Dreaming of a bigger bathroom

You’re not alone.
Over the years, the American bathroom
has become much more than
just a room to bathe in.
Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:27 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

In America, we love luxury, and what denotes luxury more clearly than size? Think limousines, SUVs and computer hard drives.

  “It seems that we’ve equated progress with the amount of whatever it is that we can do,” said Angela Nelson, chair of the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. “If we’re moving forward, then we’re doing something bigger and we’re doing something better.”

And now, as our lives grow busier, our bathrooms seem to be growing bigger and bigger, at least according to designers, builders and real estate agents. Top shelf amenities such as multi-headed showers, large jetted tubs, self-warming floor tile and his-and-her vanities — side-by-side sinks and counter space at different heights to accommodate couples — are making their way into bathrooms across the country, and across Columbia.

“It’s definitely a trend,” said Dana Painter, an interior designer with Columbia’s Dancar Designs. “People are making the master suite one wing of the house. It’s been going in that direction the last five to 10 years, but it’s become more of a priority to homeowners in the last three to five years.”

Although it’s impossible to pinpoint the average bathroom size in America today — various factors, including a home’s age, total square footage and the bathroom type, such as master bath, guest bath or powder room — make an educated estimate difficult, industry experts agree sizes are definitely going up.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” said National Kitchen and Bathroom Association spokesman Jim Krengel, a certified master kitchen and bathroom designer. “We’re seeing both kitchen and bathroom sizes growing in square footage.”

A look to the past

The phenomenon begs the question: What accounts for this growing bathroom fascination?

The obvious answer would be cleanliness; the bathroom is where we go to wash away environmental grime. Consumers first became obsessed with maintaining sanitary conditions in the late 1800s, Peter Corrigan explains in “The Sociology of Consumption.” Social changes caused by the Industrial Revolution and a greater scientific understanding of germs and diseases brought good hygiene to the front of people’s minds. Houses were built to accommodate interior bathrooms, and bathroom as well as kitchen appliances adopted their now–standard white hue, white representing a high standard of cleanliness because it most readily shows dirt. Cleanliness and the appearance of cleanliness became a way for the middle and upper classes to distinguish themselves and to avoid getting sick.

Today the focus has shifted from cleanliness to pleasure. As Corrigan puts it: “It is perhaps because bodily cleanliness has become so taken for granted that the hygienic functions of bathing no longer need to be mentioned. After all, nobody is arguing that their shower cleans better than some other manufacturer’s shower, for to do so would sound faintly absurd.”

Certainly, the emerging trends in bathroom design don’t make for a more sanitary bathing experience, and they do nothing to eliminate germs. What, for instance, does an oversized whirlpool tub with a built-in 42-inch plasma TV screen, with waterproof remote control and keyboard for Internet surfing — a unit that costs about $8,000, according to Krengel — have to do with hygiene? An elaborate bathroom stereo system doesn’t enhance the efficacy of old-fashioned soap and water; neither does the warmth from a gas-powered fireplace. Even urinals, traditionally a commercial bathroom item, are gaining domestic popularity, but their appeal is comfort rather than cleanliness.

The bathroom’s key selling points: luxury, relaxation and efficiency. And Americans are buying.

Maximizing potential

Why now? Painter thinks it has something to do with awareness.

“Consumers are becoming much more aware of all the possibilities,” she said. The rise of spa popularity, the Internet, television programs and international travel — especially luxurious travel resorts — can often inspire home owners to integrate new features into their home bathrooms, she says. Even if buyers can’t afford all of the amenities on the market, they can pick and choose a few that seem most appealing. Knowledge of the options makes them desirable.

MU sociology professor Wayne Brekhus points to a more deeply-rooted American philosophy to explain the obsession.

“I think part of it is a phenomenon that has always existed, which is conspicuous consumption, a term used for acquiring big and luxurious things as a way to show off to others,” he said. “Even though bathrooms are a private space, when company comes over, they convey status.”

Achievement and status are strong American values, and bathrooms are the newest arena to demonstrate one’s own success. The bigger the bathroom, the more successful the homeowner, or so the logic goes. “This is, after all, the country of the Hummer,” Brekhus said.

Another possibility is the American culture of fear. Formerly a fear of domestic crime and now of outsiders, fear has caused people to retreat into their homes. Brekhus calls it the “bunker mentality,” most visibly manifested in gated communities, but now appearing in bathroom design. “I don’t necessarily think terrorism was the cause of the bunker mentality, but I think terrorism really accelerated that trend,” he said. Surrounded by contemporary uncertainty and anxiety, people have channeled time, money and energy into outfitting the home like a haven or sanctuary. “People are looking around and going, ‘Why not make my world a little bit nicer?’” Krengel said.

Battling stress

Krengel’s theory points to another possible explanation. Busy people are looking for ease and relaxation when they get home from work. Nelson said that though Americans have always worked hard and been busy, the rise of information technology and the fast-paced nature of our interactions today have created a new level of stress for people.

“We’re moving faster, so we’re putting demands on ourselves to do more,” she said.

Rather than making our lives easier, then, modern technology merely pushes us to new limits.

“The home – that is the place where we can rest and kind of shut off the deadlines of work, the deadlines of school. That’s the one place where we can sort of look inward and take care ourselves,” Nelson said.

This response is a classic American one, Nelson said. We tend to look for internal solutions to the problems we face collectively.

“Somehow we have to balance out the stress and running around,” she says. “We probably aren’t doing the best job because everybody’s being stressed. It seems like we’re trying in our own way to balance that out.”

In European cultures such as Spain, state-mandated vacation and daily downtime is built into the work schedule.

“There’s a certain part of the day where people just sleep. They work into the culture that they know a human being can’t work for 8, 9, 10, 11 hours. You can’t have meetings over your lunch all the time,” Nelson said.

In the United States, we have no such government-sanctioned relaxation time, so we try to compensate for the stress we feel on our own.

“America’s way, because we’ve been so individualistic, is to look inwardly,” Nelson said. Bathroom luxury is one manifestation of our attempts to do so.

So the weary American professional returns home from the office or from soccer practice or the school board meeting and seeks solace in warm Jacuzzi waters. Perhaps she pops a CD into the stereo system she had wired into the bathroom, or he flips on the ceramic-log fireplace next to the tub, and they soak away their anxieties. Bathrooms, which once meant cleanliness and convenience, have come to represent something else – our stress, our wealth and ourselves.

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