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Remodeling 101: Romance in the Bath: Built-In vs. Freestanding Bathtubs

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Remodeling 101: Romance in the Bath: Built-In vs. Freestanding Bathtubs

February 15, 2018

Freestanding baths have long been prized as the ultimate romantic statement: The big claw-foot tubs of yore can hold two people at once (cue the scented candles and bath oil). But we’ve heard some complaints: They’re harder to clean around, and they don’t keep the bathwater hot for very long. Then again, the other option—built-in baths—gets a bad rap for being dated and less than luxurious. We did a little research—and consulted with Barbara Sallick, cofounder and senior vice president of design for kitchen and bath brand Waterworks—on the pros and cons of each.

A claw-foot tub featured in Bathroom of the Week: A Romantic London Bath Made from Vintage Parts. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
Above: A claw-foot tub featured in Bathroom of the Week: A Romantic London Bath Made from Vintage Parts. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

What’s the difference between a freestanding bath and a built-in bath?

When it comes to baths, there are two basic types to consider: a built-in bath, generally installed in an alcove with walls on three sides, or a freestanding bath, which gives you more options as to where it’s placed in the room (although most freestanding tubs are installed close to a wall—and to existing plumbing). One of the more famous freestanding options is the claw-foot tub, which stands on four feet, as opposed to some contemporary freestanding tubs that sit flush on the ground or on a pedestal. (Traditionally, claw-foot baths had a Victorian-style ball and claw design, but today any tub on feet is often called a claw-foot.)

Both freestanding and built-in tubs come in a wide range of dimensions—length, width, and depth—and if you like taking baths you’ll want a tub that fits your body, so it’s a good idea to test-drive tubs in the showroom by actually climbing in and lying down.

The quintessential built-in bath is given a luxe upgrade with a marble surround in Designer Visit: Charles Mellersh in London. Photograph by Chris Tubbs.
Above: The quintessential built-in bath is given a luxe upgrade with a marble surround in Designer Visit: Charles Mellersh in London. Photograph by Chris Tubbs.

Why would I want a built-in bath?

The answer is simple: when you’re planning to take more showers than baths, a built-in works best. It’s possible to set up a shower in a freestanding tub, but to keep water off the floor you have to suspend a shower rod and circle the tub with curtains. If you’ve ever showered that way, you know how annoying it is when a wet shower curtain encroaches on your space (and in an old, narrow freestanding tub, that’s a likely scenario). Since a built-in is usually enclosed on three sides, it’s easy to keep the water contained. (And you can often dispense with the shower curtain altogether, installing a glass partition and door alongside the tub.)

A built-in tub also takes up less space in the room and has a ledge for keeping bath products within easy reach.

A claw-foot bath in A Cottage Reborn in Coastal Maine. Photograph by Justine Hand.
Above: A claw-foot bath in A Cottage Reborn in Coastal Maine. Photograph by Justine Hand.

Why would I want a freestanding bath?

There’s no situation that mandates a freestanding tub—most people choose freestanding baths to make a statement, or for a vintage look. If it’s style you’re after, Sallick notes that you’ll find a wider array of choices in freestanding models as well.

That said, there’s more leeway as to where the tub is positioned—as long as plumbing is adjacent. If you’d love to gaze outside while you soak, perhaps you can place your tub with a window view.

An old-fashioned claw-foot model has built-in shelves nearby for easy access to candles and bath products; see House Call: Endless Summer in a London Victorian for more of this project. Photograph via Light Locations.
Above: An old-fashioned claw-foot model has built-in shelves nearby for easy access to candles and bath products; see House Call: Endless Summer in a London Victorian for more of this project. Photograph via Light Locations.

Which option is more relaxing?

Freestanding baths have a reputation for being more luxurious, perhaps because older freestanding tubs, often called soaker tubs, tended to be long and deep so bathers could easily immerse themselves in the water. Now, it’s easy to find both freestanding and built-in tubs that are long and deep, so there’s no reason to think of a claw-foot tub as being more luxurious.

Tip: If you’re planning on bathing à deux, get a tub with the faucets and overflow in the middle, rather than at the end, so you can both recline comfortably (with nothing digging into your backs) as you gaze into each other’s eyes.

Is a freestanding tub heavier than a built-in bath?

Your bathroom floor must be strong enough to support not just the weight of the tub you choose, but the weight when it’s filled with water and has someone sitting inside. But it’s more a matter of material than freestanding vs. built-in: Most modern tubs are made of either acrylic or cast iron with a porcelain finish, and a cast iron tub, whether it’s built-in or freestanding, new or vintage, will always be heavier than an acrylic tub. Fortunately, “this isn’t an issue in most homes,” Sallick says. “But if your house is old and rickety and you’re planning to put in a big cast iron tub, you might want to consult a plumber or engineer to be sure.” (The solution could involve reinforcing the floor underneath.)

Far from outdated: a gray-tiled built-in bath (with a glass shower wall) at Hotel Panache in Paris; see Hotel Panache: The Power of Jolie Laide Style for more.
Above: Far from outdated: a gray-tiled built-in bath (with a glass shower wall) at Hotel Panache in Paris; see Hotel Panache: The Power of Jolie Laide Style for more.

Does a freestanding tub lose heat faster than a built-in?

Some say that the bathwater in a freestanding tub will cool faster, since it’s surrounded by air. If you want to ensure long, hot baths, consider a built-in, where the insulation added to the wall behind it will keep the water warm even longer, or an acrylic model, which will hold the heat longer than cast iron. Either way, it’s easy enough to run a little more hot water if you want to linger.

If you want a freestanding bath that’s easier to clean, consider one with a flat bottom, like this model spotted in Bathroom of the Week: In London, a Dramatic Turkish Marble Bathroom for a Design-Minded Couple. Photograph courtesy of MW Architects.
Above: If you want a freestanding bath that’s easier to clean, consider one with a flat bottom, like this model spotted in Bathroom of the Week: In London, a Dramatic Turkish Marble Bathroom for a Design-Minded Couple. Photograph courtesy of MW Architects.

Is a built-in tub easier to clean than a freestanding tub?

One consideration you may not have thought of: Many find it far easier to mop or clean the floors around a built-in bath, rather than navigating around (and under) a claw-foot bath.

Designer John Derian sourced a vintage flat-bottom bath at Demolition Depot (formerly Irreplaceable Artifacts) on 125th Street in New York City and fitted it with an exposed, vintage-style faucet. See Bathroom of the Week: John Derian’s Homage to Old Cape Cod for more of his bath. Photograph by Matthew Williams.
Above: Designer John Derian sourced a vintage flat-bottom bath at Demolition Depot (formerly Irreplaceable Artifacts) on 125th Street in New York City and fitted it with an exposed, vintage-style faucet. See Bathroom of the Week: John Derian’s Homage to Old Cape Cod for more of his bath. Photograph by Matthew Williams.

Can I swap my freestanding tub for a built-in, and vice versa?

It depends where you’re putting it. Any tub requires the same basic plumbing: a water source (faucets can be mounted on the wall or on a deck beside a built-in tub), a drain, and, in most tubs, an overflow to prevent flooding if you leave the water running. But a freestanding tub might need plumbing lines coming up through the floor. If you want to switch from one to the other, consult a plumber to see what’s feasible.

Something else to keep in mind, particularly if you have an old home (and old flooring): It may be easier to accommodate uneven or sloping floors with a built-in bath (which can be cut accordingly) than with a freestanding bath.

An artful built-in bath, surrounded in the same tile as the floor and walls, in A Minimalist Parisian Loft. Photograph from RL Interior Architecture.
Above: An artful built-in bath, surrounded in the same tile as the floor and walls, in A Minimalist Parisian Loft. Photograph from RL Interior Architecture.

Which is more expensive: freestanding or built-in?

Generally speaking, freestanding baths tend to be pricier. Because built-in tubs usually have only one finished exterior side, they tend to be less expensive: For example, a Cambridge 5-Foot Built-In Bath by American Standard bath is less than $553.80 at Home Depot, while their Kipling Ovale Freestanding Flatbottom Bath retails for $1,606. Plumbing installation costs are similar for both types of baths, but note that the tile surround and a glass shower door (should you choose to install one) will add to the cost of the built-in bath.

Another built-in bath, this one with a Dinesen wood surround; see Steal This Look: A London Bathroom Clad in Dinesen Wood for more.
Above: Another built-in bath, this one with a Dinesen wood surround; see Steal This Look: A London Bathroom Clad in Dinesen Wood for more.

What’s the best solution?

Having a separate shower stall is ideal, according to Barbara Sallick: “That way, you can choose between freestanding and built-in tub without having to worry about the showering issue.”

Weighing the pros and cons of design decisions in the bath? See our Bathroom Guides for insight throughout your renovation. And for more on bathtubs, see:

Finally, get more ideas on how to evaluate and choose a bathtub or shower in our Remodeling 101 Guide: Bathroom Tubs & Showers.

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