At the end of the 19th century, the wealthy industrialist and former San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro used part of his fortune to funnel seawater into a network of heated indoor pools on the beach. With about 1.7 million gallons distributed among seven pools, Sutro Baths evolved from an over-budget private aquarium into the place where all of San Francisco splashed. The structure was partly demolished in 1966 and ravaged by a fire; it now lies in ruins. “There’s this huge vacancy in the collective mindset of what Sutro Baths brought to the city,” says Nell Waters, owner of Whole Body Tonic, a massage studio in the Dogpatch section of San Francisco.
Replicating Sutro’s giant watering hole on the beach may no longer be politically feasible, but in these days of parklet-size interventions, public-minded projects run small and portable. This week Waters, with the help of the designers at Rebar Group, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund SOAK, a mobile bathhouse in four shipping containers. The design includes two hot pools, a sauna, a rooftop solarium, and a patio garden. Powered by solar panels, fed by rainwater, and completely off the grid, SOAK combines the public spirit of Sutro’s late, great saltwater pools with the footprint-shrinking ethos of our less grandiose but equally ambitious 21st-century city. It’s +POOL as cargotecture.
The old Sutro Baths at San Francisco's western waterfront.
If SOAK reaches its $240,000 goal by December 31, Waters and Rebar will build a two-container prototype to test the all the scientific stuff—seismic bracing, performance criteria, water usage—with help from Arup engineers. (At full four-container capacity, the spa could hold roughly 30 people onsite at any given time.) Waters has kept the location under wraps so far, but she says SOAK has a site in one of the neighborhoods under development on the city’s eastern waterfront.
With well-publicized precedents like Envelope A+D’s Proxy nearby in Hayes Valley, shipping-container urbanism has about as much novelty as a taco truck. But SOAK replenishes the genre’s corrugated-metal image by extending its possibilities beyond eating and shopping. There are more things to do in San Francisco than carry a cup of Ritual coffee around a leather-apparel store, so why shouldn't our tactically urbanized plots reflect that diversity?
SOAK represents a makeover for more than just shipping containers. Waters, a transplanted New Yorker who describes herself as “the least new-agey bodyworker you have ever met,” is angling to overthrow the cucumber-eyed, Enya-scored, shushy banalities of spa culture and restore the sweat-and-soak conviviality of public bathing. "I want to bring back the ancient Roman bathhouse idea of bathing culture, with the same spirit and the same sociability,” she says. “We're redefining the conversation about what wellness is—not necessarily having it be an act of solitude, but bringing it back into the social fabric, and having that sociability be an important factor in the wellness piece."
Unlike its water-guzzling sistren, SOAK cuts way down on the resource demands of a typical day spa. Half of the water in the soaking tubs will come from filtered rainwater, warmed by roof-mounted solar water heaters and photovoltaics. Heat exchangers will grab the warmth from old bathwater and use it to heat fresh batches to ensure that no watt is wasted. Graywater will be treated onsite and released for a second use, and the cold plunge is simply a bucket you overturn on your head. “You could look at SOAK as just a stop along the way for water that's going for irrigation,” says Rebar principal Blaine Merker.
All these off-grid amenities mean SOAK can uproot and relocate as empty plots become available. For Merker, the mobile bathhouse concept is a splashy and social vehicle for a more flexible approach to land use. “In our economic system, vacancy is thought of as a liability,” he says, even though boom-and-bust cycles pretty much guarantee the presence of vacant land. “We’re interested in exploiting [underused] space because it’s always present, but it’s not always present in the same place.” In other words, if Proxy were mobile and had a hot tub, it could work its powers of rejuvenation on many parts of the city, not just Hayes Valley.
With a residency of two to five years at one site, SOAK would act as an attraction to bolster burgeoning developments. “It can go to wherever the vacancy is and build a constituency around that space,” adds Merker. “While SOAK may not be the final tenant, if cultural habit gets established and people are going to a certain neighborhood or corner, it might pave the way for another enterprise to come in and find a good market location there.”
For all its DIY charm, this is a spa with a strong civic message. In an industry that trades on promises of escape (waterfall sounds, exotic salt scrubs, eye pads that obscure one’s view of the HVAC system overhead), SOAK is unabashedly urban. “It's not always about leaving the city and getting to some rustic, remote place,” says Waters. “It's staying in the city, staying in this vibrant space, and still having access to something that is healthy."
For many valid, smokestack-shaped reasons, cities have long been synonymous with illness, the inverse of healthful nature. But that association needn’t hold in our PV-paneled, LEED-certified era. “We’re trying to bring together what seem like two opposing factors: a high level of resource conservation and a high level of enjoyment and even a feeling of luxury,” says Merker. “Being in a city is the most resource efficient way to live. Having something compact and efficient is indeed a luxury experience.”
All SOAK renderings and diagrams courtesy Rebar Group