Bathrooms awash with digital luxury

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Copy of cz 20140309-AMX-DESIGN-BATHS103 THE WASHINGTON POST A cast-concrete sink in the powder room has a piece of onyx lit from below. Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

Washington - Slava Lazebnikov can set the water temperature of the shower from the living room, programme a shower playlist while having dinner and lift the toilet lid while lying in bed.

After 15 years in his home, Lazebnikov says the bathrooms were outdated and needed something, well, a little splashy.

Now, showering in the upstairs bathroom is a digital spa experience. “It’s really like in a car wash,” he says.

Technology has become commonplace in many homes – particularly in the rooms where families have sound systems and home theatres – with devices that allow them to programme their music and TV from their smartphones – and in the kitchen with refrigerators that tell them when they’re low on milk.

But now it’s starting to catch on in the bathroom.

Last year a survey of 7 600 homeowners by Houzz – an online community interested in remodelling and design – found that 60 percent of people are renovating bathrooms and many are upgrading to include the latest technology. Houzz says multiple shower heads, including those that simulate rain, are particularly popular.

Copy of cz 20140309-AMX-DESIGN-BATHS102 The toilet in Slava Lazebnikovs home has a lide that automatically rises when someone steps in front of it. Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey. THE WASHINGTON POST

The sophisticated bathroom technology is not just for the rich or frivolously eccentric. Lazebnikov and his wife, Margarita, live in a modest townhouse, and he “likes all sorts of gadgets that can be adjusted for the heck of it”.

Lazebnikov, a software systems manager, bought and installed the latest hi-tech products himself. “It’s my hobby. I do it over the weekends,” he says.

A digital valve with five control panels is connected to both their smartphones and enables them to personalise every aspect of the shower. The devices can be pricey: the Kohler DTV system with rainhead, four body sprays, fixed head and hand shower typically retails for $4 500 (R49 000); then you can add another $12 000 for the media package.

“Water comes at you from all sides and above,” says Lazebnikov, pointing to various ceiling and wall water tiles from which the water flow and pressure can be regulated. You can create a drizzle, thunderstorm, waterfall, fountain or body spray.

You can also set a rhythmic pattern of alternating water temperature. “Think of it as temperature therapy,” he says. And he says he can add steam “to surround me in warmth”.

The steam function can be controlled with user settings for different family members – a gadget that costs $2 500 to $5 000 and an extra $1 000 to $3 000 to include the speakers, lights and aromatherapy. It can be as basic or intense, hot or warm, short or long, as each person desires.

Copy of cz 20140309-AMX-DESIGN-BATHS101 Slava Lazebnikov, shown with his wife, Margarita, bought and installed the latest high-tech bathroom products in the couples home himself. Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey THE WASHINGTON POST

“If you’re in the kitchen cooking, you can hit your iPad app to turn on the steam so it starts generating, which takes about five minutes,” says Brittany Pomeroy of Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery. “Then you can walk straight into the shower. If you’re on a run and have five minutes left, you can do the same thing. It’s instant gratification.”

Ceiling lights can be programmed to alter mood. Blue and violet are considered calming, yellow and red energising. A lot of people enjoy chromotherapy,” says Michael Weaver, co-owner of bathroom store Weaver & Sons.

Music pours from a speaker that fits into the shower head. Kohler sells Moxie, a $199 system with a shower head and wireless speaker that snaps in to play and pops out for recharging. It is wirelessly connected via Bluetooth.

“Today showers are so advanced they come at the price of an expensive German car,” says David Goldberg of Union Hardware .

Lazebnikov could have added a dryer but “I thought it’s really too much”, he says.

He installed six copper pipes in the attic above the bathroom to support the technology.

The Japanese-manufactured Numi toilet is digitally controlled by a hand-held panel the size and shape of a BlackBerry and attaches magnetically to the wall. It offers multiple options: a blue floor light “man sensor” to raise and lower the seat by foot; varying water flush strength and patterns; a lighted bowl that acts as a night light; automatic flush and lid rise; a bidet with multiple controls for water temperature, direction and pressure; a heated seat; and a built-in deodorising system.

It also plays music. “It comes pre-programmed with Danny Boy and Yankee Doodle because that’s what the Japanese think Americans want to listen to,” says Goldberg, laughing, “and, of course, it can be reprogrammed with Bach or Jay Z.”

“Before I bought this, I wondered how I’d use it, but now I find it’s really convenient,” Lazebnikov says. “Especially at night when you’re half asleep, you don’t have to switch on the light.”

In the first-floor toilet, he installed a toilet bowl on an orange, rust and gold Jerusalem stone and put onyx in the basin. “It’s a small space; every inch counts,” he says.

Wall-mounted toilets with dual flush buttons in the wall are increasingly popular, says architect and designer Ernesto Santalla. “They don’t take up much space, they operate well and all of a sudden the toilet becomes an attractive fixture,” he says.

“We’re starting to see more of them, but they haven’t hit a strong trend yet,” says Goldberg. “Technology in wall mounts hasn’t reached the maximum performance other toilets have, so that’s held back the trend.”

TVs are also being added to bathrooms. Design company Robern makes medicine cabinets with TV screens embedded flush in the mirror.

“They’re great for getting ready in the morning,” Pomeroy says. “You can watch the traffic while shaving or putting on make-up.”

“We sell them frequently,” says Weaver. “They make great company. We even did a project for a man who wanted to watch while lying in the tub.” Televisions are common additions inside showers along with defoggers.

“We can put in any size TV and can place it anywhere on the mirror as long as it’s three to four inches off the edge,” he says.

Bathtubs are no longer standard. Houzz says nearly half the people remodelling bathrooms are leaving baths out, and those who include them often add spa-like features that can be digitally regulated.

Kohler Vibracoustic baths offer a completely different spa experience with music from hidden speakers, vibrations and chromotherapy lights from coloured LED bulbs inserted in the tub wall.

“For some people, that’s fabulous. You choose the colour you want to bath in and use the music to pump you up for a night on the town or quieten you down for sleep,” Pomeroy says.

Touchless taps are moving from commercial outlets and highway rest stops to home bathrooms. “Embedded with sensor technology, they use less energy and conserve water, which is important because it’s one of the resources we’re depleting,” Santalla says.

As the capabilities of sensors become more adaptable, smart devices are moving throughout the home – and people are grabbing them. “In the bathroom, hi-tech products make you feel better, and who wouldn’t want that?” Lazebnikov says. – Washington Post

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