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Toilet design has changed little since the Victorian era. Matthew Hague reports on the innovators who won’t take this sitting down

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Ivan Gochko, back, felt confident enough with his experience in the construction industry to prototype a toilet that rises and lowers for maximum comfort.Handout/Markian Radomskiy/Handout

Four years ago, Ivan Gochko had a bit of bad luck: His mother was hospitalized, then he broke his own leg, which made him realize, painfully and personally, how tricky it can be for someone with a disability to lower one’s rear to 14 inches – the standard seat height of the average toilet. Researching ways to improve the ergonomics of his and his mom’s bathrooms, he realized that the design of our lavatories generally makes little sense.

Human bodies have evolved to squat low to the ground during defecation, whereas modern, western loos are made for sitting upright, as though we’re about to pull up to the table at a fancy dinner party. The ultra-erect position, which can cause constipation by kinking the colon into an awkward position (imagine a pinched water hose), gets worse with the kind of raised-up seats commonly used to help people with mobility issues.

At the time of his injury, Gochko co-owned a commercial construction company in Toronto, so had a thorough understanding of complex plumbing. That experience gave him the confidence to build his own throne, one that raises and lowers so that it’s easy to get on before reaching an ideal squatting height of around 10-inches off the ground. While he was at it, he wanted to try to eliminate some other design flaws, including excess water usage and harmful bacteria that can build up in the bowl, especially if someone is on crutches and unable to clean it. In other words, he set out to invent the perfect place to poop.

Such toilet innovation is long overdue. While most modern homes, and the appliances therein, look nothing like they would have at the beginning of the 20th-century – a time before open-concept was a concept at all, let alone other mod-cons such as microwaves and robot vacuums – the bathroom has barely changed.

The design of our lavatories can be traced back to a Victorian desire for more sanitation and less deadly cholera. The features – plumbing that pumps water into and out of everyone’s homes to prevent reliance and disease-spreading shared bath houses, johns and drinking wells – solved the problems of the 1800s (with toilet bowls and tanks popularized by someone whose actual name was Thomas Crapper). But more can be done to address the problems of today, such as the wonky ergonomics Gochko experienced, but also the inefficiency inherent in the space. Most bathrooms produce an incredible amount of waste. The world flushes more than 270,000 trees into the sewer system every day in the form of toilet paper; Americans alone dispose of an average of US$31-billion of paper down the drain every year, while modern plumbing has ballooned our daily use of water from a preindustrial average of three gallons a day for each person to between 80 gallons and 100 gallons, depending on the country.

Recently, though, a number of innovators such as Gochko have decided to rethink the bathroom, promising updates that could improve the functionality and performance, some of which save money in the process. “It’s true that bathrooms haven’t changed much,” says Matt Daigle, the New Brunswick-based founder of Rise, an online information source for sustainable home repairs. But according to him, a great goal in building a better bathroom is to lower the environmental and economic costs of running it. “A low-flow toilet [under 1.3 gallons a flush] is a no-brainer to reduce water consumption. Bidets attachments are a great way to stay clean while minimizing paper usage,” he says.

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Bidet solutions are available from the likes of Tushy, which offers an easy toilet attachment.Handout

One of the reasons bidets are getting attention in North America is because of Montreal-born, Brooklyn-based Miki Agrawal. She’s best known as the controversial founder of Thinx, the underwear brand designed for menstruating women to replace pads and tampons (she stepped down after staff complained of harsh working conditions). Now, she’s focusing on a newer venture called Tushy, which sells bidet attachments that cost between US$70 and US$100 and lock onto just about any toilet. Using only the water pressure of the existing plumbing and no additional electricity, Tushy sprays to clean the genitals which, according to the company, can save up to 80 per cent of toilet paper used (Tushy sells bamboo-based, sustainable rolls for those who want to use a few squares to pat dry).

Until recently, bidets have been more common in Europe and Asia, but “I think we’re getting a little less puritanical in North America,” says Tushy CEO Jason Ojalvo, who led Amazon’s Audible audiobooks division before helming the startup. Maybe it helped that Kylie Jenner bought a bidet-style toilet on an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but since Tushy was founded in 2015, they’ve sold more than 50,000 units and are expected to triple sales in 2019.

Japan has long been a global leader in bathroom design and one of their most influential toilet makers, Toto, is also gaining popularity in North America. The company’s sales grew by 30 per cent between 2014 and 2018, largely with models that have bidet-enable seats. But they are also trying to improve public restrooms across the continent. Partnering with a division of Georgia-Pacific Corp., a toilet paper company, they have embedded sensors in toilets to better understand how the hardware actually performs. Some of the early findings have perhaps been obvious – such as the revelation that toilet stalls in airports aren’t big enough to accommodate both a traveller and their carry-on luggage, or that women’s washrooms should be larger than men’s because stalls take up more space than urinals and women statistically need to use the washroom more often (hence the lines). Other insights are more nuanced, such as that men tend to use sit-down toilets more in the mornings and urinals more in the afternoons, so they might need different, time-based cleaning schedules to ensure maximum freshness.

“We’re collecting data that we’ve never had before,” Bill Strang, Toto’s North American president, says. “Soon, it will hopefully allow us to have bathrooms that reflect what people actually need, no outdated guidelines that are based on convention as opposed to reality.”

For Gochko, his toilet design, based on ergonomic measurements, isn’t commercially available yet (the goal is April, 2020), but it’s already been praised by influential eco blog as possibly “the biggest advance in toilet design in over a hundred years.”

Watch: Company promotional reel shows how Orca Helix operates

Called the Orca Helix, the design has so far cost more than $400,000 to develop, with Gochko trying to raise another $30,000 through an Indiegogo campaign while also looking for investors. The prototype is nearly ready though and looks a bit like Darth Vader’s helmet but upside down. Smart phone-enabled, it works by moving up and down a central shaft. It starts at a high position of 20 inches (“a good height for men to stand at,” Gochko says), then lowers to a minimum of 10 inches off the ground (achieving the same squatting position that little toilet-side stools such as Squatty Potty offers). At the end, it rises up again for an easy dismount.

The toilet is also designed to be more water efficient. It uses a vacuum suction, similar to the kind found on airplanes and requires 0.6 gallons of water, or less than half the H2O of a standard low-flow loo. For better sanitation, it’s equipped with a UV light that literally zaps germs in the bowl. “But the light is just the first stage,” Gochko says. Once the lid – which has bi-fold, wing-like flaps, a bit like the DeLorean car in Back to the Future – closes, it lets out a blast of steam from a set of embedded vents. “It prevents bacteria from building up that conventional cleaners just don’t get rid of,” he says. “And it means you won’t have to clean it as often.” And these days, when virtually none of us have Victorian chamber maids yet almost all of us have over-demanding schedules, who has time for that any more?

Add some wow to your washroom

Toilet tech isn’t the only innovation transforming our bathrooms. Here, four other standout inventions including futuristic sinks, showers, soaps and scrub brushes.

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The irony of toilet scrub brushes is that they are meant to keep the toilet clean while they are often gunky and gross. The Lumi brush aims to eliminate errant germs. It sits in a holder that’s lined with UV lights, the shine of which kills bacteria. From US$40.

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Grohe’s line of 3-D faucets are made by 3-D printing layer after layer of stainless steel. In addition to a sleek aesthetic, the fixtures are efficient. They produce less metal waste than traditional manufacturing and have a low-flow output to reduce the amount of water that flows wastefully down the drain. Price not yet available.

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Much the same way that there is a difference between a plain coffee and a half-skim, half-caf, no-foam latte, Kohler’s DTV+ Shower System allows for extreme personalization. Controlled either through a phone app or AI assistant (Alexa, Google Home), lighting, steam level, flow, duration and music can all be personalized. The upside is that it can save water, cutting the time it takes to stand around fiddling with the taps trying to get the temperature right. From $3,000.

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Other than the kitchen, the bathroom is likely the home’s biggest source of garbage. Just about everything is wrapped in plastic. By Humankind is trying to reduce rubbish by offering toiletries that eschew single-use plastics. The chemical-free, all-natural deodorant comes in a refillable, lifetime-guaranteed container; the mouthwash comes as dehydrated, water-activated tablets to minimize the packaging needed for distribution. From US$13.

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