It’s eco. It’s urban. And it’s coming soon to San Francisco. Meet Nell Waters, the mastermind behind SOAK.
Describe who you are and what you do as it applies to the spa world.
I am the founder of SOAK, an ecological urban bathhouse opening in San Francisco. I am also the former owner and founder of an award-winning studio called Whole Body Tonic that I opened in San Francisco in 2005, and recently closed in 2014, so that I could free up more of my time.
How did you come up with the brilliant idea of SOAK?
The short answer is: over whiskey one night with one of my oldest girlfriends. The long answer is: I’d worked in alternative health in San Francisco for almost ten years and being from New York, I had a different set of values on what defined “wellness.” I shrugged off the preciousness, and I felt slightly trapped by any new age dogma. So I’d been knitting together these opposites which somehow were reflected best in the Sutro Baths, from the turn of the 20th century. At that point, it became clear to me. How do we bring back something as incredible as that experience and design it for a more sustainable footprint? How can water conservation be fundamental to a water experience? I won’t say exactly when this was but it was a while ago. I’ve been catalyzed by all of the phenomenal people who’ve helped me along the way, and who’ve continued to put wind in my sails.
How can water conservation be fundamental to a water experience?
What is your mission?
With SOAK, my mission is to make an impact on the cultural behavior in the United States and the acceptance for a bathhouse. It’s a lofty goal, but the timing is right. On a more local scale, my mission is to add legacy to this beautiful seaside town of San Francisco. We are a place of perpetual reinvention, so layers and layers of the past are covered up but the baths—not only Sutro, but Lurline Baths and Fleishacker Pool—these are monuments to our culture and the city experience. They are valuable watering holes.
Talk to us about the design.
The signature material at SOAK is the use of shipping containers to create open-air pavilions. My architect, Christopher Haas, and the urban designers who helped me early on saw an opportunity to work with something so flexible that we could adapt to any environment, any set of site conditions, for any city. For me, it’s the aesthetic I love. The corrugated steel says: city. But the woven-in natural landscape says: immaculate. It’s a juxtaposition I thrive on, and it’s integral to this project. I should note that SOAK is designed for ecological impact. All of our water is given a second life through our filtered, gray-water irrigation system, and we save close to half the water that a day spa of the same size might use through simplified programming of our services.
Biggest challenge so far? Biggest joy?
Biggest challenge as with any innovative project is having people invest their time and money into you. I’ve been lucky. I’ve also been tenacious. In some cases it’s younger minds with the right amount of verve and in some cases it’s the fairy godmothers, titans I think, that lend me their expertise. I lead from the gut and try to build off that. Biggest joy is walking into parties or being at an event and having someone I’ve never met know about my work. I gush when someone asks, “Are you SOAK?”
Is your surname name really Waters?
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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