Showpiece Showers

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Showers aren't just for washing anymore; they've become in-home spas, replacing the whirlpool tub in the heart of homeowners.

October 01, 2005

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Installation challenges

 
This stand-alone shower, part of a master bath remodel by J.S. Brown & Co. of Columbus, Ohio, creates room for two by having double doors, bench seating, two showerheads and multiple body sprays. Other popular features include frameless glass, large stone tiles and earthy colors. The project won a silver 2005 Best of the Midwest Award. 
Photo by J.E. Evans Photography.

Showers aren't just for washing anymore; they've become in-home spas, replacing the whirlpool tub in the heart of homeowners.

The popularity of stand-alone showers has been gaining steam for years. NKBA research shows that 1.3 million shower stalls were installed in 2002, versus 580,000 whirlpool tubs. A 2003 NAHB study found that 77 percent of consumers considered a stand-alone shower to be a must-have or desirable feature, versus 63 percent who said that about a whirlpool.

Alex Bain, of Bay Kitchen & Bath Remodeling in La Mesa, Calif., said that 98 percent of his San Diego-area shower clients are asking him to jazz up their showers with multiple body sprays. He is not alone.

"People are trying to get more experience out of the shower," says Sarah Kahn Turner, an interior designer with Gilday Renovations in Silver Spring, Md. "The shower is becoming a retreat. Lately our clients have been taking more trips, and staying in small, boutique hotels." When the vacation is over, she explains, they want to recreate the boutique experience at home by adding luxurious stand-alone showers in the master bath.

This custom shower system from Grohe works for one person or two. On one side are a fixed showerhead, a handheld spray, a thermostatic valve, and volume controls. On the opposite side are three body sprays.
Courtesy Grohe America Inc.

Options and features

As the demand for stand-alone showers has grown, the options for creating showpiece showers have become more exciting and diverse. They range from one-piece shower panels to large, two-person, custom systems featuring rain showerheads, body sprays and steam shower capability.

The old standard 5- × 7-foot bathroom isn't big enough for a shower with all the bells and whistles, but that doesn't stop some clients. Kitchen and bath specialist Dan Tibma of Tibma Design/Build in Needham, Mass., says he's putting in "almost no" tub-shower units. For his suburban Boston clients, it's stand-alone showers hands down, and 70 percent of those clients want multi-head, high-performance showers. He has been replacing tiny showers with units at least 42 square feet, some of them designed for two people.

 
McClurg Associates of Marcellus, N.Y., cut the floor system to install this shower base but left the framing structurally sound. This project won a silver 2005 Best of the Northeast Award.
Photo by David Revette Photography Inc.

It's not unusual for Bain to build a two-person shower that's nearly 5 × 3 feet, with multiple showerheads on opposite walls. Kahn Turner says Gilday clients are willing to give up other spaces to accommodate luxury bathrooms. Some even "absorb a smaller bedroom to make a bigger bath," she says.

Fixtures: Wall-mounted, multi-featured shower panels have been around awhile, but they are packed with more style and function than ever. Rain showerheads — wide "sunflower" heads, which provide a gentle soaking from overhead — are available in diameters from 5 inches to as much as 2 feet. Bodysprays — water jets arranged at various heights for an all-over shower sensation — are part of the spa trend too.

Steam showers and rain showerheads are among the top choices for her remodeling clients, says Kahn Turner. Also big are showers with multiple heads, usually including an overhead spray, wall jets custom arranged to suit the heights of the shower users, and a handshower convenient to the shower bench. Virtually every remodeled shower, regardless of spray features, gets a wall-mounted bench.

Of course, glitzy new multi-feature showers are beyond the means of some homeowners. But you can give them a spa shower anyway. "Switch out the showerhead for a handshower on a slide bar," says Kahn Turner. The showerhead can be used as either overhead shower or bodyspray, and can deliver a choice of sprays to provide those must-have shower experiences, from rain shower to massage therapy.

Tile: The natural look, expressed with natural materials and earthy colors, is in for shower tile. "We get calls for natural granite, limestone, slate, sandstone and tumbled marble," says Tibma.

In San Diego, "the hottest trend now is use of natural stone," says Bain. The stone tiles are large, often 12 × 12 inches or more, which reduces the number of grout lines and the accompanying risk of staining.

"We like using epoxy grout on shower floors so the floor grout does not discolor," says Tibma. For extra insurance against staining, he encourages his clients to use non-absorbent stone-look porcelain tiles.

Top left, Hansgrohe's new Downpour Air Rainmaker with 350 spray channels. Photo courtesy of Hansgrohe.
Bottom left, Grohe's new Amera system.
Photo courtesy of Grohe.
Center, Kohler's new WaterTile with square bodysprays.  Photo courtesy of Kohler.
Right, Ondine's limited-edition Krystal ELS overhead shower with Swarovski crystal.
Photo courtesy of Ondine.

Finishes: Accenting the earthy look of wall and floor tile are fittings in rich, subtle tones. Finishes such as satin nickel, bronze and polished nickel are in demand, says Tom Vox of Atlanta high-end retailer Renaissance Tile & Bath.

Ambiance: To keep exhaust fan noise from destroying the ambiance, Bain specifies quiet Nutone units; Tibma uses a Fantech unit with remote motor. Steam shower units, with generators installed in a closet, bench or attic, turn shower enclosures into relaxing steam rooms. Aromatherapy reservoirs at the showerheads infuse the atmosphere with a soothing fragrance.

Doors: To enclose their fancy showers, most homeowners opt for frameless doors that are clear, sandblasted or rain patterned glass. Despite the maintenance issue with clear glass — water spots that have to be wiped off — clear glass is "by far the thing" in the Boston area, says Tibma. He's not surprised; after all, clear glass "makes the room more bright," he says, and shows off the tile in the shower, which often is "the design focal point of the room."

 

Installation challenges

Here's a rundown of some of the problems you may encounter when incorporating new multi-head showers in old homes — and ideas for solving them.

The house has ½-inch pipes. The recommended line size for most shower products is ¾ inch. If you can re-plumb to the shower, that's advisable. If not, "any brand will fit a ½-inch line," says Vox.

The ½-inch line should be adequate for up to three showerheads, says Bain. It also will do for a rain showerhead up to 6 inches in diameter, says Tibma.

To get maximum water flow, you may want to install a diverter, giving the client the option to send water to just one outlet at a time rather than use all of them together.

You are installing a multi-head shower system using the existing plumbing line. Thermostatic valves are the solution here, since they control water flow as well as temperature. Al DeGenova of Grohe says one thermostatic valve can provide good water flow for to up to five shower outlets. The valves come in ½-inch or ¾-inch sizes to work with different pipe sizes.

Vox says it is best to use valves the same size as the pipes, but Kahn Turner always specs ¾-inch valves for multiple-outlet showers because of the number of gallons per minute needed.

Your clients want to replace an existing shower with a larger, heavier new one. "Make sure the subflooring is strong enough," advises Zlatan Pelja, estimator and project coordinator at Brownlow & Sons, a full-service remodeler in Marietta, Ga. In older houses, says Pelja, 95 percent are leaking and require new plywood supports.

Kahn Turner says you'll need to beef up the subflooring to a minimum of 1¼ inch, and that marble tile will require ¼ inch thicker subflooring than ceramic. The wider the floor joist span, the more subflooring you'll need, she adds.

Your clients want to convert the existing shower to a steam shower. "You can't use the existing water supply line for a steam shower," says Pelja. You'll need to install new rough-ins for the steam system, which includes a showerhead and a steam generator in an adjacent space.

"You will also need to slope the ceiling for water drippage," says Kahn Turner, "tile the ceiling, and make sure the door goes to the ceiling and the shower stall is completely sealed off."

Add a drip tank and drain if you have to install the steam generator overhead, recommends Bain.

Your clients want to convert the existing shower to a rain shower. First, give the homeowners a heads-up before they choose a fixture: "The bigger the head, the softer the flow of water," says Vox. Many homeowners opt for smaller heads once they realize that will yield stronger water flow.

You may need to extend the water supply line to the new showerhead. If the shower is close to where an outside wall meets the roof, it may be hard to find overhead space for the plumbing, says Bain. You'll need to pull the shower a few inches away from the wall to gain overhead space.

The house has 2×3 wall studs. Many old houses have these, but new shower fixtures generally require 2×4 wall spaces, says Tibma. You'll need to fur out the walls.

The pre-remodel water pressure is low. Check for corrosion in the pipes and showerhead. Replacing corroded parts can greatly increase the water pressure.

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