Fighting Our Flush Fixation
Environmentalists Preach Another Kind of Toilet Training

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.

Those who didn't "were uncomfortable, and understandably so, with not flushing," she said. "For years we've been telling our kids to flush, and now we're telling them not to."

The flush toilet has long been a symbol of modern society. But water shortages and sewage-related pollution have caused many societies to rethink that symbolism. In Europe, water-saving toilets have been standard for decades. But not until 1994 did U.S. federal law require 1.6-gallon toilets, cutting the water used each flush by more than half.

In a nation where flush sizes have dwindled from a World War II-era high of seven gallons, the law fueled a backlash. Reports soon surfaced of an underground trade in big-flush commodes from across the Mexican and Canadian borders. U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), backed by Americans who wanted government to stay out of their bathrooms, sponsored a failed effort a few years later to repeal the 1994 law.

The Tower Cos. of Bethesda started building green a decade ago, partner Jeffrey Abramson said, because workers in such buildings are "healthier, happier, more successful."

When the company's latest office tower, 2000 Tower Oaks Blvd. in Rockville, opens in 2008, it will boast full daylight views and triple-filtered air. Doors will be made of chopped, pressed straw. The landscaping conserves water.

Such innovations sailed into the plans. Then came a debate over restroom fixtures that culminated in what Abramson calls the "toilet summit."

In a wood-paneled conference room, 30 executives, architects and engineers gathered around a model of the Caroma Caravelle 305 High Performance Dual Flush. (Dual flush units let users choose what size flush they need.)

As they watched, the Caroma salesman tossed four tennis balls into the imported Australian toilet and flushed them all down, using less than a gallon of water. He was battling "the perception that you've got to flush these toilets twice to get a good flush," senior project manager David Borchardt said.

The flushes succeeded, but the toilet did not. Developers chose waterless urinals and low-flow faucets but no Caroma, which could have saved thousands of gallons of water a year. Abramson said the model failed because it lacked a hygienic, hands-free sensor.

Borchardt had another theory: "Americans just aren't used to these yet."

Chuck Foster stood in the basement of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's headquarters in Annapolis, next to a playhouse-size metal tank. Flipping open its lid, the foundation's chief of staff revealed nearly finished compost.

When the foundation built its headquarters five years ago, it installed 12 Swedish compost toilets that cost $30,000 more to install than conventional toilets but save $2,100 a year on water and sewage. The compost enriches the building's natural landscaping.

"These are becoming more accepted," Foster said, "But this was a rough one even for us to pull off."

The toilets are white and sleek. The compost pile lies about 10 feet beneath a plastic chute. Near each toilet stands a pail of wood chips, with a sign inviting people to toss in a handful after each use.

That's not really necessary, Foster said. It's for people, he said, "who want to flush."

"They want some kind of closure."

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