Should You Get a Freestanding or Built-In Bathtub?

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If you know you’re a bath person but aren’t sure which type of tub to get, these questions can help you decide

by Victoria Villeneuve

For me, there’s no better way to relax than with an evening soak. When my husband and I remodeled our starter house, I made sure to have a small jetted tub installed in an alcove in our master bathroom. We inherited a larger, deeper built-in model when we moved to our current home more than 20 years ago. Now that master bathroom is due for a face-lift, and as I’m perusing Houzz photos for inspiration, I’m drawn to the many freestanding tubs. This makes me wonder: Just what kind of bath person am I? What kind are you? To find out, here are 10 questions to ask when comparing freestanding and built-in tubs.

1. What’s the Difference Between a Freestanding Tub and a Built-In Tub?

A freestanding tub is finished on all sides and typically floats in the room without touching any walls. It can be raised on feet or a pedestal, or be placed directly on the floor.

A built-in tub typically nestles in an alcove enclosed by walls on three sides or in a corner. A standard alcove tub is finished only on the front, or apron, and fits snugly against the walls. The drop-in style of the corner tub seen here has a visible lip all around that sits on a platform, or surround, in which a hole has been cut. An undermount style is slightly under the surround, with no apparent rim.

2. Do I Want the Tub to Make a Splash?

A freestanding bathtub’s sculptural quality brings the drama and gives the bathroom a focal point, especially if it’s centered in a window, against a textured wall or opposite the door. Its furniture-like look adds elegance.

Freestanding tubs come in different shapes: oval, round, rectangular, square, egg, boat, even free-form. Roll tops have a curved edge all around. Single- and double-ended tubs have one or two ends that are rounded and sloped for lounging. On single- and double-slipper models, those ends swoop up to provide higher back support.

Common materials include lightweight and moldable acrylic and fiberglass, modern-looking solid surface and stainless steel, heat-retaining copper and enameled cast iron, and unique and durable hand-carved stone. Freestanding tubs also are available in or can be custom-painted in fun colors.

An alcove tub with an integral apron fades into the background, letting other elements stand out.

In this midcentury modern Oregon bathroom, the undermount tub, with its unassuming Formica-veneered hardwood ply surround, also sets off a special feature: handmade Bubble Hex tile from Clayhaus Ceramics’ Futura collection. Penny Black Interiors put a round cutout in the glass screen, visible in the mirror’s reflection, so the clients can turn on the shower without getting wet.

The usually rectangular, oval, square, round — or, for a corner style, roughly triangular or pentagonal — shape of a built-in tub sometimes belies an interior that’s contoured to the body. Common materials include acrylic, enameled steel and cast iron, and solid surface. Colors are mainly white, black and quiet neutrals.

3. Am I Aiming for a Specific Style?

A single-slipper, claw-foot tub fits well in a Victorian house. It also gives an old-world feel to new construction. Minneapolis design studio Murphy & Co. outfitted this recently built guest bath with a petite roll top, a reclaimed vanity and French-inspired paneling on the curved walls.

On the flip side, an egg-shaped, flat-bottomed freestanding tub is a natural for an organic, minimalist bathroom, as shown in the first photo.

But don’t discount the power of the unexpected. Putting a sleek soaker in a traditional space or a stately pedestal in a modern one keeps things fresh and interesting.

A built-in tub is like a chameleon in its ability to change its appearance according to its surroundings. Peace Design gave this master bathroom a rusticity to match the Peter Zimmerman-designed log house and the mountainous Wyoming setting by facing the undermount tub with wood in a pattern that echoes the thick window mullions and ceiling beams. Motorized draperies and a vintage Navajo rug provide softness and color.

A simpler alcove tub with an integral apron has a calm, classic look that’s especially welcome in a small family bathroom.

4. What Are My Space Constraints?

Both freestanding and built-in tubs come in a wide range of lengths, widths and depths, but a freestanding tub calls for more room than a built-in of equal dimensions. That’s because it’s best to leave at least 4 inches around it, according to the pros at Signature Hardware. This keeps the tub from looking cramped and makes cleaning around it easier. (Check your area’s building codes for minimum clearances.) A floor-mounted tub filler also takes up more space than one mounted to the tub or wall.

One of the beauties of a freestanding tub is the relative freedom to place it almost anywhere in the room, whether it’s to look out on a stellar view or to cozy up to a fireplace, as this double-ended tub does in a large transitional California bathroom by Design Me by Mahlah.

But a carefully chosen freestanding tub still can have a place in a smaller bathroom. In fact, substituting a streamlined tub for a clunky built-in to expose more of the floor can make the room seem bigger, much as subbing a pedestal sink for a boxy vanity usually increases the sense of space.

There’s no doubt that a slim shower-over-tub built into an alcove packs a ton of function in a compact footprint — in this case, 63 by 27½ inches. A custom teak apron and Kohler’s Purist fittings in Vibrant Moderne brushed gold give the 42-square-foot midcentury modern bathroom by British Columbia’s Mango Design Co extra pizzazz. The 19-inch-high, 55½-gallon tub is also a smart choice for water conservation.

Some tubs are even smaller, standing only 14 or so inches and holding about 40 gallons. (In contrast, a single-person freestanding soaking tub is likely to hold 90 to 100 gallons, according to the experts at Badeloft USA.)
The placement of a built-in tub, however, is somewhat limited since it needs to be anchored to at least one wall and more often is attached to three.

5. What About Cost and Installation?

Because of the extensive finishing involved in its manufacture, a freestanding tub tends to be pricier than an alcove, drop-in or undermount tub. Installation, however, is comparatively easy, quick and inexpensive, sometimes requiring only a plumber.

Putting in the tub filler is usually the biggest installation expense. Floor-mounted fillers, such as the one in this traditional Michigan bathroom by kitchen and bath designer Jeanine Yancy, often cost more than deck- or-wall-mounted ones and require underfloor access.

The installation cost also increases when the tub’s location calls for new or complex piping and drain placement, or when its weight requires floor reinforcement. Large cast-iron soaking tubs can be particularly heavy when filled with water.

A basic tub designed to be built-in is economical — the major expense lies in its installation. A drop-in or undermount tub generally requires a plumber plus tradespeople to build and finish the surround. There’s also the cost of the surround material, which ranges widely from inexpensive acrylic and tile to luxurious solid surface and stone.

Even this simple alcove tub with an integral apron, in a contemporary Texas bathroom remodeled by Calming Spaces, needed to be plumbed, mounted, sealed and, since it doubles as a shower, surrounded by a water-resistant surface. A glass enclosure adds to the expense.

6. Will the Tub Grow With Me?

A romantic freestanding soaking tub for two may be a newlywed couple’s dream, but if it’s in the sole bathroom in the house, its high sides will pose a challenge when those lovebirds have kids and need to reach over to bathe them. And in their golden years, the homeowners may have trouble getting in and out.

MLB Design Group of Seattle planned for aging in place when remodeling this transitional master bathroom for repeat clients. The freestanding Japanese-style soaking tub has porcelain tile platforms along the walls to hold on to, a thick rim on which to momentarily perch upon entering and exiting, and a seat inside to step on. There’s blocking in the column to the left of the tub should the couple want to install a grab bar in the future.

For the young and old, a built-in tub with low sides is a sensible choice. A wide surround makes a handy seat or storage ledge but can be awkward to reach across when attending to a child. A stepped surround, such as the one in this rustic Colorado bathroom by architect Beth Levine, can make deeper tubs easier to access while serving as a bench.

For optimal bathing accessibility, though, nothing beats a walk-in bathtub, which has a chair-height seat, a grab bar and a door that you close before running the water.

7. What About Comfort?

No matter which kind of tub strikes your fancy, comfort is paramount, so if possible, test-drive it by climbing in. Ensure that the faucet and drain aren’t in your way. For a two-person tub, it may be best to center them on the long side, as shown in this traditional Texas bathroom by interior designer Cindy Aplanalp Yates, rather than on the short end. If a relaxing full-body soak is your goal, see if the tub is long and deep enough to stretch out and submerge in. But bigger isn’t always better. If you like to sit and read in the tub, a shorter one on which you can brace your feet may be preferable. Notice, too, how the tub supports your back and conforms to your body.

With its exposed sides, a freestanding tub allows more heat to escape. That said, any tub’s ability to keep the bathwater warm depends largely on its material: Thick enameled cast iron, for example, holds heat better than thin enameled steel. Both metals are colder to the touch initially than acrylic and fiberglass. Some models have electric systems to maintain the bathwater temperature or warm the tub surface.

Adjacent walls help insulate a built-in tub. On top of that, extra insulation can be sprayed or packed around it during installation, which has the added benefit of dampening sound. Of course, all the insulation in the world won’t be much help if the capacity of your water heater isn’t sufficient for the size of your tub.

8. Do I Need a Shower or Jets?

If you want more than a hand shower in your freestanding tub, you’ll need a model that allows for the addition of a shower head, tub diverter valve, riser pipe and curtain ring.

In this modern Victorian bathroom by New York architecture and design firm Strianese + Pew, the ring is suspended from the ceiling and one wall. But even with a wraparound shower curtain hanging from the ring and tucked into the tub, containing the water will be tricky.

If a freestanding spa tub with gently massaging air bubbles, stronger water jets or a combination (and maybe even chromatherapy and aromatherapy) is on your wish list, it’s available — but expect to pay a premium. Because of the additional weight, it may require anti-tipping brackets to be installed in the finished floor. Depending on your situation, finding a spot to put the heating system, air blower or water pump may not be feasible.

It’s practical to have a shower in a built-in tub, especially an alcove tub with moisture-resistant walls on three sides. The curtain in this bathroom, in a Craftsman-style California home renovated by Canyon Design Build, can easily be swept aside when it’s time to bathe the little ones. A curtain also adds softness and personality, while a glass tub door or screen usually contains water more effectively and lets window light or an especially beautiful shower surround show through.

As for jets, you have many more options if you go with a built-in style since the surround typically provides space for the components, which can be accessed through a panel.

9. Where Will I Put My Towels and Toiletries?

As pretty as it is, a freestanding tub adrift in a bathroom, unmoored from towel racks and shampoo niches, can leave you high and (not) dry when it comes to storing bath supplies.

Some models, such as this one in a transitional Colorado bathroom remodeled by Studio 80, have an integral or optional towel bar; if not, perhaps a towel stand is in order. A nearby accent table or over-the-tub caddy can hold a book or bar of soap. Consider hiring a bathroom designer to come up with creative storage ideas.

A built-in tub offers storage potential on adjacent walls and the surround itself. A wall or an alcove that’s longer than the tub presents a perfect opportunity to incorporate open or closed storage. In this transitional New York bathroom by kitchen and bath design firm Ulrich, recessed shelves at one end of the undermount tub hold towels, while a cubby in the pony wall at the opposite end contains bathroom tissue.

10. What About Maintenance?

Given its usual starring role in the bathroom, a freestanding tub should be sparkling clean inside and out — and with a claw-foot, that means underneath too. Placing the tub a mop-head distance away from walls and fixtures is a good idea. This double-ended pedestal tub, in a modern farmhouse-style Texas bathroom by Nuela Designs, has a hand shower, which can be used to spray down the interior.

Otherwise, maintenance depends largely on the tub material. Acrylic can scratch if cleaned with an abrasive product. Enameled steel is prone to chip and rust.

Spa tubs take more care than ordinary ones to stay hygienic. Once the bathwater has drained, air jets need to be run to dry. Water jets require regular flushing with low-sudsing soap and bleach. (Check the manufacturer’s instructions.) Models with a self-clean feature make spa tub maintenance easier.

A basic tub designed to be built-in is a breeze to clean — the surround is where the work comes in. Tile has grout to contend with. Wood requires attentive sealing.

A shower curtain gets mildewy but can be washed or replaced. A glass tub door or screen entails keeping after soap scum and limescale with a squeegee or microfiber cloth, though glass with special coatings like ShowerGuard or Diamon-Fusion can alleviate these issues.

Kate Dickson kept the design airy and the upkeep simple in this 50-square-foot contemporary Toronto bathroom with an alcove tub, a glass enclosure and a quartz lining around the window and the shampoo niche.

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