Research and development efforts by manufacturers of luxury plumbing products have produced better, more durable finishes and a wider range of designs. Most luxury faucet chassis are cast from solid brass. They are heavier and have thicker and hardier finishes than inexpensive copies. Ceramic discs are often used instead of the traditional compression type valves. Some of the better known brands like Hansa and Grohe use German parts and engineering.
Changes in engineering, finishes and client expectations make a strong case for luxury plumbing.
One discovers a refreshing esprit de corps when talking with manufacturers of luxury plumbing products. They seem bound by some chivalric code to respect the companies that share their market niche, and focus on making their company name a valuable asset to builders. Like builders, they frequently toss the word “reputation” into the mix.
“The most important thing a builder has is reputation,” observes Jeffrey Valles, executive vice president of Phylrich International. “The bottom line is that materials have to last the way they’re supposed to. Plumbing is supposed to last forever. Period. A warranty is only as good as the manufacturer that stands behind it. Put it another way: Would the builder put it in his home?”
Michael Isaacs, president of Hansa, says faucets deserve more attention, because homeowners have regular, direct contact with them. “A custom home is more than good architecture,” he says. “These are products people touch and feel and use. They should have a higher significance. Otherwise, they’re the first ones that wear out.”
AN INDUSTRY REINVENTED
In the late 1970s, Valles notes, when polished brass finishes became the rage, the plumbing industry responded with the technology at hand. But their early finishes corroded, and builders lost confidence in a lot of so-called “decorative” plumbing products.
Most of the reputable manufacturers took this setback as a wake-up call. They not only improved finishes, but invested millions toward improving engineering. The goal now, as Bob Atkins, president of Grohe attests, is to educate builders about how far premium faucets have come, and prepare them to deal with highly informed clients. “Most of the people who go to a good custom builder have already been in that kind of a home,” he says. “They now ask for faucets by name. In a new home, the focal point is the best kitchen faucet, and these usually have double and even triple sinks.”
Atkins adds that his company has learned to respond to consumer requests. “We got asked about making faucets that are higher with a longer reach,” he explains. “We came out with the Ladylux plus, and it’s our most successful product in our history.”
Even in ultra-luxury homes, however, faucets sometimes get short shrift. Builders may specify inexpensive lookalikes. Why? Because, says Valles, the budget is exhausted.
“It’s all about scheduling,” he explains. “Plumbing selections are always last, so builders end up buying low-cost copies.”
And copies often can mean trouble for builders, although the shape of that trouble may not become apparent until months or years later.
Isaacs says a few general guidelines can help builders identify “knock-off” faucetry that may have quality problems, both internally and with finishes.
“I would first find out where it is made, and whether the company is a manufacturer – along with the kind of cartridge. Also, it’s important to check into approvals. The biggest are IAMPO and NSF approvals.”
“It is possible to patent a design,” Grohe’s Atkins adds. “For example, Delta has been very successful in stopping people from making single-handle faucets that look like theirs – and thank goodness.”
“Look at the spout to begin with,” Valles instructs. “The two most popular styles are the contemporary or the teapot. Look at the angle of the casting. The sharper the angle, the better the casting. I make my spouts in two parts; they make the whole spout in one casting. It saves them labor. I’d also look at how long they’ve been in business.”
FINISHES AND FLOURISHES
The number of finishes available on premium faucets continues to widen, and high-end finishes are generally thicker and hardier.
“It’s all about finishes,” explains Jado’s Rick Wickham. “That’s where we see faucets going.”
Jado and other manufacturers have backed that premise with a small fortune in research and development money. To make ever-popular polished brass stay popular, Jado has invested heavily into into developing the PVD Diamond Finish, a space-age procedure that creates the look of polished brass, guaranteed never to tarnish. Jado also has introduced a new line of 19 “Custom Finishes” which includes such colorations as “antique nickel” and “mahogany.”
In cases where uniform finishes don’t push a client’s hot button, combinations may. Phylrich’s best selling faucet, for example (see photo, previous page) includes a decorative nickel ribbon. Valles says clients seem drawn to designs with custom details. “It just seems to fit the whole custom idea.”
Among single-lever faucets, on the other hand, polished chrome, nickel and brass finishes remain popular, and fine alterations in the shape of the handle or spout become critical. Availability of accessories or a designer’s name also may swing a client toward a particular line or brand.
Most luxury faucet chassis are cast from solid brass, so they have a heavy, substantial feel. It’s no accident that many of the better known brands: Phylrich, Hansa, Grohe, Hansgrohe and others include German parts and engineering. They’re built, like German cars, for lifetime use.
“Germans take pride in manufacturing,” Isaacs explains. “People here may not know the difference, but there are real differences, especially in quality control. At Hansa, for example, 10 percent of our people are in quality control. That’s unheard of.”
Another German-born aspect of faucet technology is the ceramic disc, which replaces traditional compression type valves. The technology has well documented reliability, although Valles notes that the disc’s ascent to dominance in the U.S. industry has a lot to do with changing consumer tastes.
“It’s look, look, look,” he says. “With the old round faucet handles, you didn’t care where the turn stopped. But people in the States now want levers on their faucets, so the handles will always come back to exactly the same point.”
BATH FAUCETRY EVOLVES
No area of high-end plumbing has seen more rapid change than custom showers and baths. As Valles notes, “Up until three months ago, the U.S. didn’t even have codes for thermostats. They’re all over Europe.”
The market here has begun to respond, according to Bob Atkins at Grohe. “Our thermostat business is doing well,” he says, “People want temperature control, number one, and high volume, number two.”
Achieving that high volume within U.S. codes, however, has required creative solutions. For example, Grohe came up with a shower system that uses several heads simultaneously.
“Federal law mandates showerheads at 2.5 gpm,” Atkins points out. “It would have been easy to just put in a limiter, but the big companies didn’t. We went back to the drawing board and redesigned the showerhead.”
“Often, when they get to the shower,” Valles says, “people put in the cheap stuff. But you can’t sell a $1,000 thermostat, then put in an $80 faucet. It just doesn’t make sense.”
High-end tub faucets also conceal advanced engineering. Where economy faucets may funnel only 5 or 6 gallon per minute (gpm), premium models often allow for 14 or 15 gpm.
“You’ve got to fill the tub fast enough to get in them and use the hot water,” Atkins points out.
EXCLUSIVE, BUT ACCESSIBLE
“Custom builders especially want to provide a product people can’t see in a home center,” says Grohe’s Bob Atkins. “They’re also using little mini displays in their own homes.”
Says Michael Isaacs: “Custom builders are not in the business to build a product, they’re in the business for creative problem solving. You don’t want people to go in and get the feel of a cheap house. People shopping in that range become sophisticated very quickly.”