Mother Earth Living

Three Fabulous Baths: Check Out These Eco-Friendly Bathrooms

Soak up these soothing, environmentally friendly bathrooms.
By Jennifer Wilson
July/August 2003
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With the shower intimately squaring off to the outdoors, bathing becomes a process where the inside and outside come together.
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1. In the loop

For Michael Chandler and Beth Williams, owners of a design-build business in Mebane, North Carolina, motivation to arise at dawn is all about the shower.

It’s not hard to understand why. Their slate-and-glass bathroom overlooks the wild abundance of Cane Creek where blue herons and osprey float on the air. And thanks to the radiant heat from the recirculating-loop hot water system, a wave of dry warmth envelops anyone who enters.

Most plumbing systems send water from a water heater to the bathroom pipes, where it’s stored until the next bath. The trouble is the water cools while it waits, resulting in the universal “I’ll just brush my teeth while the shower heats up” quandary. To solve the problem, Beth and Michael designed their own bath recirculating system. Their hot water is in constant motion, pushed along by a tiny impeller that uses about the same energy as a nightlight. The system works because moving objects like to continue moving (think of stirring pasta in a pot—the water makes a current and tends to keep going in that direction). And, the couple figured, as the water circulates, they could harness all that warmth by snaking the water pipes through the walls and floor through radiant-heat panels that use half-inch PEX radiant heating pipe (one to two feet per square foot of tile) and extra insulation behind the slate tile’s backer board. In effect, the water takes the long way around, warming the room in the process.

When it leaves the bath, the water returns to the Rinnai on-demand water heater, passing a small, sixty-watt Taco pump that keeps it “stirring.” Then back to the bath, past the pump, to the water heater, then back again.

“When the pump is on, the bathrooms end up being in a whole separate heat zone,” Michael says. When the couple is out of town, a simple flip of the switch turns the whole thing off. It’s a savvy scheme with applications for other projects. In fact, the couple used such a system for a bedframe in a cabin they built. The cabin’s potable water circulated 110-degree water at all times, passing through two-inch copper pipes that served as headboards and footers of a custom bedframe. The small PEX pipes warmed the bed so the rest of the cabin needed little additional heating.

“The whole system for the recirculator and heat in two showers cost us about $500 extra,” says Michael. “Clean water is a precious resource we absolutely cannot take for granted. Baths consume a lot of resources, and we owe it to the planet to conserve and be a force for positive change in every way possible.” He pauses, then adds: “Besides, not having to wait for hot water in the shower is nice. And the impact of walking into the bathroom and feeling heat on your face coming out of the shower walls is luscious.”

Aside from its environmental bonus points, this bath is an attractive room. Beth loves open spaces that connect with the natural world, so she and Michael built sliding glass shower doors with a straight-on view to the outdoors. “Modesty isn’t an issue when the house is on a cliff overlooking a river,” she says. The rest of the room is detailed in basic materials the couple bought inexpensively and locally. For Michael, the issue was one of authenticity. “I like things to be what they seem to be, so we avoided fake stone,” he says. “Our walls are wood because we see that as a renewable resource, especially here in North Carolina where tree farms are being planted in places where tobacco and corn were a generation ago.”

The copper countertops were economical. “I love the way they age and how the patina changes from week to week,” adds Michael, who notes that he’s aware of the damage copper strip-mining causes. “So we only use copper as a decorative accent and for wiring—and almost not at all in plumbing pipes.” Michael and Beth wrapped sixteen-ounce copper flashing around a piece of plywood for the countertop to help minimize their copper use.

Beth laid most of the Vermont slate tiles, which the couple found remaindered at the local stoneyard. “I love that there’s little manufacturing involved in slate tile’s production compared with ceramic tile,” says Michael. “With slate you take the stone from the ground, split it, cut it to size, and ship it. Slate never needs to be fired in a kiln.”

2. A bath with a past

“We see potential in the most curious little objects,” chuckles Marty Mitchell. Both she and her husband, Blair Meerfeld, have a good eye for beauty and a story, which is probably why the bathroom they designed for their century-old ranch home in Saguache, Colorado, is such a delicate work of antique art. Not to mention that using recycled fixtures is an inexpensive alternative to costly new ones and a way to save materials that would have languished in a trash heap.

Take the expansive claw-foot tub—or “paw-foot,” as Marty calls it, because “the flavor of the foot itself is more a lion’s paw than a bird’s claw.” Saved from a house she once lived in, the antique tub cuts down on moisture and mold that’s associated with showers and allows more space for a window. “I have nightmares of the moldy grout of an old bathroom from years ago,” she says. “Light and air win out every time with us.”

The 1932 bathroom sink is a big, square, porcelain “monster” salvaged from a neighbor’s junk pile. Blair also hauled in a primitive pine hutch from a nearby garage. “It was probably storage for motor oil or something,” says Marty. “We painted it and when we built the bathroom, we allowed room for that little cupboard.”

The porcelain sconces and mirror were salvaged when the Del Norte Hotel in the San Luis Valley, thirty miles from the couple’s home, was renovated. A glass shelf and towel bar recall a simple, useful design. “There’s no ornament to the mirror whatsoever, but it’s one of those things that makes you wonder, ‘Who was in that room, and what were they up to?’” muses Marty.

3. Prana bathing

When Tias and Surya Little, owners of Santa Fe’s Yogasource studio, decided to build a home in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, they wanted it to reflect their lifestyle and teachings. “We make a living working with prana, which is breath or life force,” says Tias. “We wanted a home that would breathe.”

Clean lines and earthy materials extend to the bathroom, a space as dramatic and conscientious as the rest of the dwelling. “We wanted to use natural materials as much as possible throughout the entire project so our home would be an environment that supports our yoga practice,” says Tias.

Shoji rice screen doors cordon off the room but are easily opened to make it feel more spacious. Natural slate floors and shower tile line the tub area, which seems to morph into a glass-enclosed shower. “By extending the bathtub platform into the shower, it gave the shower a seat,” says architect Paula Baker-Laporte, who designed the Little home. For this compact room (91/2 square feet), overlapping the bath and shower is an efficient use of limited space. Using sixteen-inch slate tiles rather than the usual twelve-inch size also creates the illusion of space. “They’re harder to get, but it really makes the room appear larger,” says Tias.

Despite its simplicity, the bath is an extraordinarily sensual room. The couple borrowed from the ancient symbols represented in their yoga practice when making decisions about nontoxic, all-natural materials. The carved stone sink—a granite vessel—represents grounding and stability, says Tias. Water flows through radiant heat coils in the floor. “The water element is about fluidity,” he says. “Local piñon trees and surrounding plant life represent nourishment, which in this arid terrain and during this drought is so vital.” Air and sky stream in through a skylight directly over the tub, which fits two.

The bathroom’s spiritual side is enhanced by a handful of practical details such as an outdoor rainwater catchment system. Inside, water from the sinks and tubs is pulled by capillary effect through a graywater filtration system buried outside, where the water is distributed throughout the grounds. (For information on graywater systems, see “Nuts and Bolts,” page 94.) These reuse methods are vital in New Mexico’s dry climate.

“Our intention was to build with mindfulness and careful consciousness,” says Tias. “Our yogic lifestyle centers around the belief that what you put into something is what it becomes.”


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