Dirty, disgusting, sloppy- typically, these are some of the nicer adjectives that strike us when we are reminded of an Indian public toilet. We have all been compelled to use one at some point in our lives with a promise to ourselves that we wouldn’t put our bodies through that unsanitary experience ever again.
While both the men’s and women’s facilities tend to be untidy, the process is distinctly unhealthy, unsafe and strenuous, particularly for women due to prompt intimate physical contact with the facilities. Normally, public washrooms are built under a tight budget and their construction tends to be highly economical. The materials used for construction such as tiles, paint, waterproofing finishes, and fittings such as WCs, urinals, basins, taps are hence of nominal quality. Undoubtedly, these factors accelerate the depreciation of the space.
In an effort to provide hygienic public sanitation, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak initiated the Sulabh Shauchalaya movement in 1970. You may have seen many a Sulabh Shauchalaya in various cities and rural areas all over the country. Although the vision of this organization is extremely admirable, most of the sanitation complexes (especially in the urban areas) built by this establishment turn out to be sloppy- largely due to the use of outdated materials and fittings.
The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike also tried to equip the city of Bangalore with hygienic public sanitation complexes, introducing the Nirmala Toilet Complexes, about 27 odd years ago. These are a chain of pay-and-use sanitation that were initially thought to be an excellent proposal, but today, the average Bangalorean dreads to use these facilities. An exception to this is one such Nirmala Toilet complex designed by Architecture Paradigm, an acclaimed firm based in Bangalore. What stands out about this lavatory and makes it functional is its design. Elements such as the butterfly roof and a courtyard at the center of the linear structure encourage ventilation, thus eliminating any unpleasant odor that would otherwise linger inside the built structure.
The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation also collaborated with IXORA FM, a Hyderabad-based company, to set up Loo Café- a 170 sq.ft. a complex comprising of a washroom each for men, women, and the differently-abled, a wi-fi facility, and a charging station. The toilets also have been provided with devices that allow elements such as energy consumption and air circulation to be controlled by the company monitor. Loo café provides its service free of cost, and the revenue to maintain this complex is generated from an adjoining café where each item costs no more than a mere 30 rupees. The structure is made up of fireproof and insect-free prefabricated wood which ensures hygiene and incites safety.
Likewise, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai collaborated with JSW Realty to accommodate a public sanitation complex along Marine Drive, a sea-facing walkway that sees lakhs of tourists and locals on a daily basis. S-shaped in the plan, this space has been designed by Serie architects. Both genders enter the facility from different sides of the ‘S’ shape, thus ensuring privacy. The curvilinear roof forges a deep overhang and is equipped with solar panels to dispense energy to the toilets. The toilets use a Norweigian Vaccum-based system to hygienically store and reuse about 90% of the flush water. The façade is made up of Corten sheets that protect the structure from the saline air and the unforgiving pummeling of the sea waves during Monsoon. Slender fenestrations on the curved façade ensure excellent cross-ventilation throughout the space. Here, it must be noted that the application of a material like Corten and design components such as the fenestrations and overhanging roof induce the space to be clean and user-friendly.
Comparably, the Pune Municipal Corporation, 3S, and Indus collaborated and conceptualized the “TI” toilets to overcome two problems-unhygienic public washrooms for women and the disposal of old buses that unnecessarily adds to the volume of landfills when they could be used for much longer. Old public buses were stripped of corroded and damaged parts and completely refurbished, thus increasing the lifespan of the vehicle by about 10 years. These buses were accommodated with extremely sanitary and hygienic toilets for women which include features such as a digital feedback panel, sanitary napkin vending machines and disposal bins, diaper changing stations, and essential toiletries. There is a full-time attendant available who ensures the cleanliness of this one-of-a-kind space.
In another attempt to grant hygienic sanitation facilities, Rohan Chavan, a Mumbai-based architect, designed The Light Box, a public amenity for women situated along the eastern express highway in Thane. The structure is made up of a shipping container; and consists of two toilets, a handicapped toilet, and a nursing room. Light filters graciously through the canopy of a tree that is integrated into the central court, which has been designed to accommodate various events like exhibitions, lectures, awareness campaigns, etc. It is not only the overall aesthetic of this structure but also its anatomy such as the nursing room and interactive open court that make it inviting and user-friendly, thus creating a healthy space.
“PAUSE” is another facility on the Mumbai-Goa highway designed in Rohan Chavan’s distinctive style. Although it was built to cater primarily to truck drivers, the entry point for women, senior citizens, and the differently-abled has been carefully designed on the opposite end to that of the men’s zone. The ladies’ area holds 4 cubicles, a nursing station, washbasins, and a sanitary napkin dispenser. The men’s section consists of washbasins, 4 cubicles, and 8 urinals- of which one is designed to be used by a child. Open spaces are a precursor to both the sections, allowing easy ventilation of light and air. A space between the two sections has been designed for the convenience of truck drivers (with a separate entry). It includes a tuck shop, a barbershop, a pantry, and a small laundry area. The entire structure is adorned with plants-internally and externally, which helps keep the spaces cool.
Plausibly, the solution to our typical Indian public toilets is good architecture and design. As illustrated above Indian designers and entrepreneurs are redefining these important spaces that had otherwise been neglected in terms of design. The use of materials like Corten sheets and perforated metal which had not been practiced previously, inventions of concepts such as the incorporation of public washrooms from old buses and shipping containers, and new resource-saving technologies such as vacuum flushes that save about 90% of the water used, stimulate the reinvention of public toilets. Personally, I feel that architects, by applying design thinking, may be able to build scalable and cost-effective public sanitation facilities. As designers, we must create spaces that are safer and more inclusive in the true spirit of society- perhaps by providing diaper changing stations in the men’s washroom too, or even by introducing gender-neutral facilities. Let’s convert the currently antagonistic public toilets into protagonists in our society!