Royal Flush

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A huge shift is under way in the $290 billion industry of home remodeling: Homeowners are beginning to leave the kitchen alone and invest in luxurious, spacious, high-tech new bathrooms. In 2005, 5.2 percent of owner-occupied homes in the U.S. underwent some kind of bathroom renovation, with an average price tag of $2,520, according to the nonprofit, Tampa, Fla.-based Home Improvement Research Institute. The No. 1 reason for the bathroom remodels was to increase the


A huge shift is under way in the $290 billion industry of home remodeling: Homeowners are beginning to leave the kitchen alone and invest in luxurious, spacious, high-tech new bathrooms. In 2005, 5.2 percent of owner-occupied homes in the U.S. underwent some kind of bathroom renovation, with an average price tag of $2,520, according to the nonprofit, Tampa, Fla.-based Home Improvement Research Institute. The No. 1 reason for the bathroom remodels was to increase the value of the home, while the desire to increase space and beautify the home came in a close second and third, respectively, the group's survey shows.

"The bathroom is the new trophy room," says Janice Costa, editor of Kitchen & Bath Design News. "Whereas it used to be a very private space, it has become more of a reflection of people's personal tastes." She says about 45 million home bathrooms in the country have remained unaltered since 1970, a number that is dropping faster than ever as homeowners rush to transform their plain old water closets into elegant showrooms of form and function.

EXPERT METHODS. For an impressive bathroom, it's best to consult the experts. Architects, interior designers, remodeling contractors, and plumbing contractors may all be necessary for the most complex of projects, but an increasing number of homeowners are employing full-service design firms that both plan the room and make it come to life.

Covenant Kitchens & Baths in Westbrook, Conn., will inspect the layout of your home, work with you on a custom bathroom that suits your needs and budget, and construct it for about $5,000 to $30,000. The desire for more or better utilized space, says Covenant designer Kira Van Deusen, is a common priority for many of its clients.

"Many times, bathrooms are small and like a puzzle, [and] the pieces can only fit in one particular way. We tend to investigate adjoining rooms to see if we can beg, borrow, or steal from the space to enlarge the bathroom," says Van Deusen. For a recent project in Branford, Conn., Covenant removed a wall to combine a small bathroom with a neighboring dressing room. Workers enlarged the window, added a whirlpool tub, shower, and vanities, and installed richly colored mahogany cabinets.

HOMAGE TO HOTELS. Customers of Covenant and other bathroom remodeling professionals frequently want to emulate in their own home the design styles they notice in hotels, resorts, and other upscale commercial bathrooms. As a result, the hotel room innovations of top-dollar design firms have come to bear heavily on trends in residential design. High-end and high-tech bathroom implements, such as chromatherapy (color-changing) tubs, mirrors with LCD television screens, fireplaces, and heated towel racks--once luxuries reserved for the vacation or business trip--are becoming a more affordable part of everyday life.

Hotels have good reason to invest heavily in top-notch bathrooms, according to Ariane Steinbeck of Gettys interior design firm, which specializes in resorts and hotels. "About 80 percent of the waking time that's spent in a hotel room is spent in the bathroom," she says. "When [people] go to resorts or hotels, they want to be inspired about things they can use at home."

But the relationship between hotel and residential bathroom design works both ways. "As people spend more time in hotels, you're seeing more hotel baths take on a home-like or personalized look to get away from that sterile, institutionalized feel that some hotel baths have," says Costa of Kitchen & Bath Design News. She says natural textures, such as wood and stone, and warm earth tones have made the leap from the home bathroom to the upscale commercial bathroom.

THE DESIGN DIFFERENCE. And then there are designers who seem to take the evolution of bathroom design entirely into their own hands. For a bathroom that looks like it's from another planet, take up residence in one of the few remaining apartments at Jade, a 57-unit building in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. The latest project of celebrity heiress-cum-jeweler Jade Jagger and real estate developer Michael Shvo, Jade takes space utilization to another level with its "Pods," large metal cubes that open on one side to reveal a full bathroom with fixtures by Waterworks, on the opposite side a small kitchen, and on the end a closet with washer and dryer.

Despite a perplexed response from the New York real estate community, Shvo says the Pods have given the building's studios and one- and two-bedroom units a competitive edge. "A creative bathroom design should always be top of mind for real estate developers.… [The Pod] is not something you can buy at Home Depot and plunk into your apartment. It has to be designed," he says.

Whatever route you choose to go when planning your new bathroom, don't be afraid of committing to a large investment. According to the research of Kitchen & Bath Design News, midrange bathroom renovations are currently returning homeowners an average of 102.2 percent on their investment, while upscale renovations return an average of 93.2 percent.

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