For longer than I care to admit, the design snob in me has looked down my snooty snout on portable spas, or hot tubs, depending on the preferred terminology. (For this discussion I'll use my favorite term: "spas.") By whatever label, portable vessels that contain hot water were for many years more of a clunky appliance than part of the landscape, at least to my eyes.

It's fair to say that comfort and hydrotherapy, rather than aesthetics, have long been the driving element behind spa designs. There has never been much of a question about the wonderful spectrum of hydrotherapy benefits and enjoyment these products provide. They just haven't come in particularly pretty packages.

And I certainly haven't been alone in my view on the aesthetic shortcomings of many hot water products, but now, I firmly believe the time for that stigma has passed. I've come to genuinely admire many of the products under the hot water umbrella. Just as there can be no argument about the health benefits, these days the sophisticated aesthetic design and artistry are also apparent and undeniable.

SLEEK & SEXY

The evolution in spa design can be credited both to manufacturers and their dealers who sell and install spas. I started noticing what seemed like significant strides in spa aesthetics a few years back while attending trade shows.

Companies such as Bullfrog and the Watkins Wellness family of spa lines, among others, were displaying models that were obviously designed to make design statements when placed in backyards and other settings. The materials and patterning on spa skirts became more varied and creative. Interior finishes also evolved with more colors and textures. Even spa covers took on more design savvy.

It was as if spa manufacturers had decided to start including trained industrial designers in their product development teams. Whether they have or not, the results have been impressive. I'd even go so far to say that some of the sleek (and even sexy) designs have risen to the level of industrial art.

Again, my point here is separate and apart from spa function. Indeed, along with improved aesthetics, the variety of hydrotherapy jet arrays, seat and bench configurations and control technology have also advanced — and that's true across the spectrum of manufacturers and products. In addition, integrated water features such as spray jets, misters, sheeting waterfall effects, lighting options and even audio/visual systems have further advanced the aesthetic experience associated with portable spas.

 

A WIDE SPECTRUM

Another aspect of what I would label the "evolution of hot water design" has been the ever-broadening range of products available within the category.

On one end of the spectrum, there are the many variants of the traditional wooden hot tub. As mentioned above, I generally prefer the term spa, which is a whole discussion onto itself, but part of the reason why is because when I hear the term "hot tub" it still conjures images of the half wooden barrels that became popular back in the 1970s.

It turns out that within that family of products, too, there has been significant advancement in design. No longer are these products associated with the decadent lifestyle they once were, but instead now they exist to satisfy a class of customer who wants to combine a natural look with modern spa functions. While the barrel look is still part of the appeal, they now come with all sorts of surrounding deck and step treatments, benches and accessories, such as wood-fired heaters in some cases, all of which have elevated wooden spas to a premium product level.

These days, I go so far to say that wooden hot tubs are among the more beautiful and naturalistic looking hot water options.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see almost dizzying development in the world of swim spas. As the story in our June issue shows, there are a variety of aesthetic options available as well as expanding technology on the hydrotherapy/exercise side of the equation. The material choices, sizes and growing overall sophistication in design, I believe, will continue to propel swim spas to greater and greater levels of market penetration.

Even in the realm of affordable spa options, such as roto-molded spas, there has been significant improvement in design with varying shapes, colors and sizes.

There's also the fascinating category of pre-fabricated, highly custom spas that feature materials such as stainless steel, copper, acrylic "glass" and all-tile finishes. Some of these high-flown spas are among the most beautiful, architectural and even sculptural man-made bodies of water I've ever seen.

THE INSTALLATION SIDE

It's also abundantly clear that many of the dealers bringing this spectrum of products to market have played an important role in elevating spa aesthetics. Some of the best examples can be found amongst builder/retail firms that install spas across a range of types below grade. In these examples we see many spas sunken in raised wooden or composite decks or in hardscape patios.

In those settings, the spa becomes an aesthetic element very similar to inground swimming pools with associated landscape and outdoor living elements such as fire features, fountains, rockwork, lighting and outdoor kitchens. Even for spas installed on a pad above grade, the surrounding features in many cases are a huge part of the overall setting. Although spa enclosures have long been an important part of the hot water scene, they too have also become more sophisticated with expanding designs, options and materials.

To sum it up, this long-time observer and advocate of all things aquatic has completely changed his tune when it comes to spa aesthetics, and it's been great fun to watch the evolution in design unfold. With that in mind, AQUA is currently preparing a special issue for September that will dive further into the subject, including coverage of some of the most creative and beautiful spa installations to be found anywhere.

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.