Friday, January 8, 2010

If I Could Build the Perfect House, the Bathroom Would ...

From a sustainability point of view, I don't live in a perfect house (who does, right?). First, in the interest of being energy efficient, the whole house would need to be more compact with less space wasted on things like open flooring. All of the external walls would be built-in bookshelves (which would significantly improve our heat loss problems), and there wouldn't be any carpets, anywhere ... well, maybe a strategically placed throw rug or two.

But the one room (other than the kitchen), where I feel like we're the most inefficient is the bathroom, and if I could, I'd make some huge changes there.

First, the toilet would have to go. I'd have, either an outhouse (least ideal in a suburban setting) or we'd have a separate space with a composting toilet or just plain buckets - one for liquids and one for solids. I'd use the saw dust method for odor control, and we'd be switching from toilet paper to cloth wipes. The solids bucket would be emptied directly into the septic tank outsie, and the liquids bucket would be diluted with water and used to water the espaliered fruit trees.

The bathroom would be an actual BATHroom, in the model of The Japanese Bath.

First, the whole room would be cedar, because I like the look and feel of wood. It's warmer than tile, and in the Japanese bath style, having a warm room can be a big deal.

It would have to be a fairly large room, because the tub would be enormous. Picture a hot tub. In fact, that's what the tub would be - a wood-fired hot tub, but indoors. The only problem I have with the whole idea is that I keep thinking about the boiling frog story and it freaks me out a little, but I think once the water was at a comfortable temperature, we'd put out the fire and get into the tub :).

So, we'd have this cedar room, which would look a bit like a sauna with a big, old hot tub. When we got ready to bathe, at the end of the day, we'd fill up the tub and light the fire. When the tub was up to temperature, we'd go into the room, which would now be heated with steam from the water and the wood fire.

First stop would be the wash station, which is basically a bucket, where we wash and rinse our bodies. Then, once we're clean, we get into the bath and soak in the hot water. Everyone would use the same bath water, which wouldn't be dirty, because we'd all wash BEFORE we got into the tub.

After we're finished bathing, the water would be drained into the washing machine and used to wash the clothes ... or if I couldn't manage to convince the family that the bucket-toilet was a better solution, the bath water would drain into the toilet tanks (in a different room, but nearby) and be used to flush the toilets.

I can picture this perfect bathroom so clearly. It seems like such a better solution to what we have in most American homes, and a much better use of our limited resources.

One of the selling points of my house when we bought it was the jacuzzi tub, and it has been a wonderful asset. My youngest was born in the tub. The Japanese bath I'm picturing in my mind would work especially well in my house, because our current tub is near our bedroom, and putting a woodfired tub there would solve any problems we have with heating that portion of our house - which would solve the concerns we have about freezing pipes.

I've talked often about how much I value my hot showers, but I'd give up the showers for the type of bath I'm describing, because it's not the shower that is so wonderful. It is the opportunity to fully immerse my body in hot, steamy water, and with the Japanese bath model, that would be possible.

When we start talking about prepping and self-sufficiency and sustainable living, I think we can't forget how important it is for us to remain "human." Having lived in situations where I was "roughing it" for several days at a time (including time I spent in the military serving in "the field"), I can't stress enough how good the simple act of cleansing feels. In fact, a Sarajevo war survivor said, "The feeling that you're human can fade pretty fast. I can't tell you how many people I knew who would have traded a much needed meal for just a little bit of toothpaste, rouge, soap or cologne. Not much point in fighting if you have to lose your humanity.

We still have that raccoon fat we rendered in the fall, which will, hopefully, be made into a usable soap in the very near future, and if I had my way, we'd be renovating our bathroom into a Japanese-style bath with a cast-iron, wood-heated tub.

I read a lot of articles that talk about food storage and bug-out-bags and weapons stockpiling, but if we cease being human beings, what's the point of survival?


  1. I've spent time in Russia and Finland, where I learned to LOVE the sauna. Long term, I'm thinking an outdoor sauna with a bathing room will be the direction we go for cleaning ourselves. Just as you can see the Japanese bath in your mind, I have a lovely image of a cozy sauna with three little rooms. I know from experience that a *proper* sauna cleansing can leave you feeling clean for a whole week. And many people can bathe together in a sauna, with or without mixing the genders. (They don't in Russia, do in Finland.) That's a decent return on the investment needed to crank up that heat.

  2. I can get behind an outhouse...but I can't get behind a bath. I can't stand them. I don't find them relaxing at all. Give me a hot shower or give me death.

  3. I have a question: why against the conventional toilet if you are on a septic system? At first I thought it was for water conservation issues but having that large a tub to fill up doesn't seem to go along with that idea. Greywater collected from the house gutters etc. can be diverted to use for flushing toilets and a septic tank is actually a very 'green' method of disposing of wastes, as long as toxic chemicals are not added. The water is filtered through the field lines and returned to the ground.
    Having to heat such a large amount of water with wood would also use an enormous amount of that resource. Is that more desirable than using a small amount of natural gas say? I'm not trying to be a butt or smart***, I'm just interested.
    I love the Japanese style baths too but am not sure about the whole wood idea. Too long a carpenter and know even cedar rots eventually.

  4. I'm not against a conventional toilet ;). In fact, I rather like my flush toilet. I just think it's a huge waste of resources. In particular, because human wastes have been, for centuries, part of the whole cycle, and properly disposed of/composted, can be a valuable part of the ecosystem. In fact, urine is incredibly rich in nitrogen, which makes plants very happy.

    And urine is also an ingredient for making gunpowder, which means it probably shouldn't be treated as a "waste", but rather as a resource.

    But also, because our septic system is not gravity fed, which means we have to have an electric pumping station to take the water from the tank out into the leach field. It had to be built that way because of how small and level our lot is. As such, it doesn't work, if there is no electricity. If I'm conserving electricity for more important things, the last thing I want is to use what little I may have to operate the septic pump. I wouldn't want an electric well pump, either :).

    Finally, in order to work most efficiently septic systems should be pumped every three years or so (having lived with a failed system, we have ours pumped every other year), but in the interest of making my house as self-sufficient and low energy as possible, we can't have a system that needs to be emptied using a gas-powered vacuum truck.

    As for heating the tub, it would be inside my house, and so any heat used to make the water hot would also heat the house. It wouldn't just be for the tub. In the summer, we'd have an outdoor solar shower.

    The thing I'm trying to do is to integrate as many systems as possible. So, the woodstove heats the water in the tub, which is used to make us clean and to do laundry, and if we aren't able to come up with a better solution, to flush the toilets. It all needs to work together, and there can't be any one thing that doesn't serve more than one purpose ... at least, that's the goal :).

    As for water conservation: the average toilet uses 2 gallons of water per flush, the average washing machine uses 40 gallons of water per load, and a ten minute shower uses around 20 gallons of water. The Takagi Japanese style tub uses 65 gallons of water. If we all used the same bath water every day, and then used that water to do laundry and flush the toilets, we'd be saving a significant amount of water, even if, in the end, it did go out into the leach field.

  5. Dang, that comment was almost as long as my posts :). I hope it all makes sense.

    And, Bezzie, I like showers, too ... a lot!

    Kate: A sauna isn't something I know a lot about. I should look a little more into it, but I wouldn't be able to build a sauna outside, because of space considerations. I would have to be able to fit it into my house in some way.

  6. Wendy, like you, I'm looking for any infrastructure I install to serve multiple purposes. If and when we build a sauna, I would want a brick oven to heat the sauna chamber, which could also double as a baking oven. The ones I saw in Russia had a water chamber above the firing chamber, and we simply used big ladles to take off enough hot water to bathe with in the adjacent room. These water chambers held maybe 5 gallons of water or less. In a sauna, when you're good and hot, tepid water is sufficient to bathe. (And I always needed at least one dump of ice cold water over my whole body!) So a small amount of hot water can serve a whole lot of people, when mixed with cold water. If this sauna were outside, I could still fire up the oven for baking in the summer, even if I didn't want to use the sauna. That would keep the house from heating unnecessarily. Saunas are also places typically used to hang herbs for drying. Traditionally in some areas, they were were women gave birth.

    I think the sauna may be an acquired taste. But I sure acquired it. I'd take it over a steam room or hot tub any day. And yeah, I like it HOT. I'd go with cordwood masonry construction, as it is well insulated and can be built by non-professionals without too much difficulty.

    Damn! Now I really want a sauna session...

  7. OK, since you have to use a pump on your system I understand now and that all makes sense. I didn't realize that earlier.
    One of my main priorities is finding an alternative power for my well pump and I would like to install a system for heating my water with my wood burning stove.

  8. Hi Wendy! When thinking about my perfect house, I always tend to think first of layout. I would like to have my kitchen, dining room, family room, bath room, clothes closet and laundry located together as one small unit which could be closed off and heated separately from the rest of the house. This area would be kept at 55-60 degrees (during the winter) in order to keep us comfortable and also keep the pipes from freezing.

    The bedrooms would be on a separate heating zone so that the heat could be turned off or way down as needed without having to worry about freezing any pipes. No sense in heating a room which only gets used to sleep in. I find I have to keep parts of my house warmer than I like just to keep the pipes from freezing, not because I am using those rooms.

    Having the clothes closet (which the entire family would share), laundry and bathroom (which would be the only bath in the house) located together in this heated part of the house also makes sense to help reduce household labor. As soon as clothing was washed and hung dry, it could be put away in the communal closet. The bathroom would be steps away from or connected to the communal closet for ease of dressing. Dirty clothes could be easily deposited in the laundry room located next to (or located inside) the closet. No more dirty clothes laying on bedroom floors.

  9. No clothes laying on bedroom floors sure sounds good to me :).

  10. Wendy
    Fascinating blog, this post does throw up a couple of questions

    1. In an ideal home what about having a big swimming pool instead of a bath? The thermal mass would keep the house warm and the water could be heated by a solar heat exchanger even in winter.

    2. as you already have a tank for your waste it should be possible to stop using detergents in the toilet, solar warm the contents of the tank, and then use the resulting gas to heat the house, sauna, ext

    Great blog

  11. Hi, SBW and welcome!

    A pool might work very much like the tub I was describing, but my concern would be with the amount of water a pool uses and that fact that if it isn't drained regularly the water would need to be treated in some way to keep things from growing in it. If I'm using minimal electricity, even if we're generating it ourselves, I don't want to waste what little I have on a pool pump.

    I have researched converting my septic tank to a methane digester, and my ideal solution would be to generate electricity using our septic tank. I just have to figure out how to make it work with our septic design and in my location, where our average, daily solar exposure is only about six hours, which makes most passive solar applications not as feasible as they might be in other parts of the world.