This Anti-Spa Is Built Inside Shipping Containers

You won’t find cucumber eye pads at SOAK, a new concept that strips down the spa experience to its most basic, makes it affordable, and won’t hurt the planet.

A trip to the spa requires acceptance of a certain amount of indulgence and opulence. Put simply: the spa industry is fancy. That’s fine for most spa-goers who participate in the $14 billion U.S. industry–otherwise they wouldn’t go to the spa–but it has significant repercussions on the environment.


Nell Waters, a veteran of the wellness industry, has come up with an antidote, something she calls the “anti-spa experience.” SOAK is a conservation-minded urban bathhouse made from shipping containers. There won’t be any cucumber eye pads or salt scrubs there. “It’s a really traditional bathhouse, about water, heat, and people,” she says.

If the project becomes a reality, patrons will pay a $25 drop-in fee to experience the facility’s basic amenities, including a solarium, cold plunge buckets, a sauna, and hot pools. Waters is currently raising money on Kickstarter to build the first SOAK spa in San Francisco.

“There are a number of systems packed in a small space designed for maximum efficiency and at the same time a high-density sensory experience,” explains Blaine Merker, a partner at the Rebar Group who led design of the project. Over half of the water used in the soaking tubs will come a from rainwater catchment system, and leftover greywater will be used to irrigate the onsite garden. Power for the space will come from a solar photovoltaic installation, and solar hot water heaters will warm up the pools. Some 232,000 gallons of rainwater will be filtered and used onsite every year.

Since SOAK is made out of shipping containers, it can be moved from place to place if need be. For Rebar Group, the spa is an opportunity to extend the kind of thinking about interim use that the studio pioneered with PARK(ing) Day, an annual event where people transform city parking spots into temporary public spaces. “Cities are constantly in flux, and vacancy is a constant fact of urban life because of the cycles of economic development and investment that cities go through. We look at that not as a minus but as an opportunity,” says Merker. “How can we activate urban spaces and follow vacancies where they exist?”

Waters and Merker already have a site chosen for the first SOAK, but they won’t say exactly where it is. “We’re looking at the eastern waterfront in San Francisco,” says Merker. Eventually, Waters imagines that SOAK could come to other, similar urban spaces like Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon.

This all hinges on funding for the project. It’s unclear at this point whether SOAK’s Kickstarter campaign will be successful, but even if it fails, Merker and Waters will press on. “We’re talking now with private investors in SOAK. If the Kickstarter campaign doesn’t reach its total goal, we’ll push forward and operate with the assumption that building a two-box prototype is the next step,” says Waters.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.