The History and Design of the Bathroom Part 8: Pulling It All Together


Images and drawings by Lloyd Alter

Over the last few weeks I have tried to pull all of the disparate ideas for the bathroom together and come up with a functional and practical set of ideas. Here is a summary of them all, in one bathroom that you can't have; the components don't exist. But they could easily.

1) Separate the functions

As noted in Part 3, Putting Plumbing Before People, our different bathroom functions require very different design responses, but because of the way the western bathroom evolved, everything ended up in one room.I wrote:

The engineers gave us a water supply and a waste disposal system, so logic dictated that you should put all this new stuff together in one place. Nobody seriously paused to think about the different functions and their needs; they just took the position that if water comes in and water goes out, it is all pretty much the same and should be in the same room.

But it is not at all the same.

In Part 6, Learning from the Japanese, this sketch began to evolve as the idea of separating the toilet from the bath and shower, with the Datsuiba, or changing room in between.

I also love this image from the cover of The Japanese Bath that clearly shows the separate area for showering and bathing. A Japanese shower takes up a lot less water, (see Save Water; Shower Japanese Style) because you only use it for rinsing and keep it off while you are soaping. I imitated this design for my late father-in-law because he was very sick and couldn't climb in and out of the tub to shower; he could sit on a stool. My mother-in-law still loves it.

Because one washes before you get into the tub in Japan, the water is very clean, clean enough to wash clothes in; here I have shown the washing machine in the Datsuiba so that the water can be pumped from the tub to the washing machine. Of course there is no dryer; this is TreeHugger after all, and we promote clotheslines.

The sink in that middle room, next to the washing machine is designed according to the principles laid out by Alexander Kira, noted in Part 5: Alexander Kira and Designing For People, Not Plumbing. The counter is higher, and the sink is self-cleaning, and easy to use to wash hair. Unlike Kira I would propose foot-operated controls or proximity detectors instead of Kira's levers.

But the biggest changes we face are with the toilet. As noted in Part 1: Before the Flush and Part 2: Awash In Water and Waste, our entire plumbing infrastructure was based on a series of accidents and responses to crises, rather than an intelligent review of how best to deal with waste. We built a system that uses expensive fresh water to flush away poop and pee that has real value and that we are going to need in the near future, as the cost of phosphates and nitrates explode. In Part 7: Putting A Price on Poop and Pee, I concluded:

Over a hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt said "civilized people ought to know how to dispose of the sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water." He is still right. It's time to get over our fear of poop, redesign our systems to separate and store poop and pee, put an economic value on it as fertilizer replacements and start putting it to work.

I am not alone in this; just yesterday Sami reported on an editorial in The Seattle Pi that called for consideration of the issue. They wrote:

The composting toilets require routine maintenance which the homeowner could do himself or pay an extra fee for the city to do. That would provide more jobs but still no doubt be far cheaper than operating a major centralized sewer plant.

The additional bonus is the huge savings in water consumption. Millions of missing flushes annually would save an inestimable amount of precious fresh water on an island that is a sole source aquifer, except for the single pipe that brings water to Oak Harbor.


The toilet I propose doesn't exist. It would be a composter much like the Clivus Multrum, where the poop goes into a tank, separate from the toilet. People don't have to worry about cleaning it out; it would be a service, a company that comes to your home twice a year.

It would be urine separating, like Mike described in After Smart Grids, Smart Sewage? Urine-Separating NoMix Toilet Gets Thumbs-Up in 7 European Countries. This could also be stored in a tank and collected by modern versions of the pole men of ye olde englande.

It will be a lot lower. Even Kira didn't think that Americans would accept squat toilets, no matter how much healthier they were. So he proposed a much lower version that supported our bodies at the right point, an almost-squat.


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It will have a separate urinal for men, and not over the toilet like Kira proposed. Men drip and you don't want that all over the toilet.


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There will be a grill in the ceiling connected directly to a heat recovery ventilator, constantly pulling air out of the bathroom and recovering or ejecting the heat as required. The bathroom is where the most smells are made and the most chemicals are used; this is where the air should be pumped from.(Or it may be down in the toilet instead of the ceiling, although I worry about the draft)

In the basement, crawl space or yard, there will be a series of systems that replace the centralized urban sewer system; there will be a hatch to gain access to the composting toilet poop storage. There will be a urine collection tank, a gray water tank to collect water from the sinks and showers, and perhaps a tank for the clean water from the bathtub, although in Japan they pump the water straight from the tub and do their laundry at night when the electricity rates are lower. That makes sense.

In this series I have looked at systems for single family residential uses, but one can imagine that it could scale. Imagine if a residential building was constructed on top of one of Gordon Graff's vertical farms. Urine and poop could be converted to nitrates and phosphates for the farm; gray water could be purified by the biological water filtration systems; excess poop could be fed into the anaerobic digester to produce methane. It could all be a system, as simple and sanitary as what we have today, but where everything is recovered, reused and recycled.

It is time for architects and engineers and planners to realize that we have to correct the mistakes of over a century ago, and to go back to first principles. That we can't afford to just throw this shit away.

Read the rest of the series:

History and Design of the Bathroom Part 7: Putting A Price on Poop and Pee

History and Design of the Bathroom Part 6: Learning from the Japanese

The History of the Bathroom Part 5: Alexander Kira and Designing For People, Not Plumbing

History of the Bathroom Part 4: The Perils of Prefabrication

The History of the Bathroom Part 3: Putting Plumbing Before People

The History of the Bathroom Part 2: Awash In Water and Waste

The History of the Bathroom Part 1: Before the Flush

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Tags: Composting Toilets

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