Fighting Our Flush Fixation

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

As worries about resource conservation and global warming spur growth in environmentally sensitive construction, builders find that one room separates the greens from the traditionalists.

The restroom.

Once the most generic of features in commercial buildings, toilets loom as the earth-friendly builder's final frontier. Eco-friendly toilets -- low-flush, dual-flush or no-flush compost -- conserve water and cut pollution, a double benefit that few other green features can claim.

But try to find one of these toilets. As more builders earn plaudits and save money with geothermal heating and bicycle parking, they remain more likely to plant roof gardens than to install green toilets.

Plumbers say waterless urinals, which use a replaceable cartridge, are unsanitary because they don't wash waste away. Municipalities resist making the changes to plumbing systems that compost toilets require. (In a compost toilet, the high-tech version of an outhouse, accumulated waste decomposes into liquid fertilizer and organic matter.) Users complain that high-efficiency toilets, which use less water than traditional models, require two flushes to do the job.

Behind such objections stands this truth: America remains a flush-oriented society, and the more powerful the flush, the better.

"It was a morale issue," Anja S. Caldwell, green building chief for the Montgomery County public school system, said of initial resistance to the 50 waterless urinals introduced over the past year. "People thought that by taking the flush away, you're taking an entitlement."

Six years after the U.S. Green Building Council established standards governing construction with low environmental impact, buildings certified by the builders' group total 6 percent of construction. The trend is growing. Fifteen states and 49 cities -- including Maryland, Virginia and the District -- have some green building legislation or incentives.

About a dozen large commercial buildings in the metro area comply with green standards, and "hundreds" more are being built, said Taryn Holowka, spokeswoman for the Washington-based council. The National Geographic Society headquarters in the District, several Maryland office towers and schools, and three Pentagon buildings in Northern Virginia meet the council's standards. The new Nationals baseball stadium is intended to be a green project.

However, most of these buildings retain traditional plumbing. "We're getting more questions about these [green] toilets and seeing more interest in them," Holowka said. But for now, "they're a little bit different."

The Montgomery County public school system had its first encounter with flushlessness last year, installing 18 waterless urinals at Martin Luther King Middle School in Germantown.

Caldwell, an architect who grew up with low-flush plumbing in her native Germany, surveyed users. "Two to one, they liked the flushless," she said.

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