WC History: What’s wrong with the modern bathroom?

| March 2, 2017

Modern bathroom design isn’t just inefficient, it can even be unhealthy. As the Guardian reports, “It is hard to find something that we actually got right in the modern bathroom.” From the size of the room — far too small — to the poor ventilation and water waste, the modern-day bathroom, argues writer Lloyd Alter, is in need of a major rethinking.


The toilet is in the same room as the sink and shower for economic, not sanitary ones.

The problems are plentiful: “The toilet is too high (our bodies were designed to squat), the sink is too low and almost useless; the shower is a deathtrap (an American dies every day from bath or shower accidents),” writes Altert. “We fill this tiny, inadequately ventilated room with toxic chemicals ranging from nail polish to tile cleaners. We flush the toilet and send bacteria into the air, with our toothbrush in a cup a few feet away. We take millions of gallons of fresh water and contaminate it with toxic chemicals, human waste, antibiotics and birth control hormones in quantities large enough to change the gender of fish.”

The history of the bathroom is a fascinating one. The first connection between human waste and disease was made in London by Dr. John Snow, who in 1854 discovered that cholera deaths were concentrated around a water pump. Prior to that time, people collected cooking and washing water from rivers and wells, and released their waste into “cesspits,” to be emptied by workers who either dumped it into the Thames or sold it as fertilizer.

After Dr. Snow’s discovery “that excrement plus drinking water equals death,” the city passed the Metropolitan Water Act to provide clean water, and public pumps were eventually replaced by pipes that brought water into people’s homes. Average water use jumped, from three gallons to 30 per person, if not up to 100 gallons each.

While the toilet had been invented prior to indoor plumbing’s advent, it was “pretty useless without a water supply.” The ability to flush fecal matter resulted in cesspit and sewer overflow, increasing disease. Early environmentalists intervened, arguing for the use of human waste as an agricultural resource, but the convenience of flush toilets won out. Early sewer and gutter systems were expanded into today’s existing sewage system.

People began bringing their washstands into the toilet rooms; “at first they just stuck sinks and taps into them, and put the toilet into whatever closet in the hall or space under the stairs that they could find, hence the ‘water closet,’” notes the Guardian. But because it less pricey to outfit one room with plumbing, eventually the room outfitted with a toilet and indoor plumbing became a dedicated bathroom, or water closet.

Bathrooms underwent their most recent development at the end of the 19th century: as germ theory grew widely accepted, bathrooms were constructed using more health-conscious materials, like porcelain and marble. Because the materials were expensive, and because bathrooms became necessary for all economic ranks, the rooms became smaller and smaller. Even the piping became more compact.

The bathroom is not a result of thoughtful engineering or design; rather, it is the culmination of years of cobbling together years’ worth of developments, as they were invented:  “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.”

The result: An array of bodily functions are “mix[ed] up… in a machine designed by engineers on the basis of the plumbing system, not human needs. The result is a toxic output of contaminated water, questionable air quality and incredible waste.” But what’s the alternative? Adopting the concept of the composting toilet, for one, which distinguishes feces-contaminated water from shower, sink and laundry water, or a vacuum toilet, which also cuts down on wastewater.

The shower is wasteful, too, argues the author: “The shower heads aim down, when really, like a bidet, they should probably aim up. The water runs constantly, even when you are applying soap or shampoo. You are usually standing in a slippery dangerous tub or in a tiny stall where you cannot move out of the water stream.”

While the alternatives of short showers or low-flow shower heads aren’t appealing, either, one option is to follow the Japanese example. Bathe with a bucket, sponge and hand shower (which is easily turned on and off when not in use) in a room safely separated from the toilet, to preserve both water and health.

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Category: Restrooms

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