How the coronavirus might change bathroom design

Onion Flats redesigned their bathrooms to save space, but it actually is a healthier design.

In a recent post, Home design lessons from the coronavirus, I suggested that we should bring back the vestibule: “Even in apartments, there should be a vestibule with a door on each end, a big closet, and enough room to take off your coat and shoes without entering the home.” I also suggested that there be a sink in the hall, and showed the layout of a typical suburban prefab where the main door is actually through the garage:

Years ago when I worked in the prefab modular home biz, I asked why the powder room was often placed in what I thought was a weird place. Pieter, the company owner, told me that most of the homes were built on lots in the country for working people who drive long distances and they often want to dump their work clothes in the laundry room and wash up. So almost every house had this arrangement, where you entered the home essentially through the powder room and laundry. We should learn from them and put this stuff at the front door in urban housing too.

Readers misunderstood and complained, “Is treehugger now advocating single-family housing and less density?” and the answer is of course not, I was discussing the planning concept, and that it would work in cities and in apartments. Because it is how some people are living now. Robin Doolittle describes how doctors come home from work at the hospital: “As soon as they get home, Dr. Delage and his wife both scrub down as though they were entering an operating room. Their clothes are bagged and washed. Shoes stay at work. Jewelry stays at home.”

We do good ugly© Onion Flats

Shortly after I wrote that post, I attended a virtual Passive House Party where Onion Flats architect and developer Tim McDonald showed his latest project, the very controversial Front Flats. It’s covered in solar panels, and even Tim acknowledges that it has a face only a mother or architect could love, even admitting “we do good ugly.” Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer calls it a cross between “a D-volt battery and the Death Star,” though she means it as a compliment. (Read The apartment building of the future is here, and it looks like a giant battery.) I will discuss the building at another time, but right now I want to talk about toilets.

Original bathroom plan© Original Bathroom plan/ Onion Flats

Here’s the original bathroom plan, with conventional bathrooms off the hall. They take up a lot of space, along with the circulation in front of them.

Revised bathroom plan© Revised bathroom plans/ Onion Flats

Here’s the revised bathroom plan. There is a lot more living space in the unit, because the circulation space for the bathroom actually now doubles as the hall. But what also happens now is that the first thing you see when you come in the door is the powder room where you can wash your hands. The closet where you can leave your shoes. The washer and dryer if you want to put your clothing right into it. The shower is there too, behind a door that both closes off the apartment when the bathroom is in shower mode but also hides the shower when it is all functioning as a hall.

bathroom entry© Front hall with bathroom/ Onion flats

Some might think it a bit odd, having the front hall essentially act as a bathroom. but in the coronavirus era, it makes perfect sense: You have a separated area with a tiled, washable floor right where you want it, when you first come home. It sends a real message: WASH YOUR HANDS. It creates a real transition between the public hallway and the interior of the apartment. The fact that is also more space-efficient is a nice bonus.

The famous sink in the hall at the Villa SavoyeThe famous sink in the hall at the Villa Savoye/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Not quite as generous as when Le Corbusier did it, but it is the same idea. Nice work, Tim McDonald and Onion Flats.

Onion Flats redesigned their bathrooms to save space, but it actually is a healthier design.

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