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

A blue and white bathroom in an old house.

irina88w / Getty Images

Have a look at your sink after you brush your teeth or shave. There is stuff all over it that you have to clean up. You can't wash your hair in it. Alexander Kira of Cornell University looked at the bathroom sink, and toilet and tub, in the early sixties and was appalled. He wrote:

Architects and builders - who actually are the purchasers and who actually are responsible for the design of our bathrooms - must begin to think of hygiene facilities as an important part of the home and as an important aspect of our daily lives rather than as a necessary evil to be accommodated according to the dictates of some obsolete handbook or drawing template in whatever space is left over with whatever part of the budget is minimally required to meet legal standards.

Kira's sink is deep at one end, shallow at the other. A hump in the middle spreads the running water all over the bowl to keep it clean. They water shoots up and can act as a drinking fountain, while making it easy to wash one's hair. It is also mounted on a higher vanity, suggesting that the body should be comfortably erect with the hands right in front.

"present lavatory installation practices and recommended standards, however, preclude such a posture.... The heights used at present are so low as to be ideal only for small children."
alexander kira tub image

Our current bathtubs are even worse. Kira said:

It is probably fair to say that the only substantive reason for taking a tub bath (other than pure personal idiosyncrasy) is to 'relax", and yet it is precisely this that the vast majority of tubs have not permitted the user to do, particularly in the U.S."

They are too short, they are not comfortable, there are insufficient grab bars that make them dangerous. The single worst thing you can do from a safety point of view is have a sunken tub, where all of your weight goes on to the foot in the tub. If anything, the tub should be raised.

Then there is the idiotic and standard combination tub and shower.

Almost without exception, the controls are located directly under the water source and in most cases where a tub is used as a shower receptor, at a height so low as to be usable only from a sitting not from a standing position." Making adjustments in the water temperature then "becomes an extremely hazardous undertaking." Accidents occur through scalding or through movements to avoid the stream of water.

And of course the shower head is on the wall, aiming down, when the stuff in most need of cleaning is at our bottoms, our genital, anal and urinary bits. Kira complains:

"Of all the normal body cleansing activities these are undoubtedly the least understood the least discussed, and the least performed."

A properly designed tub and shower unit should have an adjustable shower head that varies according to height, and a hand shower to deal with the bottom bits. It should be shaped like a lounge chair. Grab bars should run continuously. It should have a seat for foot washing.

And showers? Kira told Time Magazine:

Showers are too small; they should be larger, have a built-in seat, and be enclosed to the ceiling except for the entrance. Different-shaped handles, square for hot and round for cold, would permit the soapy-eyed bather to adjust water temperature without alternately scalding or freezing himself. To avoid slipping while balancing on one leg, a continuous wraparound safety bar is needed. "One can get a car washed automatically in five minutes, while it still takes us 15 minutes to wash ourselves by hand," Kira notes wryly, and predicts that sweeping technological changes are due in personal hygiene.
kira toilet image

Finally, the biggest problem of all: the toilet. Kira called it "the most ill-suited fixture ever designed." The real issue here is that our bodies were not designed to sit on toilets, we were designed to squat. Daniel Lametti explained in Slate:

People can control their defecation, to some extent, by contracting or releasing the anal sphincter. But that muscle can't maintain continence on its own. The body also relies on a bend between the rectum--where feces builds up--and the anus--where feces comes out. When we're standing up, the extent of this bend, called the anorectal angle, is about 90 degrees, which puts upward pressure on the rectum and keeps feces inside. In a squatting posture, the bend straightens out, like a kink ringed out of a garden hose, and defecation becomes easier.

Kira studied our bottoms and determined where the stuff comes out and where our bodies can provide the best support without pressing our cheeks together, making things even harder to get out.

Proponents of squat toilets make all kinds of claims for their benefits, according to Slate:

Modern-day squat evangelists make money off the claim that a "more natural" posture wards off all sorts of health problems, from Crohn's disease to colon cancer.

Image credit where you can read some of the wilder claims about squatting vs sitting.

But studies do show that it almost eliminates hemorrhoids, that bowel movements take half as long, and that evacuations are more complete. Kira's design is a compromise, lowering the toilet to nine inches off the floor and letting the user sit, almost but not quite in a squat. It also has a built-in bidet spray, to properly clean our bottom; toilet paper doesn't do it. Kira reported on an English study that found that 44% of the population had dirty underwear. Kira liked to quote the author of the study:

Many are prepared to complain about a "tomato sauce stain on a restaurant tablecloth, whilst they luxuriate on a plush seat in their faecially stained pants."

And what is the trend in toilets in America? Because of the obesity crisis, a large proportion of the population has trouble getting themselves on and off a standard 14" high toilet. So now they are buying toilets at the "comfort height"- 17" high. Instead of getting lower, they are getting higher. 50 years ago Alexander Kira was a voice in the wilderness, and we still have learned almost nothing from him.

More on Alexander Kira in Life Magazine, via Google Books