Public Works: A Mobile Bathhouse Brings Urban Renewal to Your Doorstep




Public Works: A Mobile Bathhouse Brings Urban Renewal to Your Doorstep

An eco-friendly San Francisco spa wants to promote societal wellness through “healthy hedonism."

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

SOAK bathhouse would be housed entirely in shipping containers  Image courtesy of SOAK

SOAK bathhouse would be housed entirely in shipping containers. Image courtesy of SOAK.

Say you read an article about an “off-grid” San Francisco spa that recycles its water, depends on solar energy, and is housed in repurposed shipping containers. Would you lapse into an exasperated eye roll so powerful it lifts you out of your shoes? Would you assume this was one of those strict eco-joints that insists on suffering Spartan conditions for the sake of sustainability and serenity? Well, just hang on a second. There is indeed an ecologically friendly new spa due to hit the streets of San Francisco this year—but with an ethos of “healthy hedonism,” SOAK urban bathhouse is as much Yorkville decadence as it is California commune.

Founder Nell Waters wants to redefine the concept of “wellness” for the 21st century. In part, that means coming up with alternatives to typical water- and energy-guzzling day spas. But it also means thinking about how businesses can spark community and urban development. Inspired by European saunas and Japan’s bathing culture, SOAK emphasizes social interaction and makes the case that you can indulge yourself and still be socially responsible. 

SOAK emphasizes communal experiences and social interaction. Image courtesy of SOAK.

The planned SOAK facility would be made up of four 40-foot-long shipping containers and include hot tubs, a sauna, a lounge, a roof-top deck, an inner courtyard, changing facilities, showers, restrooms, and an outdoor garden. SOAK would get half its water (or an estimated 22,500 gallons per year) from rainwater collection. Meanwhile, the bathhouse’s garden would be irrigated with filtered greywater from the hot tubs, sinks, and showers.

Building infrastructure from shipping containers is hardly a new idea, but SOAK is taking “cargotecture” one step further. It turns out the whole damn thing will be portable. “The [shipping] containers allow us to be nimble and maintain a flexible business, which, in the new economy, is a major driver of change for dense urban populations,” said Waters.

SOAK’s model is to set up shop wherever there is underused urban space in need of business and social activity. “Like a pioneer species preparing the ground for new growth,” is how the facility’s designers put it.

The bathhouse’s urban stimulus-to-order concept hasn’t entirely won over investors yet. A 2013 Kickstarter campaign that sought $240,000 to fund a prototype fell rather short of its goal. But, Waters said, fundraising is ongoing, and plans are still in place to launch SOAK in San Francisco later in 2014.

Until they get a chance to head out California-way to check SOAK out, Torontonians can daydream about its potential in this city, where we love our repurposed shipping containers, and are always looking to develop underused land.