Alcove Versus Freestanding Tubs: Which Is Better?

When you’re considering how to design a beautiful bathroom, one of the major choices is whether to include a bathtub. Our answer is an absolute, resounding yes. Bathtubs are the hallmark of a complete bathroom—not a half bath or a three-quarters bath—but a full bathroom complete with a tub that you can bathe in, soak in and relax in. 

If you’re worried about value, know that a great tub is often a selling point for a home, pairing functionality with that touch of luxury we all love. The real choice quickly becomes not whether to include a tub but which kind of tub would work best for you. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of alcove tubs versus freestanding tubs to see which fits your space best.

What Is an Alcove Tub and Freestanding Tub?

While specialty tubs like drop-ins and corner tubs are available on the market, most bathtubs are typically designed as either alcove tubs or freestanding tubs.

  • Alcove tubs feature a tub basin that is surrounded by a flat surface rim or apron and is usually faced with one finished long side. They’re built-in tubs that are designed to fit in a standard-sized space that will conceal the alcove tub’s unfinished sides. Alcove tubs range in size and style from basic tubs that you can finish with a matching surrounding and shower to luxurious whirlpool and air tubs.
  • Freestanding tubs, on the other hand, are finished on all sides, allowing them to be placed anywhere they’ll fit as a complete, standalone fixture. These tubs do not rest against walls, but rather stand separately and draw the eye as a statement piece in the space. They’re available in many sizes, styles and silhouettes. In fact, most modern tubs now feature extras like enhanced insulating properties and air jets that once were available only in alcove or specialty drop-in tubs.

Whether you’re designing a new-construction bathroom from scratch, remodeling a current bathroom or looking to update some bathroom fixtures, the extensive selection of features associated with each type of tub gives you plenty of design elements to think about.

Pros and Cons of Alcove Tubs Versus Freestanding Tubs

When you’re deciding between alcove and freestanding tubs, the factors you need to evaluate may not be so much pros and cons but considerations that come with each type of tub, the bathroom that you have and the bathroom that you want.

  1. The Look: The silhouette of a freestanding tub has an unmistakable look. The elegant shapes, stylistic curves and hallmark lines make these tubs centerpieces. Nothing else has that look because a freestanding tub doesn’t rely on walls to support it. It can go just about anywhere that you’d want to place one.

    That said, alcove tubs can also be used in standalone-type applications, but more work is involved. Much like a kitchen island sink, an alcove tub needs a sturdy framework to support it and cabinetry or tilework, for example, to provide a finished façade for the unfinished sides.
  2. Size and Space for Installation: While the most typical measurement for a freestanding tub is about 60 inches long by 30 inches wide, tub lengths can measure as short as 55 inches to as long as 72 inches. Likewise, widths can range from 27 inches to 32 inches. Some oval tubs can be even wider—40 inches or more. Most manufacturers recommend that installation allow for at least one foot of access space between a freestanding tub’s base and any surrounding walls.

    Alcove tubs usually measure about 60 inches long and 32 inches wide but don’t require extra space around the unfinished sides. For really tight spaces, alcove tubs may be available as small as 54 inches long and 30 inches wide, making them ideal for smaller bathrooms.
  3. Tub Height and Water Depth: Tub height affects not only how much water a tub will hold but also how easy tub entry may be for bathers. Alcove tubs tend to have lower sides—14 or 15 inches for a small alcove tub to 18 inches for a standard alcove tub. While the limited height may make stepping in or out of the bath easier, it also limits the amount of water the tub can hold and how much of an adult bather’s body will be comfortably submerged beneath the surface.

    Freestanding tubs can be 24 to 30 inches high, with soaking tubs even taller. For bathers who want to enjoy a long soak, a freestanding tub offers greater water depths and body coverage. More water means bathwater may stay hot a little longer—especially if the freestanding tub’s composition has insulating properties. Because freestanding tubs tend to be heavier than alcove tubs and can hold more water than alcove tubs, supporting flooring must be able to bear the load safely.
  4. Keeping Water Hot: Mentioned above, the ability to keep bathwater warm depends on tub composition and installation. For either type of tub, some materials resist cooling better than others. For example, some soaker tubs are made of proprietary mineral composites that incorporate insulating properties to keep bathwater warmer longer. Likewise, acrylic tubs may keep water warm longer than cast iron. However, layered composition or insulation may make a substantial difference for an alcove tub.
  5. Accessibility and Cleaning: Alcove tubs typically have only one external side to clean in addition to the tub basin and the surface apron. However, alcove tubs often have a shower installed with them, adding the need for a protective, waterproof surround or tile as well as a shower curtain or shower doors.

    Freestanding tubs need sufficient clearance for easy and thorough cleaning both inside and out as well as around the tub. Will you use the tub only for baths and install a separate shower area, or will you add a shower to the tub or add the tub to a larger shower space? While some variations may help to limit drafts, they also affect use and the ability to keep the area clean.
  6. Storage of Personal Items: Much of a freestanding tub’s appeal comes from its clean, uncluttered lines—sans bottles of shampoo, jars of conditioners, soaps and scrubbers. Having access to those things from a freestanding tub may involve additional space for a tub-side stand, basket or a bath tray. In contrast, the apron corners on alcove tubs are easy resting spots for personal items, and surrounds usually add ledges for soap and other supplies.
  7. Plumbing: The plumbing for alcove tubs is usually hidden neatly behind the wall at the tub’s front end, leaving only faucets and handles in view. However, a freestanding tub’s placement and configuration often entail freestanding floor-mounted fixtures. Water supply lines must span the distance between the floor and tub rim and make exposed plumbing an aesthetic element that must match or complement the faucet and handles.
  8. Flooring: Since alcove tubs hide the floor—or lack of flooring—beneath them, most installers don’t tile beneath them. Usually, a bead of caulk seals the space between the tub’s side and the bathroom flooring. However, for freestanding tubs, manufacturers recommend ensuring that a floor will bear the load of a filled freestanding tub as well as tiling beneath the tub for seamless flooring and moisture control.

As you can see, the type of tub for a particular bathroom needs to match both the space available and the lifestyle of those using it. While an alcove tub might be perfect for a Jack-and-Jill bathroom shared by siblings, a freestanding tub can add a luxurious touch in a spacious master bath. Meanwhile, new materials and designs are constantly being upgraded and re-engineered to ease tub installation. This makes surfaces more durable and easier to keep clean, all while enhancing convenience for functionality and comfort.

Finding the Right Tub for Your Home and Lifestyle

If you’re ready to begin your search for the perfect bathtub, start with Coburn’s. Reach out to your nearest Coburn’s Kitchen & Bath Showroom location, and let our product experts help. You want a tub that you’ll love using—and seeing—every day. Together, we can assess the space and budget you have to find the perfect pairing for your bathroom.

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