Everyone loves the idea of a soothing soak in a whirlpool — or just a plain old tub for that matter. But finding the time — well, that’s another matter.

“Some people prefer baths,” says John Schott, senior product manager/faucets, Kohler Co., “But even so, consumers with whirlpools don’t use them as often as they expected to.”

However, consumers don’t want to give up the soothing relief of water. As a result, whirlpools may be taking a back seat to the practical luxury of spacious showers.

A number of remodeling and other bath design magazines we routinely scan point toward one interesting trend: Tear out the tub and use the resulting space for a standing shower big enough for two.

Nobody’s ready to write an obit for the whirlpool. They’re pretty much standard in most new homes and remodeling projects. But manufacturers say there is an expanded marketing opportunity for shower products.

“It’s not that whirlpools are less popular — they’re just less new,” says Tim O’Conner, senior product manager, bathing products, Kohler Co. “In general, ‘water features’ are getting better and better. Not only can people adjust temperatures of the water, but also direct the amount of water and the direction of it coming at you. A number of manufacturers are doing much more with water than in the past.”

We first heard of this idea at last year’s Kitchen & Bath Industry Show. Designer Martha Kerr highlighted a number of trends, but particularly noted that oversized showers and accessories were among the hottest items included in remodeling projects — even more so than whirlpool tubs.

“Shower designs better suit remodeling projects, mainly due to space constraints of the existing room,” Kerr said during a seminar presented at the trade show. “And many of today’s baby boomers don’t want to wait around for a whirlpool tub to fill up and don’t have time to thoroughly enjoy the experience — they’d rather have the massage action of sprays and showerheads.”

Ripping out the tub to make way for a spacious shower also has very practical concerns for the 49 million Americans with disabilities — a group that some demographers peg to possess $175 billion in discretionary income. That population is expected to increase as baby boomers get older and medical technologies allow everyone the chance to live longer.

The increasing options available for showering make it a natural to dress up the mundane utility of taking a shower. “It’s not unusual for us to rip out a tub,” says Bryan Zolfo, Insignia Kitchen & Bath Design, a suburban Chicago contractor we profiled in the June 1998 PM. “If there are other tubs available in the home, then we tell people to go ahead and rip it out in the master bath.”

The resulting shower is typically equipped with multiple showerheads, towers and rainbars — but definitely lots of elbow room. Handheld showers are also a big plus, “not only for cleaning yourself but the shower, too,” Kerr added. The multiplicity of heads is a smart way for consumers to enjoy the power of a shower and still obey the law: Showerheads may deliver no more than 2.5 gallons per minute — but there’s nothing illegal about installing as many heads and sprays as possible.

Many designers make the space large enough to omit a door. However, enclosing the space to add steam is another popular option. By all means, Zolfo recommends shower seats as a must. “To really capitalize on the big space, you need a place to sit and relax and let the water wash over you.”

Insignia staffers recommend a seat at least 12 inches deep — although 15 inches is even better. If the space isn’t big enough to warrant a full seat, Insignia’s designers try to put in ledges so bathers can safely wash feet or shave legs.

Remodeling opportunities such as this abound since, as Zolfo notes, chances are there are tubs to spare. According to the National Association of Home Builders, only 15 percent of newly built homes in the early 1970s had more than 2.5 bathrooms; today nearly half do.

Keep in mind, that this trend isn’t just solely for remodeling projects. “Builders are giving people many more options to design their bathrooms and determine how they want to ‘spend’ that space,” O’Conner says. By and large, if consumers can’t have a shower built for two, they are still demanding that luxurious showers be whittled out of relatively small spaces. Above all, consumers want shower systems separate from the bath/whirlpool unit. According the NAHB statistics, separate showers are currently installed in half of new home construction; it’s almost a given (95 percent) for larger homes, which the trade group pegs at anything more than 2,500 square feet.

What’s In

  • PVD finishes shine on and on for faucets, but softer finishes such as nickel, platinum, or otherwise labeled “brushed” or “satin” finishes, gain ground.
  • More than two-thirds of homes have two lavs in the master bathroom.
  • Increasing incidence of second master bathrooms. In fact, more new homes have a bathroom for each bedroom.
  • Favorite size configuration is 15 feet by 10 feet.
  • Shower separate from the bath/whirlpool.
  • More technology to be found in everything from whirlpools, heated toilet seats and electronic keypads for showering systems.