Recently, Plumbing and Mechanical talked with Duravit USA President Tim Schroeder on water-conservation and bathroom trends. Schroeder founded Duravit’s U.S. division in 1996 with four employees in Atlanta. The company now has 40 employees around the country, including Duravit NYC, the company’s first stand-alone showroom in the United States. Schroeder, who has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago, is passionate about art and design.

PM: Recent research suggests that consumers today have a more practical attitude toward green products. How can plumbing contractors, wholesalers and engineers benefit from this change?

TS: More technology is behind the engineering and development of green products. With that comes a higher value proposition to end users and their lifestyle but also to the cost of the goods. And so the benefit to the trade is that it’s an up-sell opportunity.

Do you benefit from having a green product? How does that make you feel? How does that make you behave? How does it impact your lifestyle? It’s not a one-for-one transition. The consumer wants the latest, most-efficient, highest-value products. They’re typically not at the commoditized low-end part of the market; they’re more at mid-level or even up to luxury. So it’s an up-sell opportunity from my perspective.


PM: What is Duravit’s position on California’s new water-conservation standards? and does the company have products that meet the California Energy Commission standards?

TS: We do have products that meet the CEC standards and we’ll continue to develop more. For us, the evolution of this discussion is very important. In the 1960s, one of the critical epicenters of the green movement in Europe was based in Germany’s Black Forest, the home of Duravit. So culturally it’s part of who we are. It’s part of how we think. From our perspective, of course we’re trying to engineer the product to be better for the environment — through our processes, how we deal with our energy and how we go to market with our product.

We will continue to push products that meet or exceed the CalGreen standards, with one caveat. The big discussion at the moment is conservation at the personal level and that’s great in high-density, urban environments. But in suburban or rural environments, a potential problem exists on the municipal side of the system.

Reducing the flow of all water fixtures — dishwashers, washing machines, showers, tubs and toilets, even the irrigation system — removes a tremendous amount of volume out of the sewage system. It’s not a question of removing the waste from the bowl, that’s not the discussion. The discussion is coming as to whether the system has the line carry to get to the waste plant.

Duravit will continue to push products that engage in environmental sensitivity and technical innovation, from the material science to engineering, to performance and the use of resources, but some finite lines are drawn in the sand and they’re not being discussed.


PM: What can contractors do to educate their customers about the performance of water-efficient plumbing products and other green bathroom products?

TS: I believe the biggest challenge for plumbing contractors is to make sure they take the time to stay in front of the trend and stay engaged with the information of technology and the new products coming into the market. Certainly, digitized communication is going to help manufacturers deliver that information in a much more streamlined way. In the past, information was fragmented; it had to filter through multiple channels.

So I think it’s important for channels such as trade publications and other digital channels to better understand how consumers are getting their information and how they want their information delivered. In the end, contractors are going to have to take the role of being in front of the information so that they’re properly informed.

Green product is an up-sell opportunity, but it’s also a differentiation. If I am a contractor or wholesaler or engineer who is fully engaged in green — what’s available and how the systems operate, what efficiencies they provide vs. what capital investment they require, how they interrelate, what kind of timeline can be expected — then I will differentiate myself from the next guy that’s going to bid on the deal who may be somewhat interested but not informed.

One of the biggest challenges I believe contractors have is to navigate misinformation. The consumer possibly has misunderstood or miscollected data from different digital channels and has established a position that is not realistic or doesn’t makes sense. So contractors and engineers have to be that much more informed so they can provide keen insight and get customers to spend money on the products they have access to.

Contractors and engineers are salesmen, too. They are selling their services and if they’re not well-informed, then they just are selling time and material. They are not selling the value-add.


PM: Do you see electronics becoming a bigger part of plumbing products?

TS: I do. I believe the more demand for efficiency and hygiene, for comfort and individuality, the expectations from the end user are going to push all those conversations into the bath — from addressing all the senses to addressing efficiency. Developments in toilet technology have evolved to where we have sustainable products that also are easy to use, such as shower trays or bidet seats, and become part of an aging-in-place conversation.

More comfortable toilet seat heights are available, as well as surface materials that are more hygienic or are easier to live with. Heated floors and windows can dim or create privacy. Bluetooth technology can be found in the tub or in the medicine cabinet. More and more of that information is coming into the bath.


PM: Is the hospitality market a growing market for Duravit USA?

TS: It is. The hospitality industry also has to address technology trends as luxury has become a much broader-based focus. The middle market is addressing luxury in a way that’s sensible to the price barriers. But nevertheless, there has to be good, clever design. It has to be luxurious at budget. I believe the lifestyle trend of hotels is starting to amp up.

That is certainly happening with the millennials; a lot of hoteliers are starting to address different social touch points in the lobbies and bars, and in how they interact with the overall audience in the hotel. It’s much more socialized, much more connected. I think connectivity, that whole social dynamic that it creates, the expectations of access to a more urban kind of lifestyle in and around hotel — even if you’re not in a city — that sense of trend or availability is very important and hotels are starting to address that.

How does that filter into the room and into products like Duravit’s? The hotel room still has to have a great bed, a place to work, a great shower and a practical bath. The language of design has transitioned from being traditional — elegance, luxury and high-end — into a more clean, modern aesthetic. That speaks straight to Duravit’s language.

The Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton are still going to be the upper luxury condition but even they are starting to address regional design. The Four Seasons still has its service metrics that all its locations have to comply with but they typically go to a local design firm. If you’re in San Francisco, you feel as if you’re by the bay. If you’re in Denver, you feel as if you’re in the mountains. If you’re in Miami, you feel like you’re in South Beach.


PM: What key elements do you see in bath remodeling projects in 2015?

TS: A tremendous amount of technology is coming into the bath. I believe the bath is going through a bit of a renaissance, similar to what the kitchen did maybe 15 years ago. Do I really need an in-wall coffee machine? Yes, I have to have it because I’ve been exposed to it. Would I have demanded it to be in my kitchen remodel if I had not run into it in a hotel or at a friend’s house? No, I would have stuck with the percolator.

Those luxury decisions and that exposure to lifestyle in the bath are evolving into a much more important part of decision making. At the end of the day, the bathroom is the only place in most homes where you have to knock on the door before you walk in. It’s a personal, very private space, a place where we can turn the switch off. So as life becomes much more chaotic and much richer, we need those places.

The trend coming into the bath is informed by design but in the end, it is technology that’s providing more comfort and sensibilities that is reaching more of the senses in the bath.


PM: What other trends should plumbing contractors and engineers look for in the bath market?

TS: We’re starting to see more Bluetooth, more connectivity. We’re seeing a higher demand on material selection, universal design and sustainability. While sustainability isn’t limited strictly to resources, we haven’t really seen the demand for more — yet. Sustainability also relates to how good design will last longer, how it’s relevant long-term. The cycle of a bathroom on average is about 15 years. If it has clever and classic design, it could last 30 years or 50 years and still be relevant. It will still look good and have an aesthetic 20 or 30 years from now.

That’s important to material use and recycling. We fully anticipate reclamation programs being implemented to material manufacturing to where we’ll be responsible for the disposal of Duravit product. So we’ll need to take the lifecycle of the product into ownership. We’ll manufacture the material, sell it to the end user and when the material is removed, we’ll dispose of it.

It will add another layer of cost to the end user. We won’t bear it, we won’t take it in the chin on margin. It will add a whole other layer of cost in logistics and product handling. But I believe it will remove these mountains of garbage we’re generating. If you look at a remodeling site, it’s extraordinary the amount of trash it generates.


PM: How is the market for bathtubs compared to shower/shower systems?

TS: I believe our tub business is growing strong. There’s still a very specific part of the population who want to take the time to bathe in a tub. It’s serenity — taking time for yourself and rewarding yourself, turning the switch off and relaxing.

However, many people like the power shower. We see the shower tray and tub/shower enclosure business trending up. On the shower tray side, we see a lot more flush-mounted and threshold-less trays or shower bases, which have universal design applications. Duravit has a shower screen that folds back on itself called Open Space. It allows a consumer to fold the shower enclosure back on itself, opening and closing the space as needed.

At the same time, the free-standing bath and corner bath concepts are trending up, as well as soaking tubs. Duravit launched a new collection of corner baths called Paiova — large, two-person bathtubs. If there’s space for it in the bathroom and an interest in that kind of luxury, the tub still has a lot of relevance.

In the middle market, you have the alcove tub — the shower/tub combination — and that’s not going away. Many people take those types of tubs out and replace them with showers, but they won’t do it in all their bathrooms; at least one tub will stay because of the resale value. A family may need a tub for kids or pets, so the tub/shower set is still relevant.

The big, expansive system tubs are still in the market, so whether the shower system has replaced the hydrotherapy concept of the system tub is hard to say. Will it come back as the output of showers is further restricted? Maybe. Duravit sells a lot of tubs and what informs our tub businesses is the aesthetic of the tub. It’s about design, it’s about lifestyle.

Showers are very relevant. People are living a high-pace lifestyle, so they definitely want a strong, good, sexy shower. Not everyone can have a shower and a free-standing tub. But that’s also a very popular combination in the larger master bath. So I don’t really see the tub going away.


PM: How has Duravit’s role with wholesale distribution evolved over the years and how important is that relationship today?

TS: Wholesale has a value-add to our product category that’s irreplaceable. Duravit is a luxury brand trapped in a commoditized segment. So the expectations are that the product be at the local level and on-the-shelf available. From a logistics point of view, I can’t white glove product into the house.

Wholesale covers all different segments, so some wholesalers are real strong in the architectural design community, some are real strong in the built environment segment or new construction, high-rise or hospitality markets. Some wholesalers are really good with plumbing and mechanical contractors. Those are all contact points and expand our visibility and our market touch. So the stronger the partner we have in the wholesaler, the stronger our influence and the stronger our reach into the market is.

It’s a critical path. We will remain focused on the traditional wholesale route because it serves us very well, we have a good group of partners that sell Duravit and supply it in a very consistent way into the market.


PM: What can contractors, engineers and wholesalers expect to see from Duravit this year?

TS: At Duravit, we always go to the market and launch aesthetic product; it’s kind of our core promise to the market. Duravit leads by design but behind that design I'd say this year, more than years in the past, we have a tremendous amount of technical and material development news, which is exciting because I think the market’s ready for this kind of next evolution of conversation in the bath.

The bathroom has always been rather pragmatic — a toilet, tub, shower and some storage for toiletries. However, it’s becoming less and less of a practical or a taboo kind of discussion and much more of a talking point. It’s all about lifestyle and what can my bath do for me today? Duravit is introducing the hygiene wash, solid surfaces for the shower trays and tubs, and DuraCeram in basins. We have rimless flush in the toilets and SensoWash Slim bidet seat-toilet technology.

It’s similar to the transformation the kitchen went through. Today the kitchen is the focus point of the family; it’s where everyone meets and hangs out. It has become much more than just a place to cook or store your food. For the bathroom, it’s a place for people to wind down, relax and reset. It’s becoming a very important room where before it was a rather pragmatic view, very utilitarian.


PM: How is Duravit changing the way it connects with plumbing contractors, engineers and distributors?

TS: I believe the evolution of the digital environment is dramatically changing how we can communicate. It used to be that we had to physically have contact somewhere in the supply chain and then deliver information through that chain. It could take a week or two months for the information to travel from manufacturer to contractor.

Today information is much more available with more visibility. Our links, our data and our interaction with our supply-chain partners are now through WebEx virtual seminars, videos, social media posts, news, installation instructions or product configurators. All these communication platforms are now visible through different channels, and these partners can access the information on their smartphones, tablets or computers.

As Duravit becomes more visible to them as a brand, it will allow us to be much more connected to them. We are adding QR codes on certain products that have installation videos so if a contractor is on a job over the weekend, he can have his questions answered by watching the video on his smartphone. It’s a huge dynamic change within the last few years; our supply chain partners can receive so much more information from us now, digitally, than they could before.

We recently launched our Revit file platforms, which allows the mechanical-electrical-plumbing professional to easily connect with the contractor and the architect so when they all meet on the job, they’re not pointing fingers at each other.

That kind of dialogue and interaction with the trade is important for Duravit. In Germany, the jobsite is controlled by the plumbing and so as a default, all our products are engineered for installation. We can’t have a product that doesn’t make sense or isn’t engineered to install quickly and sensibly to the German plumber and survive as a German brand. They’re mad about quality, so if you don’t have sensible installation orientation, your high-quality, highly engineered product looks terrible and doesn’t work properly. So the installation side is critical to the end result.

What do you think about technology in bathroom products? Tell us in the comment section below!