How to make your bathroom a healthy, eco-friendly retreat.
Biophilia: affinity for life
The bathroom is where it all comes together in a home: major water use, energy use (heating, lighting, and ventilation), and disposal of bodily wastes, overlain by issues of how we feel about our bodies. Yet bathrooms are usually tucked out of sight, often cramped—certainly not the hub of the home.
If the goal of ecological building is to increase our active respect for all of life, and our own bodies are our nearest and dearest portals to understanding life, shouldn’t the bathroom—the place where our bodies commune with the elements—be the sacred center of the home?
In the bathroom we have an unparalleled opportunity to grasp the dance of life, in our minds and in every cell of our bodies. Our sensory experience there is just as important as the mechanics of a bathroom. If we want to overcome the trend of the last two centuries—when bathrooms expressed a Puritan/Victorian alienation from our bodies—we need to weave together eros and logos.
When our bathroom experience is nurturing and comforting, we feel good about life from the inside out. When our bathwater nurtures our garden, we feel more a part of the web of life. And when our use of water, heat, light, and materials is respectful of the biosphere, we can relax deeply, knowing that our pleasure is not gained at its expense.
In the flow
Bathrooms are all about water: water to wash our face, brush our teeth, bathe our body; water to drink and then pass into the toilet, where more water flushes it away; water condensing on walls and tiles; and water running down the drain.
When we bathe, we relax, we touch ourselves, we cleanse our bodies, and we wash away our cares. In the shower, the pressure of the spray and the negative ions invigorate us. In the tub, the womblike water relaxes taut muscles and calms the mind. We are reborn from the waters of life.
How much better we will feel if we also know that the water we are using is not depleting the water table. Enter logos in support of eros: Reduce your water usage by installing flow restrictors or low-flow faucets; collect rainwater, filter it, and siphon it into the bathtub or a holding tank for your shower; reuse your bathing water by piping it to the toilet tank for flushing, to the washing machine for its first cycle, or into the garden. Logos also asks us not to squander fossil fuels: Use an energy efficient water heater (the sun, wherever possible).
There’s an unseen health issue, too: You can absorb radon or volatile organic compounds from the water through your skin and lungs. Have your water tested; you may want to filter it at the faucet or showerhead, or even for the whole house.
Finally, don’t let all that moisture hang around. Minimize mold growth via sunlight, ventilation, and moderate air temperatures. An operable window is wonderful, but every bathroom should also have a quiet, energy efficient extraction fan.
The throne of the presence
A gentleman once paid a visit to a Zen monastery, wishing to see a famous painting, but he was told that it was not available for viewing. In the course of his visit, he had cause to visit the toilet room. As he squatted over the pit toilet, he looked up to find himself gazing at the painting he sought—placed where it would be best appreciated by a person most in touch with himself.
People have some of their most profound insights while seated on the toilet. This is one of the few times when we are absolutely where we are—in the body, in the present. Martin Luther, it is said, developed the ideas that led to the Protestant Reformation while in the privy.
Artwork, sunlight, a pleasing view, appealing textures, and restful colors can all enhance the toilet visit. In A Home for the Soul (Clarkson Potter, 1997), Anthony Lawlor suggests: “Make a little shelf near the toilet where you can place a picture of a beautiful view, an interesting object, or a poem to contemplate. Change the object you put on this shelf occasionally to reflect the season or your mood.”
On the logos side, minimize the volume of fresh water used for flushing. Install a low-volume flush toilet, use rainwater or graywater for flushing, install a tank-lid sink that lets you wash your hands with water before it flushes the toilet, or, best of all, install a composting toilet.
In remodeling or new construction, consider separating the toilet from the bathing area. Not only will this isolate odors, but separate access allows use by multiple people without privacy invasion. This, in turn, reduces the number of bathrooms needed, which saves money and resources.
The best source of warmth and light is the sun. Bathroom windows needn’t mean privacy loss; a shoulder-height sill will preserve both views and modesty, or big windows can look out onto a protected garden. A wide windowsill allows you to put toothbrushes, sponges, and razors in the sun for natural disinfection by the ultraviolet rays.
For additional warmth, hydronic radiant heat is the most comfortable and energy efficient type. In new construction, you can install heating tubes in the floor or wall, and for retrofits there are self-contained units. Hold onto that heat by insulating the bathroom well.
Lawlor suggests evoking natural bodies of water by using smooth river stones and seashells at the sink and tub to hold soap, sponges, and grooming tools. “On the walls, hang pictures that honor the grace and beauty of the body. Use photographs and paintings of waterfalls, rivers, and lakes, and water creatures such as fish, dolphins, mermaids, sea horses, and starfish,” he writes. If you’re building or remodeling, consider installing a door from your bathroom into a garden; few things are as primal as outdoor bathing.
Creating a bathroom that marries eros and logos is a radical act. Whether you build new or transform an existing bathroom, dedicate it to the truth that caring for ourselves is harmonious with caring for the earth.
Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988).
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