Beyond Bathrooms -- Business As Usual Is No Longer Enough For This Potentially Comforting Space

SOME PEOPLE around us have stopped complaining about the seasonal chill and done something about it. They have found warmth and comfort in clean, well-lit, frequently damp places in their own homes.

We used to call these retreats "bathrooms," but "cleansing rooms" or "renewal spaces" is becoming more appropriate.

Bathrooms were frequently drafty and cramped; you were inspired to finish the job at hand and get the heck out. If the unpleasantness is not all in the past just yet, it's not for lack of trying on the part of designers and manufacturers. They're sorely motivated.

That is because the harder we work and the more stress we endure, the greater our desire to drag the office-battered body into a healing atmosphere. If that space is bone-warming and smelling of lavender oil, so much the better.

Everywhere you look there are glass-enclosed steam showers, saunas of every stripe, soaking tubs, multi-jet showers with the cleaning power of car washes, lap pools, spas with starship-like consoles and retro '60s-style redwood hot tubs.

What's going on here?

Well, a revolution, of sorts.

That old-formula 5-by-7-foot room with the basic bathtub/shower, toilet and sink is not on many wish lists these days. When folks remodel or shop for a new home, they aim higher.

The most desirable cleansing rooms of the moment are suites that combine dressing rooms, sitting rooms, exercise spaces, walk-in closets and compartments specifically for bidet/toilets, shower and soaking tub (a deeper-than-traditional tub for sitting), according to the recently published book, "Bathrooms," by Bernadette Baczymski and James Krengel (PBC International, $34.95).

Heated towel bars, audio/video systems, concrete counter tops and brushed-nickel fixtures with basins atop counter tops are increasingly popular, the authors note.

The motivation for all this is often said to be stress reduction, though cleanliness, health and full-spectrum lighting just down the hall are reward enough. And where else these days can you find peace and quiet?

"What people need is quietness," says Nina Ummel, owner of Ummelina International Day Spa in downtown Seattle. Her business is to coddle, calm and pamper clients into a state of well-being, seven days a week. Ummel, though referring here to the nuances of jetted tubs vs. soaking tubs, has just offered a one-sentence prescription for healing the tattered public nerves.

As a consultant for home-spa installations for the past 13 years, she's witnessed the trend locally toward really big bathroom/gym/spa arrangements and concludes we need them, though she's especially in favor of soaking tubs, soft music and candlelight.

"People want to feel like they have a retreat," offers Diane Foreman, a designer with The Showplace, a design/remodeling firm in Redmond that specializes in kitchens and bathrooms. The No. 1 item on the wish list when people come in, she says, is a bigger master bath.

Though jetted tubs are still popular with her clients, the trend is more to a large shower with a seat, two shower jets and maybe an overhead, rainhead-type fitting to make it seem like you're under a tropical waterfall.

Clients are looking for showers that are either glassed-in, free-standing cubes or completely open to the room. They also lust after tile or stone surfaces, separate water closets, easy storage and space for furniture, a TV, stereo and bookshelves. So much the better, Foreman says.

Make that a relaxation room.

Though Foreman is hesitant to generalize, a major remodel on a fairly modest space, to include a free-standing shower, soaking tub and water closet, will cost around $25,000 and up, without new walls, she says. This includes high-quality fixtures. Of course, you can go a little crazy with quality-consciousness - a Barand rainhead attachment ($500 for a 5-inch model), for example, or a clawfoot-style tub with air-jet hydro massage.

Then there's pushing the envelope way beyond bathrooms. In 13 years crafting a home on Mercer Island for a couple who delight in excellence and experimentation, designer Dave Eck has attained expertise in metalworking, stone masonry and model-making (he relies on scale models rather than detailed drawings for his creations). Already skilled in woodworking and math, he brought all the parts into play just to create the cleansing spaces for the house.

In the shower area, for example, he used five granite columns from the Whistler, B.C., area as privacy screens, with tile and cut stone as finish materials. The boulders are set on end and canted so anyone walking past to reach the sauna or water closet is hidden from view.

Neighbors aren't an issue, so there's a glass wall on one end of the shower area to let in south light. A computer housed in a nearby mechanical room reacts to a sensor and warms the glass as needed to prevent fogging. Similarly, the ventilation system takes moisture readings and regulates exhaust fans and heat. An infrared sensor tells the computer when people enter the area, so further adjustments can be made.

The shower room - and all the nearby spaces - can be hosed down quickly, thanks to forgiving surfaces and a floor drain. A hose reel from an industrial-supply company, mounted out of sight in the mechanical room, gives a nozzle stored in the shower wall a long reach. The hand sink, carved by Eck out of a standing granite block, has a finely detailed cedar cabinet just above it.

In the yellow-cedar sauna, a few yards away, a steam generator responds to moisture readings according to a heat and humidity set point. A traditional bucket and ladle are there more for aesthetics than function. A state-of-the-art Japanese toilet in a separate compartment senses a presence, then washes, warms, cleans - does everything but send an announcement fax.

Not far away in this wing of the house are the exercise components, including a swimming pool. Tropical plants soften the edges; a waterfall tumbles down boulders near a loft that's used as an exercise room.

Five three-phase pumps push water through niches in a granite wall to create a current and make laps challenging. It takes a strong swimmer to stroke from the far end of the pool to the rock wall when the current control is cycled to high, Eck says.

A channel off the pool leads under a Japanese-style bridge to a tile wall. Step over the wall and under a banana tree and you're in the soaking tub/spa, with ripe lemons hanging nearby and good light through glass walls. Everything in sight is custom-made.

In Madrona, architect John Fleming, with Rohleder, Borges, Fleming Architecture, transformed the basement of an older four-story house into a steamroom-shower/sauna/wine cellar/gym.

In the bath area, plaster, teak and stone are intended to convey a feeling of safety and comfort. The materials express the notion that "here is where you rest and cleanse yourself from the day," Fleming says.

The space includes an art collection and limestone tiles from Portugal, to balance the etched-concrete floor and tub surround and please the senses.

To designer Holly McKinley, who chose paint colors, furnishings and some materials for the project, the former basement is very refined and carefully proportioned, with glitter and hardness minimized.

Care was taken so there would be no metal fittings for the glass-cube steam-shower, except on the door. The charcoal-colored slate and stained-concrete steps up to the sauna and shower are earthy feeling, as are the dark floors, says McKinley. The stairwell, seen from the exercise machines, is finished with Venetian plaster (pigments are added to the wet plaster) for a smooth, marble-like appearance. Call it a cleansing workout space for art-loving wine aficionados.

Which brings us to Sam and Sara Van Fleet. Both busy professionals, they are on friendly terms with dry heat, steam, home-exercise and the furniture-in-the-bathroom look.

They have been settled into their completely refurbished 1907 Vashon Island farmhouse for three months and are enjoying the best of two worlds. Their home's interior is a wonder of skilled wood joinery and up-to-the-moment style, including an upstairs bathroom with views of Puget Sound that clearly qualifies as a cleansing room. One can have an agreeable soak here, a session Ummel would applaud.

As for exercise, there's the garden to work or the woodpile to stack. And some 50 feet or so out the back door, amid a new rockery, a traditional sauna provides the dry heat and steam. Rainwater fills a nearby horse trough with clean, cold water. Friends gather, sit together on cedar benches, talk, up-end a ladle over the glowing rocks, inhale the steam, plunge in the chill trough, do it all over again.

Let's call this one a renewal space.

Dean Stahl is a Seattle writer and editor. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.