Subterranean Spa

January 6, 2021

It took a small army to build an underground Turkish-style bath in the middle of Cambridge.

Text by Lisa H. Speidel     Photography by Eric Roth

It was a holiday in Paris with a couple of girlfriends that really got the homeowner thinking. Their hotel had a spectacular hammam in the basement—it was the ultimate in relaxation and luxury. A year earlier on a trip to Morocco, she had fallen hard for the beautiful jewel tones and geometric shapes characteristic of
Moroccan tiles.

As the wheels began turning, the homeowner reached out to builder and friend Joseph DiLazzaro; the two have collaborated on multiple projects over the past fifteen years. DiLazzaro remembers the conversation with a chuckle, “She said, do you think we could build one underground in the backyard? I said of course, but first I need to figure out what a hammam is.”

It turns out that building a hammam—a Turkish bath—below ground in a Cambridge backyard is no small feat. Just keeping the team of pros straight required a spreadsheet: First came DiLazzaro, landscape architect Matthew Cunningham, and architect Don Knerr, then came eleven engineers (specializing in everything from mechanical and structural to geotechnical, thermal analysis, and waterproofing); countless suppliers for things like custom glass fixtures, scene lighting, sound, and tile; and more than a dozen artisans and finishers who handled tasks such as specialty plastering, iron and stone work, and constructing water features. Planning was paramount because the emphasis was on custom and handmade. Case and point, all the Moroccan tile had to be ordered before the team even broke ground.

While the planning, engineering, and construction required mind-bending maneuvering, the owner’s vision was clear, both in terms of aesthetic and functionality. The hammam, which is only about 200 square feet, comprises a warm soaking pool that she usually sets at 100 degrees, a steam room that hovers around 125 degrees, and a shower. The homeowner’s son, a personal trainer, convinced her to add a tiny plunge pool that’s currently programmed to a bracing 60 degrees.

Along with the hammam itself, Knerr designed a small two-story addition above, integrating it with the storybook facade of the main house. The nine-by-ten-foot first floor of the addition houses a solarium, and a spiral staircase leads to the husband’s office above and the bath below.

The owner’s verdict on the underground soaking space? Though a smaller version than the one in Paris that inspired the project, the Moroccan tiles elevate the experience—a treat for the mind, body—and eyes.

Architecture: Don Knerr, Charles R. Myer & Partners
Builder: Joseph DiLazzaro, Opus Master Builders
Landscape design: Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design