A look at the difficulties with our daily movements and designing better bathrooms
Read time: 6 minutes
The Bathroom. The John. The Can. The WC. The Lav. The Loo. Whatever you call it, we all use toilets. Several times a day, every day (if we’ve remembered to eat our 5 a day). However, we rarely talk about what goes on in them.
Maybe it’s our British sense of decorum to not speak about our unspeakables, or a sense of vulnerability about the times when we are literally laid bare. Maybe we are just embarrassed by the whole situation. Whatever the cause of our shyness about discussing such matters; whether we are having a tinkle, bathing, cleaning our teeth, or just checking ourselves out, it’s a room that sees some heavy use throughout the day. So with this in mind think of this blog as an homage to a little room that we take for granted and maybe it can be the inspiration for us all to start showing it a little love.
In another blog I talk about how good design generally goes unnoticed and it’s only bad design, because of the frustration it causes that clatters into our consciousness. Without a shadow of a doubt if your toilet isn’t functioning properly you notice it, but what if this is your everyday?
I don’t mean the plumbing not working, troublesome as that would be, I mean the accessibility of such an important facility being out of step with your needs. What seems like a simple task for many can be a nightmare for others. Think about all the many little steps that go into just having a wee.
It was something very much on my mind as various family members came over to our house at Christmas and needed to relieve themselves after an overdose of festivity. Our house is a 1970s building and, like most others on our estate, the only loo is upstairs. This means that bannisters, grab rails and stair lifts are necessary for anyone with the slightest mobility problem.
The next hurdles occur before a prospective user has even approached the throne: opening the door, turning on the light, and maybe turning around. For a guy (I’m guessing) there is also some arranging yourself and balance involved, though I won’t presume to know the mysteries of a standing pee or even assume that’s what you are up to. Then there is fiddling with your clothes, lowering yourself down, (interlude – doing your business), then raising yourself back up, cleaning yourself up (which involves some twisting), doing your clothes back up again, washing your hands before heading out to go back downstairs. For some extra peril, throw in the dark if your call of nature happens to come in the middle of the night.
The design of our toilets affects us all. Aside from breathing, eating and drinking it is right up there with our most vital needs. It becomes even more important at different times of life, whether through ageing, disability, surgery, an injury, having children or just a dodgy kebab. Yet it baffles me how we are still building houses that don’t accommodate our different and changing abilities, especially given all we know about our ageing population and all the design expertise we have at our fingertips these days. Obviously cost is a factor and potentially a lack of will on behalf of developers and politicians. However, I also think it’s a bit about denial (or perhaps lack of empathy or awareness of those in power?). Denial that one day we ourselves might need help with these most intimate of tasks.
Obviously I can’t be certain of the reasons for the shortsightedness in the design of some buildings, what I can say though, from personal experience, is that it is something that causes some of the greatest mental distress when people are unable to manage on their own any longer; it costs huge amounts in social care to provide personal assistance; and it contributes to costs for the NHS who have to treat injuries from falls associated with getting to or using the bathroom. In my work it is not uncommon to see older people stop drinking liquids so that they don’t have to go to the toilet as much. This is not healthy and, quite frankly, it is simply not good enough that people are forced into such extreme measures in order to deal with the situation. I am sure there are many other tactics people employ that I cannot even guess at. I know the Changing Places campaign has an awful lot to say on the quality of loo design – but that is public loos and that is a whole different kettle of fish I will save for another day.
One solution is building beautiful walk-in wetrooms with level floors. More and more this kind of bathroom is being built into new homes (and certainly housing for older people) where the local authorities are particularly forward thinking. That said, you also still see plenty of so-called sheltered housing specifically meant for older people with layouts and facilities that actively dis-able people (doors people can’t open, no grab rails, baths with high sides and so on).
Sometimes the general lack of thought, will or consultation on design astounds me. Just take Crossrail; an unparalleled chance to start from scratch, build beautiful design, showcase London to the world and yet still seven of the 40 stations along the route were designed without step-free access or lifts. It was only down to the tireless campaigning of pressure groups that this got this changed, but the fact that this can even happen in 2016 is bloody ridiculous.
Political rant over, and back to the more base concerns of our daily movements. Bathrooms are often slippery rooms with water abounding, which we make even more perilous by adding soap to the equation. I think we’d all be lying if we said we hadn’t had a scary near slip or two in our lives, and wet bathroom floors account for a stunning number of falls in people over 65.
Not only do well-designed wet rooms feel a bit like you’re in a spa, they also have a number of subtle design features that make things easier and nicer for us all. Take a shower seat: who doesn’t want a sit down occasionally? Whether to chill after a long day, or a place to shave your legs without wobbling. The flat walk-in surface means no dangerous stepping in, out and over things. By installing anti-slip tiles the chance of taking a tumble in the nud can be further reduced. Add some well placed, attractively incorporated, barely noticeable grab rails and job’s a goodun. If you want to get really fancy, add a backlit mirror which helps get rid of disorientating shadows and aids vision (and makes you feel like you’re on Broadway). All pretty and good for everyone.
Of course, not all of us can afford a complete bathroom refit, I certainly can’t, or we are prevented by the logistics of our space/plumbing/flooring etc. My own bathroom is roughly the size of a telephone box and a wetroom would make our studio flat a very wet room indeed. Then of course there is the problem of the private rented sector and not being able to be master of your own surroundings. Many people simply love baths too. The relaxing soaking, the candles, the wine (this might just be me) so a wetroom takes all the fun out of bathtime.
Rather than all-out redesign, for me it is often just about taking a little moment to think about our future needs each time we come to replace something. If you already have a dodgy hip and already struggle getting into a bath, why would you replace it with something similar that in a few years you may not be able to use at all. Not only are you saving yourself hassle in the future, you are also saving yourself money with costly refits. Of course no-one knows what the future holds exactly. I know plenty of 90 year olds who are still more flexible than me. But one thing we know with certainty is that we are all getting older and every day we are wearing away a little. It is not a morbid thought – it is the plain and simple truth and, whatsmore, it is the result of a life of doing. Some of us may be lucky, some of us less so. We all hope for the best but burying our heads in the sand is not only jeopardising our future independence and contentment, it impacts on our bank balance and the lives of those who will inevitably end up looking after us, whether that be friends, family, voluntary organisations or the State or a mixture of all of them.
In the absence of designing inclusively from scratch there are plenty of subtle tweaks and incremental choices we (or housing developers) can make at any stage of life that balance our future and current needs. As always, our testers have been trying out lots of these Pretty, Good ideas and we discuss some of our favourites in another blog post Love your bathroom and it will love you back.
But all that aside, today I just wanted to give a shout out for the lowly lav and thank Mr Crapper for such an excellent and life-improving design, but call upon other lavatory visionaries and those in the corridors of power to keep striving for better in all our bathrooms.