Bog standard? Not this loo lab

Lifting the lid: Prof Paul Chamberlain in his research lab.
Lifting the lid: Prof Paul Chamberlain in his research lab.
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THEY say Sheffield Hallam University is a seat of learning.

For Professor Paul Chamberlain, that is quite literally true. He is currently running a research project into what makes the perfect toilet.

So far, it’s taken four years, led him across Europe and seen him, er, sample everything from the squat lav to the shelf loo.

“Some people snigger when you tell them,” says the 54-year-old of Fulwood. “But think about this: you spend three to five years of your life on the toilet, so it’s worth getting right.”

Bog standard academia, it ain’t. Because pioneering a perfect pot could lead to Hallam being flushed with success and cash.

“We’re looking at creating a perfect bathroom – toilet, bath, shower and accessories – which caters for people throughout their life,” says Paul. “The basic bath and toilet haven’t really changed since they were invented. But we think with the right approach we can really make improvements and eventually create something which is commercially very successful.”

So, what makes a top notch throne? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.

For now, the research is being carried out as part of Hallam’s Lab4Living initiative, in which academics look at ways of making everyday furniture more user-friendly. With the bathroom, Paul is leading a team hoping to create something which is better, safer and more flexible for elderly people, while maintaining the features required by younger home-owners too.

It’s secretive work because they don’t want rivals stealing their ideas. But innovations include toilets which adjust in height, sinks which swing out from the wall, baths with electronic doors and new soft surfaces for floors and walls.

“The bathroom is the slippiest room in the house but it’s often tiled,” says Paul. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Carrying out the research hasn’t been easy.

“If you ask someone to tell you about their toilet and bathroom habits, they’re not exactly keen,” says the head of the university’s Art and Design Research Centre. “People don’t want to talk about that – especially the elderly. And the other thing is people don’t actually know what they do in the bathroom. They just...do it.”

So, they asked 80 volunteers – mainly city pensioners – to use a specially built bathroom in a university lab. Paul then used motion sensors to create digital charts of each person’s ‘movements’.

They’ve travelled to Turkey too – to work with academics at Istanbul Technical University – to see how different cultures use the room.

“Over there you get more squat toilets,” says Paul. “They actually have real health benefits but I don’t know if the British public would accept us trying to introduce those.”

The other thing they do in Turkey is put washing machines in the bathroom.

“I don’t know if the British public would accept that either,” says Paul. “Although, if you think about it, it makes sense because it keeps all your plumbing together.”

Now, the team are perfecting their designs. They’ve put their research online (www.loo-lab.com) and are encouraging more people to put forward their ideas for an ideal lav or bath. Then, working with manufacturers Vitra, they will build the room and market it.

“It won’t be cheap,” says Paul. “But this bathroom would last your whole life.”

That top pot, by the way? A comfier seat, adjustable height and a tank which uses recycled water to save on bills were all popular ideas.

And Paul? Now, he hopes no-one ‘lavs’ at his research.

Toilet talk

For different cultures, different toilets...

The Squat Toilet: used in much of the Eastern world, this loo requires the user to stand and, squat. Proponents say it’s good for flexibility and helps reduce the chance of bowel cancer. Detractors say it makes reading a paper a bit tricky.

The Shelf Toilet: common in central Europe, this lav features a raised shelf above the water allowing the user to study one’s, um, output. Proponents say it allows people to check for signs of possible health issues. Detractors don’t like the idea of being so familiar with their own offerings.

The Paid Toilet: a feature of train stations in 21st century Britain. Proponents – ie managers – say it allows these public loos to be kept clean and safe. Detractors wonder if charging someone 20p to spend a penny – most likely before an over-expensive journey – is not capitalist extortion.

The Festival Toilet: best avoided in almost all circumstances.