When we remodeled our modest master bath, I wasn't prepared for the first decision. It was the biggest fixture and the biggest-ticket item: the bathtub. Did I want a stately freestanding tub taking center stage? Or a built-in tub slyly integrated in a paneled enclosure? Our decision was driven by aesthetics (the built-in won), but there were other considerations, too. Here are some questions to ask yourself to figure out the best bathing solution for you.
Made this decision recently? Share your experience in the Comments section below.
Above: A gray freestanding bathtub takes center stage in a house in England. Photograph via Light Locations.
What's the difference between a freestanding tub and a built-in tub?
Freestanding: More like a piece of furniture than a fixture, freestanding baths are finished on all sides, offering flexibility in placement and a strong visual statement.
Built-in: Integrated into the bathroom design, built-in tubs are unfinished on two or more sides and require installation against a wall or within an enclosure. These space savers are easily paired with a wall-mounted shower to offer both showering and bathing in the same piece of real estate.
Above: A built-in bathtub with shower maximizes use of space in a small-bathroom renovation by San Francisco architect Mark Reilly, a member of the Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory. Note that Reilly inserted a wall-to-wall skylight over the tub alcove to make it feel bigger and brighter. Photograph by Peter Medilek.
Key questions to ask when deciding between freestanding and built-in bathtubs
1. What are your bathroom's space constraints?
Whether a tub fits—and where—is likely the most defining consideration. And don't forget the size of the bathers themselves: Do you have a tall, lanky family member who loves to bathe? Do you want an extra-deep tub to accommodate your soaking? Or, conversely, are you after a solution that uses the least water? Don't be afraid to go to showrooms and, as you do when mattress shopping, hop in and actually try out the bathtubs for size and comfort.
It's no surprise that freestanding tubs generally take up more space than built-ins. The selection of tub fillers is also a factor as floor-mount models require more floor space than deck- or wall-mounted faucets. (For ideas, see 10 Easy Pieces: Freestanding Bathtub Fillers.) Built-in tubs, meanwhile, are most often placed flush with two or more walls; this limits their placement to the corners and alcoves of the room.
Above: Even a smaller bathroom can often accommodate a freestanding tub. Shown here, the Clyde Bathtub from UK bathroom line Drummonds.
2. What style of tub are you after?
Built-in bathtubs can be dressed in unlimited ways, with custom enclosures that fit seamlessly into the room design or make a bold statement.
Freestanding bathtubs come in a wide range of styles, from vintage claw-foot to sinuous modern shapes. They lend a spa-like feel to a bathroom, which is harder to achieve with a built-in.
Above: A traditional cast-iron freestanding bathtub with ornate claw feet. Photograph via Aston Matthews.
3. What type of built-in tub will work in your space?
The Alcove Bathtub
Above: Alcove built-in tubs are unfinished on three sides and slide into a three-wall recess, as shown here in a bathroom by London designer Charles Mellersh. One of the most popular options, alcove tubs are often accompanied by a wall-mounted shower. Photograph by Chris Tubbs.
The Two-Wall Bathtub
The Drop-In Bathtub
Above: Unfinished on all sides, this variety drops into a deck or custom enclosure, but leaves the edge of the tub exposed. It can be mounted in a corner or in a stand-alone island that mimics the setup of a freestanding tub, often with the added benefit of built-in storage and an enclosure that hides the plumbing. Photograph via Duravit.
The Undermount Bathtub
Above: Like drop-in tubs, undermount tubs are unfinished on all sides, but they're mounted under a cutout deck that conceals the lip of the tub. Note that this style sometimes gets criticized as uncomfortable because deck edges aren't always rounded. Photograph via Light Locations.
4. Is arm-reach storage important?
The appealing simplicity of freestanding tubs also means little to no surrounding storage, while built-in tubs usually have a deck to accommodate your bathing supplies. And because built-ins are often mounted against at least two walls, introducing a storage alcove or shower shelf is easy.
5. What about plumbing and installation?
On the plumbing front, it's imperative to know your restrictions before your start shopping. Some considerations:
- Are you replacing an existing bathtub and using the same plumbing? Then you need to consider the existing limitations of fixture placement and faucet choices.
- Freestanding tubs can be very heavy (especially the cast-iron variety), requiring floor reinforcement, or at least a check of the floor's strength before installation.
- Installing plumbing for a freestanding tub can be tricky—concealing it is often difficult—and can be costlier than for built-in tubs. For instance, the plumbing might need to come through the floor rather than the wall.
- The surrounds of built-in tubs can easily conceal plumbing and heating pipes and wires, but can also be expensive. Be sure to include the enclosure cost in your budget.
- Lastly, there's the matter of filling the bathtub: Whether you go with a freestanding or built-in design, you have to choose a faucet style and type. Your tub selection and the size of your bathroom will help you decide whether to select a freestanding tub-filler faucet, one that's mounted to the side of the tub, or a wall-mounted faucet.
Above: A freestanding tub with a side-mounted faucet in a windowed alcove. Photograph via Aston Matthews.
Above: Freestanding tub fillers aren't just for freestanding tubs. This Malibu spa bath by Michaela Scherrer, a member of the Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory, has a built-in tub with a modern, freestanding tub-filler faucet. Photograph by Andy Kitchen.
6. Do you want to combine or separate the tub and shower?
Most freestanding tubs are independent operators and don't do double duty as showers. It's most common for them to be paired with a walk-in shower elsewhere in the bathroom. Built-in bathtubs, on the other hand, frequently accommodate wall-mounted showers, especially in the three-wall alcove configuration. That said, there are ways to enable a shower and freestanding tub to mingle—and a built-in tub doesn't have to be paired with a shower.
Above L: Shower options with freestanding tubs can include an adjacent walk-in shower, if you have the space. Above R: A rain-style showerhead can be mounted on the ceiling (so the water falls straight down). The example shown here is at the Boundary Hotel in London. For three options at three price points, see High/Low: Rain Showerhead.
Above: Another possibility is to place a freestanding tub in a large walk-in shower, creating a wet-room, as shown in this New York City apartment. Photograph via A Cup of Jo.
Above: How about an old-fashioned handheld shower? This one is in Tiina Laakonen's house in the Hamptons. Tour her whole compound in the Remodelista book. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
Freestanding vs. Built-In Bathtub Recap
Benefits of a Freestanding Tub
- Available in a wide range of materials and styles.
- Flexible in terms of placement (because it's fully finished)
- A strong visual statement in your bathroom.
- Accessible on all sides, making it easy to clean.
Benefits of a Built-In Tub
- Maximizes space in a compact bathroom.
- Combines easily with a wall-mounted shower.
- More economical than a freestanding bathtub.
- Design of custom enclosure is unlimited, offering a great way to integrate with other cabinetry or tiling.
- Often has lower sides than a freestanding tub, so it can be easier to get in and out.