The relationship between portable spas and concrete spas is puzzling. At face value, both are aimed at providing relaxation, comfort and hydrotherapy. In practice, however, there has been no comparison. For decades, portable spa manufacturers have been engaged in something akin to an aquatic luxury arms race, each striving to create the most lavish, sumptuous hot water experience.

By stark contrast, concrete spas, the kind made by pool builders and often attached to a swimming pool, have remained mostly unchanged. That collective apathy has persisted in spite of the explosive growth of creative designs in other areas of aquatics and outdoor living.

Making matters worse for builders, concrete spas are comparatively far more expensive to own than portable units. That seemingly unbridgeable gap may be a source of frustration for some, but for innovative builders, it spells opportunity.

A DANGLING CONVERSATION

The problem in a nutshell comes down to a dearth of tools and products with which to advance concrete-spa design and comfort. As a result, some builders simply haven't spent much time and energy developing spa features or discussing them with clients.

Yet builders consistently report that a majority of their pools do, in fact, have attached spas, and despite the relative lack of sophistication, those spas are often the single biggest line item on the project after the pool.

"Builders don't talk much about it," concedes builder Scott Waldo, Premier Pools, Houston, Texas. "There's just not that much to say. 'We're going to stick you in hot water and there's going to be a jet that blows on your back and that's about it.' Gunite spas are bland. There's no wow factor to them because the industry has not evolved."

Even for builders working with the wealthiest of clients, the spa has remained something of an enigma. "There's certainly a lot of room for improvement in the way we build spas out of concrete," says Scott Cohen, The Green Scene (Chatsworth, Calif.). "Typically all we see are simple round or square spas that have basic square benches, with six jets that really only serve to irritate your back.

"Yet there's so much more to therapy and relaxing at the end of a hard day," he adds. "Isn't that a big part of why we buy pools and spas in the first place? The spa should be the most important element when it comes to relaxation and enjoyment."

TWO DISCONNECTS

Concrete spas fall short in two fundamental areas: hydrotherapy and ergonomics. In terms of jets, mounting complex plumbing arrays in gunite is labor intensive, tricky and expensive. Likewise, carving seats, lounges and benches in shotcrete requires precise design and tremendous skill. Portable spas are infinitely more sophisticated on both fronts.

On the hydrotherapy side of the equation, manufacturers such as Waterway, Bullfrog and others have come forward with factory-made jet fixtures that have added variety to concrete spas. Builders such as Waldo and Cohen have made it their business to incorporate those features. "You have to do your homework," Cohen says. "And you have also have to make different options available to your clients, because ultimately you can never know what they want until they've been presented with the option."

Unsatisfied with the industry's offerings on this front, Jack Williams, after three-plus decades building more than 2,000 pools in Arizona and Colorado, invented his own line of jet fixtures called JetArray. The product is "plumb and play" according to Williams, and offers jets in linear arrays or square clusters. Each has four jets, only requires 10 to 12 gpm and does not need a blower but a simple passive air line instead.

"It's been a huge disconnect," Williams says of the slow advancement in gunite spa sophistication, "but instead of settling for the status quo, I see improving hydrotherapy in gunite spas as a huge opportunity. I want to give the industry tools we need to take advantage of consumers' desires for hydrotherapy."

Waldo started using JetArray a few years ago, slowly at first, but now reports the concept has caught on with his clients in a big way. "We build a lot of pools so we needed something we could repeat over and over again," he explains. "Now I'd estimate that 50 percent of our clients are opting for the system.

"It's changed the way we talk about spas," he adds. "If someone just wants to socialize or party in hot water, then we go the simpler route. But the second they talk about wanting the benefits of hydrotherapy, we now have something to offer."

Cohen has also found ways to expand his company's hydrotherapy offerings. "As one example, we install foot jets on a majority of our spas. We've found that women especially enjoy foot jets after walking around high heels all day."

Cohen has also installed deep wells, also known as hydrotherapy tubes, in which clients stand up in neck deep water and can enjoy foot-to-shoulders jet action. "We offer a variety of jet configurations and our clients that opt for hydrotherapy tubes love them," he says. "And that is a feature you cannot have in a portable spa."

CUSTOM CONTOURS

Cohen's hydrotherapy tubes are typically installed with a step so that people of different heights can enjoy the experience. "We have made the mistake of making them too shallow," he says, "which kind of defeats the purpose."

He also typically measures clients so that he can design seating at the perfect depth, but he doesn't stop there. In addition to being as creative as possible with hydrotherapy jets, Cohen also pushes the envelope in terms of internal contours.

"We developed a system of concrete finishing tools that enable us to easily create different contours and ultimately greater bather comfort," he explains. "We know that we can carve concrete, but that ability depends entirely on the person holding the trowel. These finishing tools make it easy for lesser skilled finishers to create the precise contours we're after. Now we can do basically everything in concrete you can find in a portable spa and do it every time."

Even for clients who don't opt for highly customized seats, benches and loungers, Cohen and Waldo round the top edge of the spa to avoid what they and others view as the most egregious of spa-design mistakes — the dreaded coping jutting into the back of the bather's neck.

And both builders commonly angle the bench backs for added comfort. It takes a certain mindset to really provide the comfort clients seek in a custom spa.

"You kind of have to put yourself in the homeowners shoes and imagine what they'll experience in the spa," Cohen says. "It's important to keep in mind that it's a different kind of fun that people have in spas and for many people it's going to be the most used part of the pool, the place where they derive the greatest pleasure and enjoyment. When you think about it that way, it only makes sense to do what we can to maximize the hot water experience."

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail eric@aquamagazine.com.

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.