The Type-A Bathroom
For workaholics, it's the new home office. Jon Weinbach and Peggy Edersheim Kalb on showerproof computers, mirrors with stock quotes and the latest water hazard: 'BlackBerry dunk.'
By JON WEINBACH and PEGGY EDERSHEIM KALB
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 3, 2006; Page W1
With a BlackBerry, two mobile phones, three office computers and wireless Internet for his car, Greg Shenkman is never far from his work. But recently the CEO of San Francisco-based Exigen Group eked out more productivity by wiring the final frontier: his bathroom.
When Mr. Shenkman answers the speaker-phone in his shower, the water automatically shuts off. He can open the front door for deliveries while shaving. He's also put the finishing touches on a waterproof computer that will let him answer emails from his sauna. "I took Gates a little too literally," he says. "The flow of information never stops."
[In the bath, in the loop: Custom bath with LCD display and wall-mounted control of sound, lights and video, by Audio One.]
In the bath, in the loop: Custom bath with LCD display and wall-mounted control of sound, lights and video, by Audio One.
So it's come to this. The humble bathroom, long a place of refuge and solitude, is playing quiet host to more workplace transactions. Bathroom business has gone way beyond tapping out furtive emails on a BlackBerry. Lately, more hard-driving homeowners have converted their loos into virtual satellite workspaces, with retractable desks or waterproof touch-screen monitors. Manufacturer Acquinox of New York says sales of its steam shower/whirlpool units -- a hands-free phone is standard in each -- nearly tripled last year to 14,800 modules. Wisconsin-based Seura, meanwhile, reports rising sales of its vanity mirrors, which feature LCD screens in the glass. The mirrors, starting at $2,400, let users check their tie-knot, then flip a switch to watch the embedded TV.
Many Type-A bathrooms are showing up in high-end "smart homes," which feature computer systems that let homeowners control music, temperature and lights from wall-mounted touch pads. Now, builders and interior designers say, more owners also want toilet-side technology. Future Home, a Los Angeles-based entertainment-system installer, says half of its clients request tech gear in the bathroom, up from about 10% five years ago. A year ago, New Jersey-based smart-home installer Crestron began offering an Internet option on its home touch-screen monitors. And Audio One says about all of the 30 home-automation systems it's installed near its Miami head office in the past year -- prices can reach $200,000 -- have featured TVs in the bathroom. "It's become a given," says company engineer David Sussman. "There's not much sanctity left."
For Jeff Borris, the bathroom serves an essential function -- helping the sports agent keep constant tabs on the players he represents, including San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds. Mr. Borris's home in Calabasas, Calif., has two bathrooms in the master suite, each with phones and flat-panel TVs so he can field calls and catch clients' games late at night or early in the morning. "My business knows no time, space or geography, so I'll take calls from anywhere," says Mr. Borris. "But I try to be real careful when I'm around water."
Many of these homeowners say they're just having fun taking technology to its extreme. But they're also on the front line of a broader move to trade contemplative solitude for networked productivity. BlackBerrys and cellphones have long let users check in from everywhere, and now laptops can be hauled to any corner of the home: The number of U.S. households with wireless networks more than tripled, to 12.5 million, from December 2003 to December 2005, says Dallas-based technology researcher Parks Associates.
The upshot? According to a recent report by Forrester Research, commissioned by Yahoo, 21% of homeowners with laptops and wireless broadband say they've checked their email in the bathroom. "People feel the need to be able to put out a fire from anywhere," says Catherine Stellin, vice president of research at The Intelligence Group, a trend-spotting firm. "Even from the toilet."
Working in the bathroom, of course, brings old workaholic conflicts (spousal discord, late nights) even closer to home. There's also Warren Struhl's worry -- that he'll be outed when making a call from there. Mr. Struhl lives in Boca Raton, Fla., but he's the CEO of snack-food maker Dale & Thomas Popcorn, which is based in Teaneck, N.J., so he conducts much of his business by remote. In the morning, he spends his first quiet moments in the bathroom reviewing his overnight emails. He often dials into work calls on his BlackBerry, and he figures that if he happens into the bathroom, the acoustics may give him away. To avoid embarrassment, he says, he'll cough to cover noises, or press the mute button. "They know by the echo," he says.
[Television mirror by Seura]
Television mirror by Seura
Another emerging hazard: the BlackBerry dunk. "There's something magnetic about a BlackBerry and a toilet," says Paul Normand, president of BlackBerry Repair Shop, a Houston company that specializes in fixing the devices. He says he gets about 100 broken units a day, and estimates five to 10 have fizzled out after customers dropped them in a sink, tub or worse. "They get leery when we ask them, 'Was the water clean?'"
Melanie Brandman has been victim of two BlackBerry soakings -- but says hers has never fallen into the toilet. Once, in the bathroom of a hotel in Turkey, she put her handbag in one sink while running water in a second one. She accidentally tripped the first sink's automatic sensor and flooded the bag with water, swamping her BlackBerry. (The other time involved dropping her device into a Starbucks grande soy latte.) Though she used to take the device into the bathtub with her, now she's much more careful. "I'm just too nervous I'll drop it," says Ms. Brandman, president of a New York public-relations firm. "I'm beside myself when I can't get my emails."
Of course, there's a long, shared history between productivity and the privy that predates even the corporate washroom. Privacy-seeking playwright Edmond Rostand wrote much of "Cyrano de Bergerac" in the bathroom, according to at least one source, "Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader." President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered assistants to stand by and take dictation as he performed his toilet routine, writes biographer Robert Caro. Even The Fonz would motion toward the men's room when he invited visitors to "step into my office."
Still, as long as people see bathrooms as private, they will ask that their habits there stay anonymous. That's the case with a client of Lawrence Lanzilli, president of Manhattan-based Smart Home Designs. Mr. Lanzilli recently installed a $150,000 system for a 35-year-old Wall Street investor designed to make its owner productive the moment he opens his eyes. When his client shuts off his alarm, automatic shades gradually let sunlight in the bathroom. Then the towel warmers switch on, the floor warms and the toilet seat heats up.
When he turns on his faucet, a 15-inch LCD screen appears in the mirror with a touch panel full of icons; he can click on a "Bloomberg" logo to see his portfolio, an "email" logo to check messages and a "TV" logo for morning financial news. Behind that screen is a computer. Says the project's consulting architect, Adam Naim of Bricolage Design in Brooklyn, N.Y.: "It feels like it's a computer I'm walking into."
Attorney Brian Bixby says the added productivity is a mixed blessing. Mr. Bixby, chair of the private client group at Boston law firm Burns & Levinson, says his multitasking won him an important account. Checking his email by wireless late one night in the bathroom, he answered a query from a prospective client -- and later heard that his 2 a.m. response had helped clinch the deal. Still, Mr. Bixby says it can be annoying to his wife, and remembers the day when work stayed behind at the office. "The concept of 9-to-5 has really disappeared," he says. "If the technology is available to be reached anywhere or anytime, why shouldn't a client expect that?"
Joel Hall had to draw the line. The 40-year-old Los Angeles software developer and engineer is a self-described gadget freak, and he's nearly done with a home-renovation project that will let him control temperatures in any zone of his house, and bring wireless Internet access and a flat-screen TV to his bathroom. "It's a little overkill. When you see these things available, you have to get them," he says. He likes to watch about 10 minutes' worth of news in there, but there's one boundary he won't cross. "I never read my email in the bathroom," he says. "I'm not that far gone yet."