Water Course

The art and science of creating a spa at home.

When Mary Douglas Drysdale, a prominent Washington, D.C., interior designer, seeks respite from her very hectic practice, she doesn't book a week at a resort spa, or even a day at a day spa. She doesn't have to—she has her own spa, which she designed herself. It occupies a converted spare bedroom in her hideaway Pennsylvania farmhouse, and although far from elaborate—a big Kallista soaking bathtub in the middle of the room is the only piece of equipment—it provides the retreat Drysdale craves. "There are lots of books, soft towels, candles, and gentle sponges," she says. "And if I lived in a different era, I'd have someone standing there to dry me off," she adds, with a giggle.

The residential spa is such a nascent trend that it doesn't appear on most radar screens, although the designers, architects, and trend-spotters with whom we spoke for this article are certain it's out there. "A lot of clients have been coming to us over the past couple of years to re-create the spa for home use," claims New York City architect Robert D. Henry, whose firm specializes in commercial and residential spas. "The mindset has shifted. People want to live the spa life now, not just visit it."

Widespread exposure to the resort and day spas that blossomed in the last decade, combined with the disposable income generated by a booming economy, have fostered the home spa. "After experiencing a hydrotherapy tub, people say, 'I've got to have one,' " says Polly Johnson of Calistoga, California-based Hydro Spa Consulting, one of the country's largest spa consulting and equipment sales firms. "Or they say, 'This is a terrific treatment, I wonder if I can get this at home?' "

Increasingly they can, because such major bathroom-equipment makers as Kohler Co. and Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath have in the past several years introduced a variety of residential hydrotherapy units, such as programmed massage bathtubs and high-flow tower showers, a distinct clue that they believe there's an emerging market here. Johnson says the urge to spa at home has already affected sales of professional equipment like $25,000 hydrotherapy bathtubs. Virtually nonexistent a year ago, such sales now amount to about five percent of the company's business.

"We have a couple from the Silicon Valley who are incorporating a home spa into their new residence, and a client in Malibu who's putting a hydrotherapy tub into a new bathroom. Next year he's going to build a separate spa facility," says Johnson. But what brought the trend home was a call from a California developer who was about to build nearly 200 luxury homes in Rancho Palos Verdes, south of Los Angeles. "They wanted to put a spa into every one of these five-million-dollar homes," says Johnson.

Although there are as many home-spa configurations as there are pieces of equipment, they fall into five basic categories. In ascending order of elaborateness and expense, they are:

  • major overhaul of a bathroom
  • addition to an existing bathroom
  • conversion of an extra room
  • home-spa house addition
  • freestanding home-spa building.

What it's not is a room with a bubbling community hot tub. "In many places, a spa is still a hot tub at the Holiday Inn," says West Virginia-based Tag Galyean, perhaps the country's preeminent designer of resort spas (The Greenbrier Hotel, La Quinta Resort and Club, The Broadmoor Hotel, The Aspen Club, and The Lodge at Pebble Beach). And it has nothing to do with a home gym, although it could conceivably be adjacent to one. Instead, a home spa is a place where primarily water-based therapies are used to promote relaxation and well-being. The word spa, it just so happens, is an acronym for the Latin phrase "solus per aqua," meaning "health by water."

That doesn't mean home spas are limited to hydrotherapy. It is no stretch to include massages, facials, and other pampering treatments—or even the dry heat of a sauna bath—in a home spa. The important thing is that the space is dedicated to the concept of sanctuary, the word used by nearly every one of the spa experts we interviewed. "It is more about a spa sensibility than a specific tub," says Henry. "It's a mindset that's gone beyond the power of pampering to encompass the need for rejuvenation," says Galyean. "A spa isn't just about hedonism. It should be spiritual too, a quiet, restorative place. We know that makes us feel healthier, probably look better, and certainly more productive and creative."

Which leads to the first commandment of home-spa planning: Keep the spa space as far as possible from the concerns and sounds of the household. "Visually and acoustically, you want it as far away from distractions as you can get," says Henry. It shouldn't double as a bathroom, shouldn't share the same space with a workout area, and shouldn't be near the kids' rooms, laundry room, or media room. "Make as much of a transition from home life as is possible," says Galyean. "You want to leave the everyday world."

So how much spa do you really need? That depends on what you want. A simple residential spa with little equipment—perhaps a soaking tub with a portable massage table folded into a closet—requires as little as 150 square feet and costs a minimum of $100 per square foot, according to Henry, who says he has installed many such pared-down versions.

Johnson and Galyean, who are accustomed to designing commercial spas, which cost $100 to $250 per square foot, recommend a larger minimum space. Johnson says that she can fit a hydrotherapy tub, a jet shower with steam, a massage spa bed, and a massage table into 300 square feet. The total cost? A bit less than $100,000, with roughly a third of that being the equipment.

Galyean says you need even more room than that: "Keeping it in the practical realm, the minimum size for a genuine home spa—one that incorporates at least some of the features of a commercial spa and isn't simply a bathroom with a soaking tub—is about 400 square feet." He reckons the cost for such a home spa at $250 per square foot. For a lavishly equipped space—one with freestanding units such as a hydrotherapy tub, separate room for massages and other treatments, or a full-blown wet room—the size goes to 1,000 square feet and the cost rises to $1,000 per square foot. That means a total cost of $100,000 at the low end and $1.5 million at the high.

Regardless of the size, states Galyean, a home spa should "engage all the senses. " Make music and aromatherapy part of the mix, and design the room to take advantage of views and natural light. "Facing southeast would be my druthers," says Galyean. New York City interior designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz agrees that light and view are crucial. "A home spa that doesn't incorporate nature is like a basement," he warns.

The design needn't be showstopping—in fact, it probably shouldn't be, says Galyean. "The room should aim for a calm, restful aesthetic. Within those parameters, it can be clever, but avoid making it cute or trendy." Dramatic, though, can be okay. Drysdale cast a potent spell for one client by creating a 20 by 20-foot spa room with a custom-mosaic jetted soaking tub and a foun- tain, both separated by a glass wall from a 20 by 30-foot exercise room.

Drysdale says that her "ideal home spa would have a wood-burning fireplace for the warmth and the smell." Other Drysdale touches: "artwork, a chaise longue, topiary trees, candles everywhere, and room for a massage table to be brought in."

On Noriega-Ortiz's list of must-haves are a soaking bathtub large enough for two people, towel and robe warmers, space to accommodate "a daybed and a table you can dine at." But he warns against cramming too much into the room. "Choose what you're really going to use," he says. "Don't clutter. A sense of calmness comes from openness." He also cautions against strong colors or vivid patterns. "The whole idea of a home spa is to come back from this agitated life and relax," he says. "You're not going to do that if the walls are bright."

Like many spa-conscious designers, Henry favors "feel-good materials" such as natural stone like slate or limestone, glass tile, warm metals like stainless steel, and soft woods like teak. Noriega-Ortiz says if you put in a slate or marble floor, heat it from beneath. "There's nothing better than to step on a marble floor and feel it warm."

Since home spas are still news to most architects, interior designers, and building contractors, the best place to start inquiring is at a distributor for a bathroom-equipment manufacturer with a demonstrated interest in the subject—particularly Kohler and Jacuzzi. They should be able to suggest designers and plumbing contractors who can handle the specialized requirements a home spa entails. Educate yourself first, however. Experience as many resort and day spas as possible to determine the aesthetic you prefer, and test-drive as much equipment as you can. "An informed consumer is going to have sampled lots of equipment and will know what works for him," explains Henry. Only at that point should the process of interviewing an architect or interior designer begin. "Then you start reaching into the bag of tricks," says Galyean.

Anyone interested in employing professional spa equipment for residential use should call Hydro Spa Consulting, which carries a wide range of such products and is the firm that seems best attuned to the emerging residential-spa market. Hydro Spa's Johnson charges $100 per hour to custom-create a spa room using a Computer Assisted Design (CAD) system, a process that usually takes two to three hours. The company refunds half the consulting fee when equipment is bought. But CAD design, says Johnson, is rarely called for. She can talk out a design with most clients.

"I begin by asking if you're interested in having something you can come home to and get into yourself, or if you want to bring in therapists or technicians. If you say both, we work with that too. Sometimes I give people advice on how to configure a room so that they can then discuss it with their architect; other times they will give me a drawing and ask what can be put into that space."

Whether indulgence, escape, or rejuvenation, the home spa is likely here to stay. Life isn't going to get less hectic. Nor is our desire for pampering going to decrease. And ultimately the interest in the home spa is tied to an even deeper contemporary trend: wellness.

"We went through that period in the eighties where we worked hard and made a lot of money but didn't take care of ourselves," says Henry. "Now we still want to make money, but we also want to live well, to take proactive measures so that as we age we can continue to live a very full life." With a home spa, he says, "you make it an extension of your daily routine. You take that spa experience and bring it home, as anything from a moment of relaxation to a mini-vacation."

Or, as Karen Korpi, who designs spas for the Atlanta-based Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, says, "The home spa is good for a tune-up of your entire being."

A Spa-Worthy Home

Floors may require reinforcement to support some models of professional equipment. Hydrotherapy tubs necessitate freestanding installation and a tiled floor sloped toward a central drain. Hydrotherapy showers call for waterproofing of the surrounding area. Steam baths usually require tiling of all interior surfaces and a waterproof membrane installed under the tiles, as well as sloped and drained floors and a sloped ceiling.

Most steam generators and saunas, and many professional hydrotherapy units, require a dedicated 220-240-volt line with a circuit breaker.

For many professional hydrotherapy units, a two-inch drain and larger-diameter inflow pipes are necessary. Swiss showers may require a four-inch drain. Steeping tubs may also need bigger inflow pipes and a more sizable drain for efficient operation. Most professional hydrotherapy equipment and large steeping tubs demand a large-capacity, high-recovery water heater, or possibly an instant-on supplement heater. (This may require installation of a recirculation system.)

Oasis of Calm

New York designer Robert Olsen's Oasis Lounge with Waterfall is the ultimate home-spa relaxation chair. Constructed of maple and mahogany, with elliptical slats made of flexible hickory to support the back, it tilts back to NASA's "zero gravity" position—legs bent at the knees, feet higher than the head. It's the best position for relaxation and spinal health. Movable lumbar and head supports are made of small hickory dowels. Heated water flows through a copper pan situated just underneath the chair back, providing moist heat and a soothing sound. "With the combination of heat and the sound of the water, it really does a number," says Olsen, who has sold several of his handmade chairs so far. $5,000. R.J.O Design Studio, 70 Irving Place (Suite 5C), New York; 212-254-7405.

Good Soaks

Soaking and Steeping Tubs
Whether commercially available or custom-built, these tubs are for those who view the home spa primarily as a place for tranquillity. (Jetted tubs are "just too agitating," says Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz.) Wide variety available, from the ones sold by Kallista, Kohler Co.'s high-end division, to the vertical Japanese deep-plunge soaking tubs. ("They're generally too restrictive for the American market," cautions Polly Johnson, "because they're too small and too hard to get into and out of.") A 150-gallon-capacity tub is preferable for one person, says Robert D. Henry, and 250 gallons for two. Copper, stainless steel, and tile are the most common materials used. (Below, the Kallista Archeo copper tub; $51,980.) "Or we can make them out of wood, as they do in Japan," he adds. With the addition of an in-line cooling unit, almost any soaking or steeping tub can be transformed into a cold plunge.

Hydrotherapy Tubs
Bathtubs equipped with a pump to force water and/or air through a series of nozzles or jets, of which there are 200 or more in the most expensive models. Designed for serious deep-tissue massage and to promote lymphatic drainage and improved circulation. Also programmable to deliver a variety of massages. Not to be confused with "whirlpool" bathtubs, which have a handful of jets and limited oomph, or with hot tubs. Two categories: residential and commercial.

Residential Hydrotherapy Tubs
Unlike their commercial counterparts they can be sunken, enclosed, or placed against a wall. No special construction, plumbing, or electrical considerations—simply a dedicated 220-volt line.

Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath J-Sha ($5,800). Its sleek hourglass Italian design with ergonomically sloped backrest incorporates four regular jets and 32 hydrotherapeutic microjets aligned in two rows on either side of the spine. The latter fire sequentially in pairs of four, which re-creates Shiatsu massage, says the company. Electronic touchpad control. Three preprogrammed massage cycles.

Kohler Co. Vigora Whirlpool Bath (starting at $6,200). Ten variable-speed microjets—three pairs up the back, four across the shoulders—fire in sequence to simulate a body massage; two standard nozzles are positioned at the feet, and two jets under a head cushion that pulsate at the neck. Electronic speed-and-power control, but only one program.

Commercial Hydrotherapy Tubs
The ultimate piece of home-spa equipment, offering far more versatility, power, nozzles, programs, and durability than residential models. They commonly feature a wand (or hand-held nozzle) to direct the stream underwater to precisely where it's needed, and they are built to weather treatment substances from sea-based products to mud. The best ones also have a disinfection cycle.

The drawbacks:

  • Most are designed to be operated by an attendant, thus controls are not easily reachable from inside the tub.
  • Most require training or an attendant to operate safely. "We train people how to use them," says Polly Johnson.
  • They're expensive—$6,495-$31,000.
  • They may require special plumbing (see A Spa-Worthy Home).
  • They frequently have a starkly institutional appearance.
  • Even worse, normally they must be installed in the middle of a room to allow access on all sides, and cannot be enclosed or sunken.
  • Many are noisy.

TouchAmerica Petite Hydrotherapy Tub ($6,495). The basic model has eight hydro jets, 72 air jets, and hand wand.

Mediterranean Tub ($10,950) has 28 hydro jets, 108 air jets, sanitizer, and ozonator. Fits through a standard 36-inch doorway.

Hydrotone Hydrotherapy L1, L2, A, X ($12,995-$25,995). Made in Australia and introduced here two years ago. Well suited for home use in operation (an attendant is useful but not required), noise level (for the two most expensive models, surprisingly low), and installation (standard plumbing and electrical). All models have automatic disinfection systems. L1, L2, and A are 53-gallon tubs. The L1 has three stored-treatment programs and 38 water jets grouped in five body zones; the A has 60 water jets in seven body zones, 150 air injectors, eight programs, and a variable air- and water-pressure pump with significantly quieter operation. The 85-gallon X has 70 water jets, 150 air injectors, and the same eight programs and quiet variable-speed pump. A and L models convert to a wet table ($795) or massage table ($895) with the Hydrotop option and massage cushion.

Whirlpool Tubs
Kohler Co.'s large, round RiverBath ($6,700) is equal parts massage tub, whirlpool bath, and soaking tub. Four "river jets" can create a mild surface current or a whitewater torrent, while eight standard jets perform the standard whirlpool function. Plus there's a "waterfall" to cascade over the neck.

All Wet

The most avant-garde spa feature you can put in your home is a wet room, which combines steam bath, body scrubs, and massage in one place. The only ones we've seen so far are commercial, most recently at the new Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, California, where director of spa and activity Bruce Cavan has incorporated one into the hotel's freestanding spa. The completely tiled, 10 by 12-foot room combines a steam bath with a treatment table for body scrubs and a Vichy shower. Then a specially designed massage top is placed on the wet table.

To duplicate this setup in a residential setting, says Cavan, "would cost about $50,000 to $100,000. It would be quite an undertaking, but it could be done. The issue will be finding the right trained attendant." The room should be at least 10 by 12 feet, he advises, and it must be tiled top to bottom: "Just make sure everything is really waterproof." The tile may require a special rubberized lining underneath, and the ceiling should be sloped to allow water drops to flow away from the center of the room. "A drain under the wet table is a must, and the floor must slope toward it," he says.

Some form of radiant heat can be provided to warm the room, post-steam. "Tile cools quickly," he says. The room should have a passive inhalation system built into the wall so aromatherapy oils diffuse into the air, lights should be on a rheostat so they can be dimmed, and music should be available.

Spa Butler

Only one thing about the home-spa experience bothers Tag Galyean: the do-it-yourself aspect. "In a resort spa the whole event is about being attended to while you're indulging in the treatments," he says. The solution is to hire a massage therapist on a regular or part-time basis, even training him or her to operate spa equipment. "Instead of coming in to give you an hour-and-a-half massage, they could give a four-hour series of treatments."

But Galyean thinks the best solution is a part-time spa-trained person. "If you are prepared to hire a trained spa attendant—a kind of spa butler—then you can do it all."

Even a modest home spa can incorporate a massage station that uses a good folding massage table, but the ultimate is a dedicated room with a permanent table that can double, if needed, as a treatment chair for facials. Dozens of massage-table types—portable, stationary, hand-cranked, gas-lift, electrically adjustable—are available for less than $300 to approximately $4,500. Top companies are Living Earth Crafts (800-358-8292; www.livingearthcrafts.com), TouchAmerica (800-678-6824; www.touchamerica.com), and Custom Craftworks (800-627-2387; www.customcraftworks.com).

Hydrotherapy Showers

High-flow, multihead "tower" showers, meaning the heads are arranged vertically. Primary use is therapy, not cleansing. Available in consumer and commercial versions, both based on the "Swiss," or jet shower, used for years in spas.

Bouvier Hydro Swiss Shower ($4,938). Twelve heads arranged in groups of four on three sides. Uses lots of water—18 gallons per minute.

TouchAmerica Hydro-Kinetic Swiss Showers ($4,999-$6,499). Three models. All have 16 or 17 high-volume heads in three columns and either one or two overhead nozzles.

Kohler Co. BodySpa ($4,000-$8,000 for modular units, $6,400 for a custom 10-jet system requiring enclosure). Unique in recirculating water, by pumping it from a foot basin through either six, eight, or 10 body jets or an optional overhead "waterfall" ($3,000). Uses a maximum of 37 gallons. The result: a guilt-free, endless therapy shower with massive water flow of up to 80 gallons per minute. Recirculating system can't be used with soap (the company suggests installing a standard showerhead for bathing).

Combination Showers And Shower Tubs

While spacious supershowers incorporating steam are now routinely custom-designed for residences, Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath's J-Series packages the concept. J-Dream ($9,600) combines 12 vertical, programmable body jets with a hand-held showerhead that has eight spray patterns, an overhead cascade, and a steam system. J-Dream II ($10,000), the two-person version, has two sets of vertical jets and two cascading waterfalls. An optional, built-in stereo system is available for both ($1,000). J-Allure ($12,500 with TV/VCR, $11,500 without) adds a six-jet whirlpool tub.

Spa Beds

Automatic massage-therapy tables that use water as a substitute for a masseur and for a warm hydrotherapy tub. Massage can be delivered from above or below. Water-jet system enclosed within a thick vinyl cover. The three models are available through Hydro Spa Consulting (see Sources). Aqua-Float Pro 2000 ($7,495). Designed to lie on, has five fixed jets for a penetrating massage, heated water, and a wall-mount timer system as well as a manual control lever. PowerWave ($11,500). Uses four moving jets, with a hand-held electronic control for varying treatment speed, temperature, and movements. Aqua Massage ($19,900). Closes for treatment like a pants press. Uses 36 jets attached to a moving bar in the lid to deliver a three-sided massage. Has hand-held control, or unit can be preset.

Wellness Capsules

Clamshell devices that deliver a variety of treatments at the same time. The Hydrotone-Thermal models are available through Thalasso Systems, the DermaLife 5.5 is available through Sybaritic, Inc. (see Sources for both). Thermal 1 ($15,800). Provides a soaking tub, steam bath, and overhead Vichy shower. Model 2 ($19,800). Same features, plus air jets, which turn it into a hydrotherapy device.Model 3 ($25,800). Adds water jets, four treatment programs, and a disinfection system. DermaLife 5.5 ($8,995). Combines steam with infrared heat, a vibrating massage bed, aromatherapy, and other treatments.

Sauna Baths and Steam Baths

The world is divided into two camps: those who swear by moist heat and those who swear by dry. In 1998 more than 37,000 steam-bath generators were installed in American homes, according to Dan Reinert of the Sussman Lifestyle Group, makers of MrSteam/MrSauna, making them about three times as popular as their dry cousin. Sussman and Amerec Sauna & Steam are the two most reliable manufacturers, say the spa professionals.

Steam baths top out at around 120 degrees, saunas at 190. The two can't be combined. Both require a dedicated 220- to 240-volt electrical line.

Usually only the mechanical parts of a steam bath are sold as stock items. The tiled room or enclosed shower is always custom-built (see All Wet). It must be watertight, be tiled from top to bottom, and have a sloping floor and ceiling to drain off moisture. A gasketed steam-room door helps retain heat and moisture. Steam generators cost $3,000 at most, with a control unit and accessories adding less than $1,000.

A sauna, which requires no plumbing, should measure at least four by six feet so there's enough room for a bench. Western red cedar is the most common sauna lining, but redwood, hemlock, and aspen are also commonly used. Resort-spa designer Tag Galyean says he often works with Hibachi wood from Africa because it doesn't have an aroma and it doesn't get as hot to the touch. Saunas are available either precut as a freestanding modular unit or, as nearly three-quarters are, custom-cut. Price is calculated on the amount of wood used, and there's no real premium for cutting to order. The average-size sauna uses a six-KW heater and costs about $3,700, says Amerec's John Gunderson— $2,500 for the room and $1,200 for the heater. A 12 by 12-foot room, the largest precut size, is about $7,500 in western red cedar, plus another $1,500 for a bigger heater. The Spa Series heater from MrSauna ($675-$990).



Amerec Sauna & Steam

Belvedere Usa (Distributor Of Bouvier Hydro)

Hydro Spa Consulting

Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath

Kohler Co. (& Kallista)

Sussman Lifestyle Group (Mrsteam/Mrsauna)
www.mrsteam. com

Sybaritic, Inc.

Thalasso Systems (Hydrotone Products)


Designers & Architects

Mary Douglas Drysdale
202-588-0700; Fax 202-588-5086

Tag Galyean
304-647-3520; Fax 304-647-3523

Robert D. Henry
212-533-4145; Fax 212-598-9028

Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz
212-343-9709; Fax 212-343-9263.