History of the Bathroom Part 4: The Perils of Prefabrication

fuller prefabricated toilet image

In 1940, Buckminster Fuller receieved Patent 2220482 for a prefabricated bathroom. Fuller wrote in his claim:

Attempts have been made heretofore to provide prefabricated bathrooms with the object of lowering the cost of building a bathroom into a dwelling. Such bathrooms, however, by reason of their great weight and more or less conventional construction, have involved relatively high costs by the time they have been shipped and installed for use....It is an object of my invention to provide a compact, light prefabricated bathroom which may be readily installed either in a dwelling under construction or in a dwelling that is already built.
history of bathroom image

Fuller's design was very clever; it was designed to break up into slices so that it could be carried up a stairwell if need be. But Siegfried Gideon was not impressed:

As so often in the eagerness of full mechanization, the construction ran away with the constructor and the human problem became lost in the stamping....To the crew of a submarine or to men without a roof over their heads, a metal box in which one can barely turn around may come as a welcome solution.

To everyone else, perhaps a little more room would be nice. But the tiny, prefabricated bathroom remains a holy grail of designers, with patents still being pumped out regularly.

history of bathroom image

Perhaps the most extreme example of trying to squeeze too much into too little space is David Fergusson's 1946 patent 2552546. He squeezes an entire bathroom into the area of a shower stall; the sink folds up to reveal the toilet, which somehow is also hinged so that it folds back into the wall when one wants to shower.

history of bathroom image

It really is a mechanical marvel. But it suffers from the same problem as Fuller's and other attempts to make bathrooms so small and efficient, that there is more to bathing than just using the toilet or the sink, and that people are not machines. Gideon wrote in 1948:

It is too late for us to be cheated by purely engineering solutions won at the expense of human comfort.

Bathrooms should be designed around people. But in fact, we get it seriously wrong in the design of each and every fixture; our bodies are designed to squat and we sit on toilets. Our showers aim water down when they should aim water up. Our sinks are too low and too dirty. Alexander Kira figured this all out 50 years ago, and nobody is listening.

Next: Alexander Kira and the right way to go to the bathroom.

The History of the Bathroom Part 1: Before the Flush
The History of the Bathroom Part 2: Awash In Water and Waste

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