From spa-style baths and aromatherapy showers to waterproof TVs and in-ceiling speakers, the most functional room in the house is getting a luxurious, hi-tech makeover.
As gadgets become ubiquitous in all areas of our lives, it comes as no surprise that their importance is growing in one of the home's most functional rooms: the bathroom. Recent developments in bathroom design – from waterproof TVs to aromatherapy showers – owe more to upmarket gyms and spas than the residential bathroom as we know it, making it possible to indulge in some serious pampering in total privacy. Of course, this all comes at a price, but if you're prepared to pay the equivalent of the cost of a standard bathroom suite for your dream fixture, such as a whirlpool bath or steam shower, you'll have the perfect product to help you soothe away any tension when your bank statement arrives.
Gadget-lovers take note: how far down the hi-tech route you choose to go will be dictated not only by your budget, but also by the extent to which you're prepared to renovate your existing bathroom. Safety regulations dictate that we keep sockets and light switches out of bathrooms – save for the solitary shaver socket – so connecting up even the simplest steam-proof mirror to a power supply within the wall will almost certainly mean disturbing tiling and chasing in cables. 'It's best to factor in hi-tech bathroom products when you're planning your new bathroom rather than trying to retrofit them,' says Jane Scotland, marketing chair of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation.Association (CEDIA), and director of installers Beyond the Invisible.
If you're planning on a complete renovation, you'll have a lot more freedom to include everything you want in the space. 'It's wise to consider buying hi-tech bathrooms from a specialist retailer who will be able to design and manage the full installation,' advises Tony Nicholas, chairman of the Kitchen Bedroom Bathroom Specialists Association (KBSA). This will allow you to come up with a plan that marries aesthetics with the practical requirements of hi-tech bathroom products. If you choose to manage the installation yourself, whether you've set your sights on a whirlpool bath or a waterproof TV, you must ensure it's connected up to your home's electricity supply by an electrician qualified for Part P of the building regulations. Your designer or retailer will be able to recommend one; alternatively you can search for one at partp.co.uk.
Once you've found the help you need to create your sybaritic haven, you can set about exploring the latest technological wizardry on offer.
These days, it's not uncommon to see TVs in bathrooms, as well as in-ceiling speakers for listening to your favourite music. You don't have to plump for a bath or shower with integrated TV – there are plenty of stand-alone versions out there. Go for a waterproof model that is designed to be used in a bathroom: it should be completely sealed, with a heated screen that keeps the picture free from condensation. If your bathroom is all natural materials and spa style, a TV whose screen turns into a mirror when not in use will ensure it doesn't detract from its surroundings. Specialist supplier waterprooftv.co.uk carries a wide variety of models, such as those by Aquavision and Mirror Media, or try plasmas-direct.co.uk. Go for a waterproof, rather than splashproof, remote control where possible. Even mainstream bathroom suppliers are getting in on the act: Dolphin Bathrooms, for example, has launched a 17in waterproof TV that turns into a mirror when it's switched off.
Some bathroom TVs come with waterproof or steam-proof speakers that are designed to be recessed into the ceiling. You can also purchase these independently – Sevenoaks Sound and Vision, for example (sevenoakssoundandvision.co.uk), offer models from Speakercraft, Monitor Audio and B&W – and get your electrician to connect them to an audio system situated elsewhere in your home, so you can listen to music while you carry out your ablutions. Alternatively, waterproof MP3 players are now widely available from suppliers such as amazon.co.uk.
Fixtures and Fittings
The latest hi-tech baths come with a multitude of features to help turn bathing into a multi-sensory experience. For example, Jacuzzi's Morphosis Alpha whirlpool bath contains two hydromassage facilities, an integrated radio and underwater lights that can colour the water in five different hues. Or if your idea of total relaxation is watching your favourite TV show in the bath, the Luxor whirlpool bathtub (£2,995, divapor.com) features an integrated 14in LCD screen and a video input so you can also watch DVDs, Sky or cable while splashing about.It's easier to retrofit these types of whirlpool baths than hi-tech showers and steam units that require space for ancillary servicing, as baths tend to have a lot of room underneath them in which you can hide unsightly pipes and cabling – just make sure the underside remains accessible so it can be serviced or repaired at a later date. Th e UK's relatively low water pressure is not really powerful enough for many hydrotherapy baths and showers, so you may also need to install a pump to ensure your massage jets give you the pummelling you desire.
The most sophisticated shower out there is Dornbracht's RainSky E (£17,534.53, dornbracht.com), according to Chris Payne, bathroom designer for supplier Alternative Plans. This ceiling-mounted unit features electronically controlled mist projectors, a 'rain curtain', coloured lights and fragrances. If this appeals, bear in mind that the huge volume of water required by the RainSky E means that the average household would need to expand its water supply and drainage pipes, something you may only want if you're renovating an entire property or building your own grand design from scratch. Dornbracht also insists on having a representative on site during the RainSky E's installation: 'With sophistication comes complications,' says Payne. 'With relatively new technology, it's important to recognise that more can go wrong.'
If you're not prepared to fork out quite that much, there are plenty of other hi-tech showers available with a variety of features, from wireless remote controls so you can turn them on without being doused with cold water – try the Trevi Logical from Ideal Standard (from £620, ideal-standard.co.uk) – to integrated radio, aromatherapy and coloured lights, such as Villeroy & Boch's Steam Tower (villeroy-boch.com).
Even taps now have hi-tech elements built in: you can choose from a variety of models featuring sensors that enable you to turn them on and off , or plump for the HansaCanyon (£1,518, available from boundarybathrooms.co.uk), which uses light to colour the water according to its temperature – a particularly useful feature if you have young children.
When it comes to WCs, it seems that Brits are reluctant to go downthe hi-tech route. 'Th ese products have a lukewarm reaction from the British market compared with that of America and Japan,' says Alternative Plans' Chris Payne. Nevertheless, there are hi-tech loos to be had, from models with built-in bidet-style spray arms, such as the Balena 8000 by Geberit (£3,172, geberit.com), to the Istanbul WC from Vitra (CP Hart, £915), whose pan is lit by clusters of LED lights operated by sensors, to guide you towards it in the middle of the night.
Lighting and Controls
Like every room in the house, lighting is key in the bathroom. 'As far as lights themselves are concerned, LEDs are probably the most advanced way to add wow factor to your bathroom,' says Lucy Martin, design director of John Cullen Lighting. She suggests using an IP68 LED strip, which is as thin as a piece of Sellotape, to back-light glass shelves. LED lights can also be positioned within the wall of a shower, so long as they are encased within a fitting that has an IP68 rating (this IP or 'ingress protection' rating specifies which bathroom zones a light can be used in, depending on how close it is to water), and the fitting itself is totally sealed where it meets the tiles.
One of the advantages of today's cutting-edge lighting control systems, such as the Eyelux from Crestron (try johncullenlighting. co.uk), is that their low-voltage switches can be positioned inside the bathroom – unlike ordinary light switches. These systems can be used to pre-programme the different types of lighting in your bathroom – in-floor uplighters, low-voltage ceiling lights and wall lights, for example – in different strengths and combinations, to suit your mood. The Crestron touch panel can also be used to control audio and TV – even your bathroom blinds. Opt for the waterproof remote control option and you can adjust your lighting and channel-surf while soaking in the tub. If you're planning more of a revamp, and re-wiring is not a possibility, try Rako's wireless technology, which uses a radio signal to control lighting. You'll need an experienced installer for these types of systems – search for one at cedia.co.uk, the website of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association.
If you're heading home from a hard day at the office and want to be able to hop straight into the tub, the technology now exists to enable you to run your bath or shower remotely, before you've even stepped through the door. The Bathomatic (from £6,000, Unique Automation) comes in the form of a control panel and bath waste system that can be fitted to a standard bath. Instruct it to run you a bath by logging on to the web, using a remote control or a control system such as Crestron. It will even remember the volume of water you displace when you get in, and adjust its settings for next time.
As for the future of hi-tech bathrooms, Robin Levien, design director at Ideal Standard, can see these types of touch controls being integrated into tiling and ceramic ware in the not too distant future: 'We're on the cusp of these types of technologies being reinvented in a post-iPhone way,' he says. 'Soon you'll be able to operate your taps using heat-sensitive switches on the surface of the ceramics, like with hi-tech induction hobs – hold your finger down for longer and the water will get hotter. It's all about to get much more intuitive.' Watch this space...