When my parents sold their home of 30 years, they followed AARP guidelines and New York state law and retired to Florida. Bad luck conspired with even worse weather, and they arrived at their new house a full day before their furniture. Tired and hungry, not a table or chair or even a box in sight, my mother served takeout lunch in a bright and spacious room, all sleek tile and custom cabinets, tall windows and wide skylights, and the deciding factor -- a comfy, built-in banquette. My parents ate that first meal in the bathroom.

So big, my mother said. When did bathrooms get so big?

We’ve come a long way from the days when a tub, toilet and some hexagonal tile were considered not only adequate, but also high style. These days, when you’re talking bathrooms, anything short of a sumptuous spa is roughing it. There are soaking tubs and rainfall showers, heated floors and heated towel rods, jeweled sinks and electronic toilets, aromatherapy steam jets and color therapy light shows. Not everyone goes for all of the bells and whistles, but we’re falling for enough of them that bathrooms now account for the second-largest chunk of redecorating money in the house, behind only that other fetishized space, the kitchen.

It’s consumerism, sure, but it’s also about the fantasy. That exquisite sink, the elegant tub, the absurdly fancy toilet -- they’re a five-star hotel come to life in your home. And with them comes the promise of time. Not just the leisure of an hour-long soak, but the tranquillity, the escape, the peace of mind to truly enjoy every moment of it.


It’s a tall order, and manufacturers are heroically doing their part. Case in point: the Neorest toilet by Toto. It has a heated seat, rotating spray massage and warm air dryers for your derriere. For your delicate sensibilities, there’s a catalytic air deodorizer. And to help you green as well as clean, it uses less than 1.2 gallons of water per (hands-free!) flush.

What to do with all the water you’ve saved? How about the Sok Overflowing Bath from Kohler, so deep that you’re immersed up to your eyeballs as -- and here I quote directly from the literature because, really, who can write like this: “Thousands of champagne-like bubbles emerge from eleven ports, gently caressing your body for a soothing bathing experience.” Lordy.

Add the fireplace, the stereo, the plasma TV, a few phone lines and a mini-fridge, and you can basically set up housekeeping. How did this happen? How did the bathroom, still the smallest room in the house and the place where we spend the least amount of time, turn into a retreat?

“Retreat” may well be the operative word. Not the noun, meaning sanctuary (though there is that), but the verb. Retreat, as in to draw back (cranky boss), to back away (passive-aggressive coworker), to recoil (close-talker at Starbucks), to withdraw (fight with spouse), to run away (the boss again).

And it’s not just the outside world. Our passion for open floor plans, for mammoth kitchens that bleed into even larger family rooms, can offer little in the way of shelter. Sophisticated though we may be, we remain herd animals, prey animals, with a built-in need for protection.

Yet we’ve set ourselves up in wide-open houses, vast savannas of space. Is it any wonder that, in search of a bit of privacy, we’ve retreated to the privy?

The bathroom is the one spot in the house where a locked door doesn’t raise the question, what’s going on in there? We already know. And it’s not just the call of nature; there’s the lure of nurture. Yes, the bath. Warm water, maybe some scent, hopefully a few bubbles, the lights low, the sounds muted. Your body floats, time floats. Suddenly that $45,000 budget sounds reasonable.

It’s hard not to notice how housing trends are all about keeping the rest of the world at bay. The more money you have, the more walls you have. Bigger houses with more rooms, bigger yards with higher fences. No more swimming in the community pool. There’s a backyard pool for that. Barbecues in the park? Not when an industrial-size stainless-steel gas grill with optional wood smoker and steam table awaits. Ditto for movies at the mall. The media room down the hall took care of that. As for the communal bath house, still a fixture of Japanese, Korean, Russian and Jewish social life, well, that seems just plain quaint.

So here we are, hunkered down in the dawn of the 21st century, bunkered down in homes that say as much about our view of the larger world as they do about our inner selves. Pull the car into the driveway after a long day of work, head down the hall to the bathroom, to the big fancy tub, start the water running, start the music playing, shed the clothes, dim the lights, slide into the shelter of the porcelain curve and ah, nirvana. Womb with a loo.





Average amount spent on an upscale bathroom remodel in 2008.


Estimated increase in the resale value resulting from that remodel.


Starting price for a single square foot of Cosentino’s new Prexury counters, uninstalled (see the “glamorous” category in story below).


Cost of energy used to light Toto’s Aimes shower head, which uses the flow of water to power LEDs (see “green” category below).


Percentage of U.S. architects reporting that clients are downsizing bathrooms.


Percentage of U.S. architects reporting that clients are increasing bathroom size, despite the recession.


Percentage of hotel guests who use their room’s bathtub.

Sources: American Institute of Architects, National Kitchen and Bath Assn., Realtor and Portfolio magazines, product manufacturers