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America's Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year's America's Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.
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(Photo: rebeccagrace/Flickr)

(Photo: rebeccagrace/Flickr)

A few months ago, I peed in—or, I suppose, into—one of America's best restrooms. This fact is not disputable, but also not all that laudable.

The bathroom was at the Field Museum in Chicago, and the large plaque hanging outside the entrance gave it that particular title. The plaque was the result of its winning the 2011 edition of the America's Best Restroom contest, a nationwide search for, well, you get it. The contest was developed by Cintas, a company that “designs, manufactures and implements corporate identity uniform programs, and provides entrance mats, restroom cleaning and supplies, tile and carpet cleaning, promotional products, first aid, safety, fire protection products and services for businesses.” The contest is an attempt to link Cintas with quality hygienic products, and has been taking place for the past 13 years. Ever relieved yourself in the bathroom inside University of Notre Dame’s main building? Then you did so in—or, into—the contest’s first winner.

Throughout the year, survey manager Danny Rubin sifts through the mountain of nominees, some emailed in, some scouted personally. “We look for articles about restrooms, sometimes go on Yelp or Pinterest,” Rubin says. From there, he trims the nominations to a final 10. “You know it when you see it,” he says. “That goes for bathrooms and everything else in life.” Then, it's left up to online voters to decide the ultimate winner. (In case you're interested in weighing in, voting closes on Halloween.)

We are a nation of skid marks. Bidets would, hopefully, solve our long, national nightmare.

This year's nominees include an outdoor shopping mall in Los Angeles, two different tiki bars, a bathroom on a hiking trail outside of Austin, and an American Girl store in Chicago. The winning establishment gets a modest press conference, the aforementioned plaque, and a theoretical rise in foot traffic from those looking to utilize the renowned facilities. “It can often be a marketing case for your establishment,” Rubin says. “They come to visit because they just have to see the bathroom.” It remains to be seen how janitors feel about this award.

There is not one specific quality linking the winners, or even the nominees. Notre Dame's winning bathroom has tile floors imported from England. The Field Museum's is spacious and well-lit, with elegant curves of modern architecture. Chicago's American Girl bathroom has custom-made “doll holders” in each stall, so you can avoid soiling your new purchase. But the one thing they all have in common: Despite being aesthetically pleasing, they're designed terribly. And that's because nearly all of America's restrooms are wrong.

IN 1976, CORNELL UNIVERSITY professor of architecture Alexander Kira published The Bathroom, a treatise on the history and state of bathroom construction. “All the world's religions, in all their branchings and shadings, have had viewpoints and teachings on the body, sex, birth, death, illness, menstruation, elimination, and cleansing,” he wrote in the introduction. All these factors have contributed, and continue to contribute, he argued, to what we've come to know as “the bathroom.”

At their core, bathrooms—throughout history—have needed to contain only two things: “A container for holding water for washing and a container for holding body wastes, which were ultimately disposed of in one of two ways—by return to the soil or by washing away with water.” In the case of castles this meant constructing pipes to transport the waste outside the walls, generally into the surrounding moat. (As Kira points out, swimming through moats was a much more heroic act in reality than movies make it out to be.) So while restrooms can be gussied up with any number of design flourishes, there are three key elements that must exist: The sink, a shower-bathtub, and the toilet. We'll start with the most important.

The toilet, according to Kira, is “the most ill-suited fixture ever designed.” Why? Mostly because of how we sit.

Despite what certain videos—generally emanating from within Germany's borders—would have you believe, there are basically two ways for humans to defecate: The “hunched-over” pose, with two feet firmly planted on the ground, body bent forward, and the “squat” method, wherein the knees are up near the armpits, the buttocks at the same level as the feet. (The latter, mind you, should not be confused with the hovering-over-the-toilet-seat pose of the same name, the one utilized in gross toilet situations.) Our toilets have been designed with the former position in mind, and therefore it is the norm.

Unfortunately, that style has negative implications for what's going on inside our bodies during defecation, specifically our sphincter's alignment with the receptacle into which the goods are being delivered. (To get a sense of what hunching does, imagine a garden hose, then imagine a kink.) The stats bear this out. According to a 2003 study in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, defecators using the hunched-over posture take an average of 130 seconds to move their bowels. Squatters only take 51 seconds.

In other words: We're pooping all wrong. And the toilets are to blame.

While certain items can be purchased to fix to this failure of design—there's a line of “toilet steps” that can be placed at your feet to allow for more proper positioning—that's like buying a huge magnifying glass for the TV. Maybe we should design a bigger set, instead.

As far as the failure of sink design goes, all one needs to do is leave your home sink uncleaned for, say, a few weeks. For a tool that has the sole job of cleaning and then getting rid of the soiled water, it sure allows unwanted gunk to build up easily. It doesn't have to be that way.

Kira's update of the sink calls for an arching spout—similar to a water fountain—that projects from a deeper back end toward a closer, shallow end, with a hump carved on the surface between them. The spout allows for easy hair-washing, while the hump gives the water a curved landed pad that diverts it into cascading streams that flow directly into the drain, keeping the basin clear of gunk.

Kira's design also calls for the sink to be set higher than we're used to in order to allow users to stand straight rather than hunching down to the lowest common height. Know how men’s public restrooms have urinals of differing heights? That's not only for reasons of hilarity when a man loses a round of musical urinals. It's also a blueprint for how sinks should be designed.

The shower/bath portion, meanwhile, has no place in the current state of American restrooms. Beyond the cold blocks of industrialized concrete that make up the showering facilities of public pools, group bathing has virtually no place in our culture anymore. But it's worth pointing out that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Bathing was a public enterprise in Roman days, then it shifted to neighborhood or apartment building-style baths, until ultimately turning into the one-person or one-family private facility that is the norm in First World countries. As Kira notes, that shift was entirely based on the availability of water, which is to say the availability of money. Currently, both currencies are quite precarious, making a return to public bathing more an inevitability than a possibility.

But perhaps the biggest problem with America's restrooms is not the poor design of the items within, but the key item that's missing.

USE A BATHROOM OVERSEAS, and you'll generally come across an odd-looking second toilet-ish thing that looks not unlike a stretched urinal. That, my friends, is a bidet. And they've never caught on in America. Why not?

According to New York University professor Harvey Molotch, it has something to do with how Americans were first exposed to the invention. They were developed by French inventors in the 18th century, which lent them an air of “hedonism and sensuality” that didn't jive with American Puritanical sensibilities during that era. Later on, they were hit with another negative bout of publicity when World War II soldiers returned home telling tales of water-based contraptions that were used to wash one's genitals after a night in a brothel. “Three out of four Parisian prostitutes agree,” isn't a particularly deft advertisement.

But there are two significant reasons bidets should re-enter our bathroom conversation. Despite the fact they seem to waste water, bidets actually use less of it than toilet paper. According to Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger, the creation of one roll of toilet paper actually demands 37 gallons of water (in addition to 1.5 pounds of wood and 1.3Kwh of electricity). One roll, in this case, is 500 sheets of two-ply. Seeing as the average consumer uses 8.6 sheets per trip, in all that's 37 gallons over 58 trips. Bidets only use about one-eighth of a gallon per use, or 37 gallons for 296 trips.

But despite the country's worrisome drought, that factor actually gets second billing. The bidet's most important feature is its highly effective posterior cleansing. As Kira liked to continually mention, an old study in Britain found that 44 percent of the population walked around with dirty underwear. “Many are prepared to complain about a tomato sauce stain on a restaurant tablecloth, whilst they luxuriate on a plush seat in their faecially stained pants,” Kira wrote.

We are a nation of skid marks. Bidets would, hopefully, solve our long, national nightmare.

And yet throughout the list of nominees for America's Best Restroom, there's not a bidet in sight. This oversight, along with all the other general failures of American bathroom design, makes the contest nothing more than a “best of the worst.” Until the country shifts its bathroom philosophy and places the eradication of “faecially stained pants” on a higher level of importance than “a doll holder for every stall,” that fact will remain so.