Utilitarian spaces turn into roomier, ornate showplaces the status of BATHROOMS

October 30, 1994|By Beth Smith | Beth Smith,Special to The Sun

No longer content with a tub, sink and toilet, people want luxury in their bathrooms -- whirlpool tubs, separate showers, more space. Homeowners last year spent a record $11.4 billion remodeling their bathrooms and countless more money on new homes with extravagant bathrooms.

Why the fixation on bathrooms?

Traditionally, homeowners fixed up or added a bathroom because it added value to the home, and that remains a major reason.

But designers and architects say more people -- in part pushed by media campaigns by builders and remodelers -- are thinking "status"; they want bathrooms that will impress.

"I think this whole bathroom phenomena is complicated and full of symbolic meaning," said Baltimore architect Tom Clark.

"But it all comes down to the fact that large, luxury bathrooms are a status issue. They make a statement, something builders quickly realized when they took a 5-by-7 [foot] bathroom space and doubled it," Mr. Clark said.

Improving the value of the home dropped to fourth place last year from first place in 1988 as a reason for redoing a bathroom, according to a survey by Kitchen and Bath Business, a trade magazine published in New York. Having a bathroom to "show off" jumped to No. 2. Replacing outdated fixtures was No. 1.

Luxury bathrooms have developed the same clout as expensive cars and exotic vacations. "Yet, they are perceived by homeowners as having much better value than most luxury items," said Ed Pelt, editor of Kitchen and Bath Business.

Three decades ago, things were different. The average house had 1 1/2 baths. Fixtures were standard and space was at a premium. Remember the small, cramped room in the hall that everybody in the family shared? No one thought about status when standing in line, toothbrush in hand.

"In the 1990s, the average house has 2 1/2 or 3 baths," said Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist with the National Association of Homebuilders Remodelors Council. "And Americans aren't satisfied with more baths, they want larger bathrooms, especially master baths with all the hot-button items like whirlpool baths, separate showers, skylights and walk-in closets."

The bathroom has always been a symbol of status for the wealthy. At the Baltimore Public Works Museum, ornate chamber pots are on display, and visitors can learn about the opulent bathrooms of the past. But in recent years, even lower- and middle-class families have seen fit to dress up their bathrooms.

"Even if a person doesn't have that status of wealth, people would definitely think in terms of how their bathroom is presented," said Edward Gillespie, the museum's assistant curator.

According to the museum, the Romans maintained warm public baths; Queen Elizabeth I had a water closet and bathed once a month; and medieval families bathed together while the water was hot. But the bathroom, as a separate room in the house, has been around for only about 100 years.

The advent of indoor plumbing in the late 19th century -- as large cities developed water supply and sewer systems -- started an evolution that has led to the opulent bathrooms of today.

The notion of bathrooms as places where more transpires than routine body care has been fueled by the homebuilding and remodeling industries in their searches to keep consumers interested in bathrooms, and the public has bought into it, said Jeff Love, an architect based in Fairfax, Va.

Homeowners have found it hard to resist the lure of luxury baths as pictured in building magazines, displayed in model homes and popping off the TV screen.

Last summer, at the Dream Homes exhibition in Baltimore County, nine $500,000 homes were on display. Some had bathrooms the size of a master bedroom.

Another motivation for homeowners is convenience. In all aspects of home design, new-home buyers are demanding layouts and features that better fit their lifestyle: first-floor bedrooms, offices, home-movie "theaters." Bathrooms are no different.

For example, the utilitarian master bathroom just off the master bedroom is being replaced. Now it is a "private place to relax and unwind," said Joan Eisenberg of J.M.E. Consulting, a kitchen and bath design company. "And given the busy life style of most working couples, it has also become a place for two people to enjoy each other's company."

When Michael and Linda Elman of Fallstaff enlarged and remodeled their house, they decided the standard master bathroom in their 35-year-old Colonial had to go. They wanted to be able to use the bathroom at the same time without bumping into each other and they wanted to install a whirlpool tub and steam shower.

"Our lives are more harried now," said Ms. Elman, mother of four children ages 5 to 14. "We wanted someplace where we could relax." The Elmans also wanted to incorporate facilities usually found in health clubs. "We would rather use a whirlpool or a steam shower in our own home than go running out to a club."

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