Innovation, fundamentally, has been about the new and improved. But some recently introduced ideas take us back to an older way of doing things, reversing technological advancements that have led us, somehow, astray. That’s the premise behind things like the Paleolithic or caveman diet and organic agriculture.
Three students from the University of the Arts London—Sam Sheard, Pierre Papet and Victor Johansson—are applying this same line of thinking in their redesign of the modern day toilet. Their new version, the "wellbeing toilet," is an award-winning concept from the most recent Toilet of the Future Competition, organized by plumbing supplier Dyno-Rod. The design is the end result of comprehensive research, which had the students considering everything from space toilets to how to best relieve ourselves in the wild.
The wellbeing toilet features built-in screening systems that could be used to analyze urine and other waste matter to check for biomarkers, indicators of diseases such as diabetes and kidney disease and even nutritional deficiencies. It could also test for pregnancy. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of this re-imagined fixture in our lives is its ergonomically-friendly shape, which encourages users to fold their legs up and squat, rather than sit.
The commode is carefully molded to gently encourage people to scoot up their legs, so that their posture rests in more of a 45-degree angle, rather than the conventional 90-degree sitting position. To achieve this, the toilet seat is reconfigured to sit atop a raised platform. This design allows people to subtly transition to what was apparently a previous habit proven to be healthier, and it does it in manner that still accommodates what most are used to.
"The biggest challenge was the fact that people don't even like to talk about the subject," Pierre Papet says in an email. "The discomfort of talking about as well as doing it the previous way was probably the reason why squatting disappeared as a 'normal' posture in the rest of western society."
The argument that a more "natural posture" has a measurable positive impact on overall health has been floated about for some time now. Proponents tout that even a simple adjustment could go a long way in preventing serious health conditions. A couple of studies have suggested that the squatting method is superior at least in one respect, reducing the likelihood of developing hemorrhoids. One investigation in Israel, published in the journal of Digestive Diseases and Sciences, asked subjects to compare, in detail, their experiences using a squatting toilet and a traditional one. Researchers found that when those people sat, it took, on average, 130 seconds to compete their bowel movements, while squatting allowed them to finish in 50 seconds. They also tended to report a more comfortable experience squatting than sitting.
Another study, published in Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms in 2009, went even further and took a look at the actual physiological changes that occur when subjects were squatting as opposed to sitting. The six participants were x-rayed as they carried on with a toilet session, so that researchers could track, within the intestines, the degree of ease in which bodily waste was eliminated. The resulting analysis revealed that the squatting position led to less abdominal pressure and strain.
Slate provides good description of how the mechanics of squatting make it easier to alleviate the gut:
People can control their defecation, to some extent, by contracting or releasing the anal sphincter. But that muscle can't maintain continence on its own. The body also relies on a bend between the rectum—where feces builds up—and the anus—where feces comes out. When we're standing up, the extent of this bend, called the anorectal angle, is about 90 degrees, which puts upward pressure on the rectum and keeps feces inside. In a squatting posture, the bend straightens out, like a kink ringed out of a garden hose, and defecation becomes easier.
Still, squatting isn't without its trade-offs. Eduardo Kausel, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told NBC News: "My sense is that the danger with squatting is that you might miss the bowl." One also has to wonder how suitable this method would be for the obese, infirm or even the inflexible.
While the inventors admit that the wellbeing toilet is very much a concept and "quite far from ending up in retail," the demonstrated advantages suggest that this idea might not be one to sit on.