The average Western toilet looks pretty much like it did when indoor plumbing started to become common in the 1800s, except for the addition of some low-flow gadgetry. But on World Toilet Day, when most attention was focused on the lack of sanitation in the developing world, a few U.K. designers turned to the toilets in their own homes.
A trio of industrial design graduates from Central St Martin’s, Sam Sheard, Pierre Papet, and Victor Johansson, reimagined the standard toilet for a competition launched by a U.K. plumbing company. Their winning design: the ergonomically-correct-for-pooping Wellbeing Toilet.
Today's toilets force users to perch upright at a 90-degree angle, but that’s not ideal for health, the designers say. "The angle increases the risk of things like colon diseases and bowel-related illnesses," explains Sam Sheard. "Ideally you should squat, but there are negative social connotations because we’re used to sitting down on a toilet, whereas in other cultures, it’s fine."
Rather than designing a true squat toilet, the team created a hybrid—you step up on the toilet, and as you bring your legs up, you lean into the correct angle. It's similar to hybrids such as the Anglo-Indian toilet still used in India (and inside ancient Russian trains), which allow for both sitting and squatting, depending on preference. But the Wellbeing Toilet aims to change habits, and push users into better posture.
It also analyzes your pee. "It’s what you’d get if you go to the doctor now, and you need to be checked for diabetes or kidney disease and they check things like the phosphates in the urine," Sheard says. "In the U.K., many people with diabetes are diagnosed late, which adds billions of pounds a year in health costs." By checking up on users, the toilet aims to help catch diseases earlier.
It could also replace the ubiquitous home pregnancy test. "The industry that’s connected with pregnancy tests has huge costs both financially and environmentally—with resources, manufacturing, plastic packaging, and distribution—if you encompass that within something like a toilet, you can have an impact," Sheard says.
Eventually, he says, the toilet could also analyze nutritional deficiencies. All of the health feedback could be sent to a smartphone through an app, or could possibly come through more low-tech notifications, like a change in the color of the water in the toilet bowl.
For now, the design is just a concept; the team had just 15 days to work on the project. But though it needs refinement for engineering and manufacturing, the designers say the technology is completely viable. They’ve even included features that allow it to run using gray water. If it does get made, they say, they have a vision for where it might first show up. "People may see it and think, ‘That’s not what a toilet looks like,’" says Sheard. "We talked about putting it into a health environment—like a spa or a gym—so it fits in with other health equipment."