference.

  • Get expert help. When tackling a bathroom project, hire a bathroom designer. You can go to a bathroom store and work with an in-house designer, or hire a certified bath designer. Certification is a seven-year-process that requires field experience and a knowledge of aesthetics, local code compliance, safety issues, mechanicals, and materials.

    Whoever you go with, ask for references, and check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau. Rhonda Knoche, of Neil Kelly Designers-Remodelers, advises that the first meeting is to make sure you're compatible with the designer. You'll need to feel comfortable talking to this person about your lifestyle habits, such as showering together and toilet privacy.

  • Size doesn't matter. There are no minimum square footage requirements for a home spa, and designers say even small spaces can make luxurious bathrooms. A small shower stall can still have all the showerhead bells and whistles, and a narrow-but-high soaking tub takes up little space. Just make sure that other items are in scale with the room.

  • Floor support. Heavy surface materials, such as slate and granite, as well as 90-gallon tubs, will likely require more support in the floors, particularly in a second-floor bathroom. An architect or engineer, hired through the contractor, will take care of this.

  • Steam considerations. For a steam shower, you need to attend to a few extra details. The shower stall needs to be completely enclosed, with a shower door that goes from floor to ceiling. The ceiling should be slightly sloped so water doesn't bead there. And you need to have an adequate fan and ventilation system to accommodate your steam unit's output and your bathroom's square footage.

  • Bring on the water. Oversize tubs and high-volume showerheads need a larger-than-usual water heater or an additional water heater just for the home spa. Standard pipe diameter is 1/2 inch, but multiple shower outlets will perform better with 3/4-inch-diameter pipes.

Luxury for Less

You're not ready for a full-scale remodel, but you are ready to be pampered? These less-expensive products and ideas can help you feel special without pinching your pocketbook.

  • Portable whirlpool device. This portable jet device makes a whirlpool of any standard tub.
  • More shower power. Installing a second shower head on the opposite wall is not a major job. You could also upgrade your standard showerhead for one with multiple settings.
  • Affordable surfaces. While stone and slate may be out of your price range, you can get a natural materials look with some affordable synthetic alternatives, such as stone-look tile.
  • Portable foot spa. Instead of investing in a built-in foot bath for the shower, this device gives your feet similar relief. Pull the foot spa up to a comfy bathroom chair and relax.
  • Facial spa. If you can't have a steam shower to purify your entire body, at least give yourself a beautiful face with a portable steam unit.
  • Paraffin bath. Dipping your hands and feet in hot wax has multiple beneficial effects. The deep penetrating heat relieves muscle aches and tension. And when the wax is removed, skin is silky soft.
  • Magnifying mirror. Include this necessity in a little vanity area.
  • Extras. Just like in full-scale home spas, you can still include a TV, stereo, mini-fridge, and coffee maker in your affordable retreat.