Illustration 3857545 © Bertrandb |

Better Behind the Wall = More Choices in the Front

April 10, 2024
My visit to KBIS got me thinking about the dichotomy of the plumbing industry.

Good plumbing often goes unappreciated. Most home and business owners never see behind the walls and only rarely look in the mechanical room. So long as the hot water stays hot, the toilet flushes, the energy bill doesn’t spike, and nothing makes too much noise, most people take their plumbing for granted. 

Good plumbing fixtures, by contrast, command attention. From tubs and faucets to bidets and disposers, people have always made front-of-the-wall plumbing an important design component of their homes. 

Of course, when I say “people” for most of human history that meant “rich people.” Marble sinks and gold basins date back to ancient Greece and Rome. It wasn’t really until the 1950s that new manufacturing techniques—and rising middle class incomes—brought luxury fixtures into the mainstream. Then in the 1960s and ‘70s modern marketing (who can forget “The Bold Look of Kohler”?) and plumbing showrooms boosted demand still further. 

Today that demand is higher than ever. According to the recently released 2024 US Houzz & Home Study from the online interior design community Houzz, kitchens continue to lead as the most commonly renovated interior room (29%), followed closely by guest bathrooms and primary bathrooms (27% and 25%, respectively). The median spend for kitchen and primary bath projects jumped in 2022, and in 2023 it increased again—by 20% and 11%, reaching $24,000 and $15,000, respectively. 

(A couple other interesting tidbits from the study: pro hiring remains consistent with the previous year, with more than 9 in 10 renovating homeowners hiring professional help, and the share hiring specialty service providers increasing slightly, rising from 46% in 2022 to 47% in 2023. Also, Gen Xers spent the most on renovations for the second year in a row, with their median spend in 2023 at $25,000. You can download the full report at

Another sign of that high demand might be the record attendance at this year’s Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas. Over 41,500 registered visitors came to see 670 exhibitors. Both numbers included an impressive international contingent. 

I was one of those visitors, and as I walked the show floor at the Las Vegas Convention Center I couldn’t help but compare it to the last big show I attended, the AHR Expo in Chicago. To circle back to where I started this, AHR is the classic “behind the wall” show, showcasing the latest innovations that most homeowners will never see. KBIS is all about the “front of the wall” with bold colors, advanced materials and high-end design. 

And it shows. Not to knock on the big booths at AHR, but the biggest exhibitors at KBIS—Kohler, Moen, Delta, Toto—make their booths into aesthetic “experiences” that never fail to wow the crowds. 

But this dichotomy—front vs. back, appearance vs. performance—isn’t as marked as it seems. Isn’t real luxury about having it all? What good is a diamond-encrusted faucet if it always drips? What’s the point of a multi-spray shower if the pressure is weak and the water is tepid? 

The truth is well-designed and well-built plumbing systems open up all kinds of front-of-the-wall possibilities. One of the neatest things I saw at KBIS was a drain kit from Oatey that takes a lot of the hassle out of installing a freestanding tub; simpler rough-ins and no more of the stub-out method. Likewise, radiant heating can transform concrete floors from something to be covered or hidden into the focal point of the room. 

It's easy enough to offer a “good-better-best” selection of fixtures, but plumbers looking to get more remodeling work need to educate themselves enough on interior design to have intelligent conversations with their customers about how good plumbing behind the wall can deliver expanded choices for the front of the wall.

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