When award-winning interior designer Patrick Sutton was commissioned to design a North Baltimore family's home, the master bath presented a unique challenge. "This was part of an upgrade to an existing, older home where the bathrooms were tiny," Sutton explains. "The client wanted something current, modern, yet comfortable."
The renovated bathroom is certainly comfortable, with separate bathing, shower, and commode areas and a dressing room. But the expansion is interesting for its relative modesty: In place of the palatial fixtures and sweeping square footage common to bath rehabs in the '90s and early aughts, the room features a series of intimately sized spaces finished in materials that are luxurious, but not ostentatious.
"It's not hip to be flashy now," says Sutton. The latest trends reflect a more responsible consumer ethos, one that understands luxury in terms of customized experiences and that values time well spent over material goods.
Bathroom remodels made up 12.8 percent of all home-renovation projects in 2007, the last year the Census Bureau tracked such things. Projects can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $60,000, which translates into substantial spending nationwide. At all price points, consumers are making the most of their investments by choosing clean, calming design elements and super-efficient fixtures.
The cultural movement away from waste is reflected in one of the top design requests that Robert Gibbs, president of Cox Kitchens & Baths, hears in his firm's remodeling projects. Tired of ceding space to enormous, infrequently used bathtubs, clients are ripping out excess tubs and replacing them with large, multifunctional showers.
Multiple showerheads let users choose their spray to suit their moods: Even a simple combination of a wall- or ceiling-mounted rainhead and a handheld shower gives the choice of a gentle sprinkle or a bracing stream. More complex digital systems like Kohler's DTV (Digital Thermostatic Valve) and Moen's IODIGITAL (locally at Cox Kitchens & Baths, coxkitchensandbaths.com and Thomas Somerville Co. showrooms, tsomerville.com) allow several bathers to program individualized settings for temperature and water pressure. Some add remote controls, integrated sound and music, and lighted panels for chromatherapy, which uses the visual experience of different colors to influence mood. In fully enclosed showers with seats, steam—another top request—affords the dual benefits of hygiene and relaxation using very little water. Digitally controlled systems like Steamist's TotalSense package (Somerville showrooms) can provide hot or cool steam infused with aromatherapy oils and accompanied by music from an amplifier wired to a special iPod cradle.
It's an interesting moment in bathroom history for those who can't bear to give up their tub experience. On one hand, there's the revival of the simple soaking tub. The Water Monopoly (watermonopoly.com) and Urban Archaeology (urbanarchaeology.com) stores deal in antiques and reproductions with classic lines and interesting provenances. For example, several of The Water Monopoly's tubs are cast from recycled brake discs. For buyers on more limited budgets—Urban Archaeology's tubs can run from $14,245 to more than $20,000—Kohler makes similar-looking freestanding tubs for well under $10,000.
At the other end of the spectrum, new technology brings serious indulgence to the humble tub through music, lights, and updated massage features. Cheryl Crowther, the northeast division showroom manager for The Thomas Somerville Co. showroom, a kitchen and bath design center and product distributor, describes air-jet bathtubs made by Canadian company BainUltra, which achieve their massage effects by shooting streams of warm air through water at high speed. "They're very sanitary," says Crowther. "You can put muds, oils, and bubbles, anything you want into this tub. Because it's air that goes through the lines, there's never any water to go down into any of the pipes underneath, so there's no chance of any bacteria, as with a traditional [water-jetted] tub." The same company produces tubs that have built-in headphones with Bluetooth compatibility. Chromatherapy appears here as well, in the form of small lights in the side of the tub, positioned to make the water glow.
Forget not the humble commode
Technology assists the toilet, too. One of the most common complaints designers hear about old fixtures is that they simply don't work properly. Today's toilets are sleeker and more efficient than ever before. The TOTO Eco UltraMax's (at toiletwarehouse.com and homeperfect.com) gravity-assisted mechanism flushes powerfully on only 1.28 gallons of water; other toilets by manufacturers like Gerber and American Standard use pressure assists to elimate waste with 1.6 gallons of water in one flush.
Regardless of what goes on inside, the latest toilets come with higher, more comfortable profiles and more refined finishes than earlier models. Neutral colors and matte whites blend easily with almost any décor, allowing the eye to move uninterrupted across the room.
As in Sutton's North Baltimore remodel, the most current bathroom designs use clean, elegant materials to create an atmosphere of sumptuous comfort. Working with the home's Mediterranean sensibility, Sutton used warm touches like vanities made to resemble furniture with Italian linen skirting the space that houses the bathtub, as well as cool nickel fittings and blue tile in the area with the shower and the toilet.
Aaron Able, managing editor of online home design resource Apartment Therapy, says oil-rubbed bronze and vessel sinks are starting to look dated, but "pedestal sinks remain a classic." He continues, "Simple ideas like well-planned storage for bathroom necessities make a huge difference."
One of the coolest ways to maximize storage space? Refrigerated medicine cabinets, like those in Robern's M Series (available at Somerville showrooms). Medicine cabinets with cold storage preserve high-end cosmetics and prescriptions and keep them within reach. If you don't need a medicine cabinet, consider putting a flat-screen TV behind your mirror; when switched off, the TV disappears, saving counter space.
The greatest finishing touch of all, and the number one request for Baltimore-area bathroom designs, is the only item on Able's wish list: heated floors to dispel the morning chill.
There are three basic types of radiant floor heat: radiant air floors (air is the heat-carrying medium); electric radiant floors; and hot water (hydronic) floors. These three types can be further subdivided by the type of installation: those that make use of the large thermal mass of a concrete slab floor or lightweight concrete over a wooden subfloor (these are called "wet installations"); and those in which the installer "sandwiches" the radiant floor tubing between two layers of plywood or attaches the tubing under the finished floor or subfloor ("dry installations").
All types of radiant flooring are great for keeping your tootsies toasty, but don't figure on using them to heat the whole room—it's not cost-effective. If you're still determined to heat the room this way, then hot water-heated floors are the most popular and energy-efficient way to go. Prices for hydronic radiant floors run from $3-10 a square foot, excluding costs for floor covering and labor. Look to manufacturers like Honeywell and Suntouch systems (available at The Home Depot) or ThermoSoft (thermosoft.com) and Ouellet (ouellet.com) for examples.