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Bursting for the loo

September 2019 Issue

I’m sure many of you will have noticed that at this point in TV schedules we’re at annual ‘peak’ Grand Designs – half way through this year’s crop of self-builders who come to realise, perhaps a little too late, that life would’ve been a whole lot easier if they’d just bought something from all of you, straight off the pages of Showhouse.

But that’s the fun of it of course.

Thinking back to the launch of this year’s season I’m reminded of some of the interviews with Kevin McCloud in which he was asked about his least favourite trend in new house designs. It turned out to be bathrooms. Specifically the trend to have more of them than there are occupants.

I’ve got some sympathy for that point of view - when installing a gold-plated loo is just about keeping up with the Jones’s - but it shouldn’t be condemned out of hand. There’s much to be celebrated. And while there’s still a way to go before Japan’s automatic bum-washing-and-drying WCs are ubiquitous ((I think the manufacturers put it more elegantly) - it’s worth remembering that up until the 19th century most private housing didn’t have any loos at all. Even as recently as 2010 a Halifax survey showed there were still 40,000 households in England relying on an outdoor lavatory.

At it’s most basic level more bathrooms just means we’re a more sanitary society – and who can forget how pleased the tabloid press in the ‘90s were to discover that on an annual basis the British use more than twice as much soap as the French. Maybe we British have just got more filth to wash off.

In the 1950s only 46% of British homes had a bathroom – and now the average three-bedroom house has 2.3, with four-bedroom houses averaging 2.8. It’s not just about impressing the neighbours however. Looking at the statistics for younger generations, and particularly for first time buyers there’s a definite pressure to live with family while saving for a deposit – and this is reviving multi-generational and multi-occupancy households. The comparatively low cost of providing a bathroom gives a relatively big win in terms of privacy.

Alternatively - an older couple living with their children - might need an ‘ambulant’ bathroom to be installed - while their grown-up children don’t. For the same reason I always thought that the requirement for a WC on the level of entry (previously required by the now defunct Lifetime Homes Standards) was a very good idea – but in houses (not bungalows or apartments) that would often mean an extra loo.

We’re seeing something comparable happening in the commercial office market - i.e there’s a density issue here - perhaps most visible in the rise of co-working spaces - and companies generally trying to extract more value from their real estate - which is a very significant overhead.

It used to be the case that offices were designed to densities of 1 desk for every 12-14 square metres of space (it’s still around 20 square metres per person in America). Now we get asked to design for densities that are close to half that - i.e. 1 desk per 8 square metres - or even per 6 square metres. The flip side of packing in more people is that you need more loos. Additionally - there’s been a recent trend to provide no-gender ‘superloos’ - more private cubicles that have proper walls and doors (for silence) - and contain their own sink (for privacy). There’s a good inclusiveness issue for LGBTQ+ addressed here too.

These also perhaps provides some brief solace and privacy away from a super funky and super busy shared work space. Anecdotally - I have a friend who managed to spend a whole day at work asleep in one (having clocked in as normal). I say ‘managed’ - he was fired.

Also anecdotally - I suspect that a ‘below the radar’ issue is that our nation’s increasingly exotic and multicultural diet (which is a good thing) has made it more important than ever that there’s a ‘thunder box’ for dad (perhaps on of those 40,000 at the bottom of the garden) which is separate to the rest of the household…

A further anecdotal point is about the St Pancras Station Hotel (that glorious gothic masterpiece above the London mainline station - now turned into expensive apartments by the Manhattan Loft Corporation). While it’s a fabulous piece of architecture, when it was built it was one of the last purpose built hotels of that scale to have shared bathrooms for the rooms - which contributed to it quickly falling out of favour with the high-paying guests it was designed for. Most other hotel newcomers at that time were providing suites including private bathrooms - something that is the default nowadays - so perhaps the trend started with hotels (like so many other trends) back then?

Another hotel trend that’s made it’s way into the private bathroom is the soft-closing loo seat. Returning to Kevin McCloud – he’s on record describing the soft-closer as one of the greatest bathroom innovations ever, saving many a marriage from the sleepless nights of a partner’s banging and clattering through the night – so he’s not totally down on WCs.

And in old news - there’s an adage that it’s the kitchens and bathrooms that sell a property - so make them impressive.

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