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UCLoo Festival 2013


Remembering the 2013 festival of technologies, ideas and debate about sanitation in London


Archive for October, 2013

Make-a-thon Call for Participants

By ucessjb, on 17 October 2013

loo ladyIn collaboration with the Institute of Making, we are calling for applications to participate in a toilet Make-a-Thon as part of the  UCLoo Festival. Read on to find out more about the design brief, the event and how to apply.



Design Brief

More than 2.6 billion people in developing countries do not have access to a safe toilet, and in the developed world toilets use water – one of our most precious resources – to wash human waste away. The flushing toilet and water based sanitation systems that we take for granted in cities like London are unlikely to be replicated in the rapidly urbanising cities of the global south. The world needs a new toilet and we’re starting right here at UCL!

In conjunction with the UCLoo Festival, the Make-a-Thon will challenge designers, scientists, engineers, artists, and entrepreneurs within the UCL community to create an ecological toilet for the 21st century.


In London alone, more than 400 million litres of drinking water are flushed down the toilet every day! Therefore, the Make-a-Thon will take on London’s toilet dilemma head on by using UCL as the client for a new ecological toilet prototype. Sited within a dense urban environment, the UCL site provides makers with the opportunity to design a toilet for domestic or commercial uses within the varied programs of UCL’s campus, ranging from offices to cafes to dormitories. As London’s Global University, makers will also have to consider how their design addresses the diverse cultural composition of the UCL community.

General Parameters

Envisioned as an environmental toilet prototype that could be piloted within the UCL sanitation network, the designed toilet must be waterless or low-flush. The toilet’s power source may be connected to UCL’s grid however it is essential that the toilet uses minimal power; ideally the unit will be energy neutral. The toilet may be connected to the existing sewerage network but it should be designed for nutrient recovery. The toilet must also comply with acceptable levels of hygiene and comfort in relation to smell and cleanliness. The toilet should be accessible and be easy to maintain.

The Make-a-Thon

Makers must attend the toilet and tool induction sessions on Wednesday November 20. Makers will then have the opportunity to create and refine their designs in preparation for an open exhibit at The Bartlett on December 3, 6-8pm.

Makers will receive inductions to allow them to use hand-tools and basic power tools in the Make Space. Use of specialist tools requiring additional training and authorisation will be highly limited.

Makers will receive a bursary of £100 from the Institute of Making towards the cost of materials. All other costs for materials must be met by the makers.


When What Where
19 November 6-8pm Meet the Makers UCL Make Space
20 November 10am-12pm Toilet Induction Chadwick 217
2-5pm Make Space and Tools Induction UCL Make Space
27 November 1-7:30pm Make-A-Thon UCL Make Space
3 December 6-7pm Exhibition Wates House

After their induction, toilet makers are free to use the Make Space and tools during normal opening hours (Tues – Fri 10am – 5.30pm; Weds 1-7.30pm).

Induction pack

As part of the induction, makers will receive a package of materials to support the development of their ideas. This will include:

  • Design brief
  • Resource packet (series of documents, links, and design manuals)
    • Annotated toilet bibliography
    • Information on existing ecological toilets
    • Information on existing waterless urinals
    • Information on female urinals

Application process

The Make-a-Thon is open to all staff and students within the UCL community. Interested participants from a wide range of disciplines and departments are encouraged to apply. Applicants should be available to attend the toilet and tool induction on Wednesday 20 November and should be able to commit design and fabrication time in preparation for the 3 December exhibition.

To apply, please email Dr Sarah Bell (s.bell@ucl.ac.uk) by midnight 4th November. Your email must include the following information:

  • Name
  • Position at UCL
  • Department
  • Answers to the following questions
    1. What attracts you to the idea of designing and making a new toilet?
    2. What experience or skills as a maker do you bring?
    3. What unique set of skills or knowledge would you bring to this project?
    4. Would you be interested in working on this project individually or as part of a team?
    5. Are you a member of the Institute of Making?

Successful applicants will be notified by 11 November.


Drinking the toilet water

By ucesbar, on 15 October 2013

This week we are happy to feature a guest blog from Emma M. Jones, author of Parched City, an account of London’s drinking water published by Zero Books earlier this year (http://www.zero-books.net/books/parched-city):

Equating tap water with toilet water may seem incongruous but in most homes they are indeed one and the same. ‘Tap’ water sounds good to cook with, to brush our teeth with, or even to shower under while taking the odd, if inadvertent, sip. ‘Toilet’ water, as ‘tap’ water soon becomes when it flows into that essential piece of technology, seems fit only to sluice our bodily waste away; once the toilet has bacteriologically degraded the fluid from potable to a health hazard.  Yet, seconds prior to the moment that it encountered the site of our daily defecation, the same water destined for the flush should have been as safe and wholesome as the law dictates to make the drinking grade.

Like the convenors of UCLoo Festival (opening on World Toilet Day, 19th November), I concur on the absurdity of this fact: ‘In London alone, more than 400 million litres of drinking water are flushed down the toilet every day.’ Reader, perhaps you are a pioneering greywater enthusiast, who has rigged dual water systems in your home at great expense. I think I am fairly safe in assuming, though, that the majority of us tend to rely on a sole plumbing system, which serves all our water-related needs. Drinking water is, therefore, for most daily users simply all water. To legally qualify as suitable for ‘domestic purposes’[1] – cooking, drinking, food preparation, washing – our tap water will have been through quite an ordeal.

Metropolitan Water Board’s Department of Water Examination, built 1938, Islington (now private housing).

Metropolitan Water Board’s Department of Water Examination, built 1938, Islington (now private housing).

From raw water’s underground or river source (the latter is more highly treated given its volatile environment), the liquid will first be channeled into a reservoir. Initially, even the decision to let supplies into this storage space may be timed to avoid pollution known to be travelling downstream, facilitated by a well-oiled communication system between the water industry and the Environment Agency. Once captured, the greatest proportion of water’s journey to potable will be made simply by settling for a period of time, which can last for weeks. A leading water scientist suggested to me that this natural process, though facilitated by the artificial space of a man-made lake, makes up 90% of water treatment – simply by adding the essential ingredients of time and space.[2] This elegant truth about the efficacy of the storage factor on producing safe drinking water was established in the first decade of the 20th century by the bacteriologist Alexander Houston, of the Metropolitan Water Board, and continues to be applied to London’s water treatment today.[3]

What has changed since Houston’s day is the sophistication of how water quality is measured, to detect minute traces of pesticides, for instance. Post-reservoir, the remaining 10% of water treatment involves an extensive à la carte menu of engineering and chemical interventions, including: aeration, ammonia, clarification, slow-sand filtration, ozonation, ultra-violet treatment, chlorination, granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis. Expert tasters, and sniffers, are also on hand to perform their duties, as are microbiologists and chemists who check the product, to ensure that what leaves the water treatment facility should be in a state to remain drinkable when it reaches our kitchen taps, and acceptable to us (a key concept).

Walthamstow Reservoirs, Thames Water, London, 2012.

Walthamstow Reservoirs, Thames Water, London, 2012.

Of all the things we use drinking-quality water for, flushing the loo has to be the most wasteful. Would we flush bottled water down the toilet? There is a vast monetary gulf between the drinking water we find in corner-shop fridges and the product from our taps, but both are the same precious freshwater resource that requires intense labour and material resources to produce.  Tap water is not on the free market like bottled water, though in essence it is the same product.

Given the sophisticated engineering infrastructure and scientific expertise that has been honed over two centuries to allow London, other world cities and many nations to produce water at drinking quality standards agreed with the World Health Organization, the UCLoo Festival’s proposals to save this resource for its intended purpose seem very wise to me.

I hope the current systemic stasis in the use of water can be ruffled by this festival’s daring design proposals, and I look forward to joining that queue to spend a penny in a dry-dock loo and giving my tuppence-worth on the experience of toileting without water.

Coppermills Advanced Water Treatment Works, Walthamstow, London, 2012.

Coppermills Advanced Water Treatment Works, Walthamstow, London, 2012.

*Please consider making a small donation to our fundraising drive at http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013. We have almost reached our target, but need your help to make sure this important conversation happens!

You can also find more information about the UCLoo Festival, running 19th Nov. – 3rd Dec. at UCL’s Bloomsbury campus, through our Twitter (@UClooFestival) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ucloofestival) accounts.

All photographs author’s own.

[1] The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2000 No. 3184 (UK: The Stationery Office).

[2] Parched City, Emma M Jones (Hants: Zer0 Books, 2013), page 240.

[3] Ibid, pages 111–16.

Sun, sand and Shigella sonnei: toilets at a desert festival

By ucqnklo, on 11 October 2013

Last year, I got a call asking if I wanted to build infrastructure for a thousand hippies at a festival in the desert [1]. Of course I said yes. I was offered a selection of projects, but the idea of building the least romantic items on a site filled with sparkly-eyed astrologers, plus the many opportunities to play with power tools, appealed to me; so Toilet Lead I became.

The festival [Nowhere: http://www.goingnowhere.org/] is hard to describe. A relative of the Burning Man festival in Nevada, it brings together about a thousand people in the remote Los Monegros region of Spain, to build from nothing a commerce-free, self-reliant community of artists that flowers for a week before being returned to pristine wilderness. All that you need you bring with you; water comes in cubes, food in tins, and waste is taken away with you afterwards. A harsh environment packed with revellers might sound challenging for toilet construction, but, just as armies march on their stomachs, festivals scrape along on their bottoms; which is where I and toilet crew come in.

The site before the festival gets rolling: mostly dust and dramatic scenery.

The site before the festival gets rolling: mostly dust and dramatic scenery.

The sanitary arrangements we have been using up until now are simple and compost-based (they are in need of a redesign; read on for why): basically boxes seated atop deep holes. As they get used, scoops of dust are tipped in, to ensure a balance of solids and liquids suitable for the ‘humanure’ to break down. This covers up faecal matter, hopefully preventing insects from touching down in the waste, and also, happily, smells.

I got together at a carpenter’s workshop in Hackney with our head builder, Monkey; some carpenters who knew what they were doing and a sanitary technician, to design a better, stronger, easier-to-build free-standing toilet cubicle. The bloom-and-bust nature of the festival means that many of our structures are based on the flat-pack, turning sheets of plywood into structures that will withstand the depredations of over-excited festivalgoers. In practical terms, this meant slicing a lot of squares and rectangles with newly-acquired circular saw skills, and jigsawing even more notches to interlock them.

Both myself and Monkey are rock and roll fiends, so there was no name for our toilet model but ‘Elvis’, although naming the various parts of the design did give some difficulty. Key base struts were clearly Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry (though, thinking about it, we did miss the opportunity to call one the ‘stray cat’); the particularly annoying one to cut was dubbed Millie Small, after the helium-pitched, lisping sugar-addict of the period. Finally, we had a working model; now to make 13 more.

Fast forward to July and I took a series of buses out to the nearest town to the festival, arrived a week before the hedonistic hordes and got building. I buttonholed a couple of woodworkers, some people keen to learn about power tools and some skilled in measuring, marking out and obsessive checking. Then my dedicated team and I laboured for a week in the heat and sawdust and whirring of machinery to churn out 13 brand new ply poop palaces. Interposed with duties such as digging trenches to stop storms flooding out sewage – a picture which, once it had been vividly explained, proved quite motivating – and trying to pry the finished items out from under the brushes of the artists enthusiastically decorating them so they could be deployed around the site, we finished this Herculean task and let the incoming sparkleponies at the Augean stables.

Me with the Elvis toilet, designed, built and decorated by myself: with much help from my talented friends.

Me with the Elvis toilet, designed, built and decorated by myself: with much help from my talented friends.

And then, among the acro-balance workshops, storytime sessions and dance-offs, some people started getting diarrhea, vomiting, and other intestinal distress. It spread. In this semiarid region, where water is a precious resource, cooking is done in field kitchens, toilets are rough and ready, and people are in holiday festival mood: there are plenty of opportunities for disease to get around.

Following the event, professional epidemiologists (you get all sorts of specialists at these festivals) studied the outbreak, and found evidence that at least some sickness was caused by Shigella sonnei bacteria. This virulent gastro-intestinal disease can require only 10-100 bacterial cells to spread further, with cells being shed by infected parties for up to 4 weeks afterwards. Together, this meant that despite copious amounts of sanitizing spray, regular bleach spray-downs, and the skilled attentions of the medical staff on site, many people were ill during and after the festival.

It’s likely that there were a number of causes of sickness on site. However, poorly washed hands and insects were very likely carriers of infected cells to new victims. Yes, that’s infected cells shed from someone else’s intestinal lining into diarrhea, and then getting in people’s mouths. While faecal-oral transmitted disease is officially gross, everyone did recover and was eventually OK.

We were relatively rich, privileged Bohemians living temporarily low-tech with hand-crafted compost toilets, and we learnt the hard way that sanitation is crucial. When things went wrong, we tried our best attempts to contain it, to provide copious bottles of sanitizer, to isolate sufferers, to block up every chink a fly could get through; but we still couldn’t stop it. We were lucky with the excellent Cruz Roja on site, and the healthcare in our home countries. We were lucky that we were already healthy, well-nourished, and had the clean water we needed while recovering.

Many people aren’t so lucky: they build for themselves and their communities and support themselves in the way we play at doing, but they don’t have an established sewer system to come home to, or gallons of potable water to throw down it.

We are treating this sickness outbreak as the close call it is, and looking at ways we can step up our sanitation. We need a system people can use hygienically, no matter how much they have enjoyed themselves recently; that insects cannot enter and spread infection from; that can tolerate the spectacular storms; and that can be removed and allow the environment to gracefully return to how it was before we came out. That’s for our short-term event.

The world needs a new toilet made for modern populations, not Victorian Britons. We all deserve safe sanitation, and even from my few weeks in the desert I learnt water is precious. Sanitation is fundamental. It is within the grasp of engineers, designers and people with plain old good ideas to do it; but we need to accept it’s a problem, and get working. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

*Please donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this conversation happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – there’s only one week left to reach our fundraising target!

[1] Technically it’s not a true desert, due to having rainfall. It’s a semidesert. But it has typical temperatures in the mid-thirties, pushing into forties; it’s dry, starkly beautiful, and dusty as hell, so most people stretch the term.


Toilets – the unexpected issue

By Tse-Hui Teh, on 1 October 2013

I definitely did not expect to be talking about toilets; to anyone, at anytime. Not that it was a taboo topic, I just never identified it as an issue. I was never particularly scatological; I didn’t have a fear of flushing, and I never had a problem going. The queue for the ladies’ was probably my biggest concern until a few years ago. Then the toilet issue just grew.

Chee Kit Lai design

Chee Kit Lai design

I was researching the urban water-cycle. More particularly, how to equitably share and effectively use water resources throughout the community and the environment. Working in London, it was inevitable that I would quickly bump up against the toilet. About one-third of our daily water use goes down the toilet. Yes, one third – that’s approximately 50L of fresh, treated drinking water pumped directly to your point of use that is being used to move and dilute valuable fertilizer (your pee and poo). This is ludicrous and unbelievable in an age of sustainability, environmental protection, and shortages of both water and phosphorous.

But was it possible to change this? Were there any other outraged souls out there? Was anyone willing to change? And if so, how?

And that is how I started to talk about toilets.

It’s been an interesting journey so far. Waterborne sanitation is less entrenched that you might think. My research found that there were people in London who did care about their water consumption, but because the flushing toilet was so prevalent, they resourcefully altered their habits to encompass “yellow mellowing” to save water.

If you don’t know, the ditty is, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” I’m not sure where it started, the various urban myths are somewhere in California or Australia. In any case, it just means you only flush after a poo. What was strange for me is that more people did this than I expected. As I started talking to people, more of them ‘outed’ themselves as closet yellow mellowers. What a surprise!

The problem with “yellow mellowing” is that this is not seen as the proper way of using the flushing toilet. This is why “yellow mellowing” is usually done in the privacy of the home, and it is typical to run around and flush before having guests. This covert contradictory behaviour is not an optimal way of saving water, nor does it make it easier to harvest the nutrients from human waste as fertilizer.

Once you are on this line of thinking to save water and nutrients, most people see that the next logical step would be to make a non-flushing toilet system. This would make non-flushing the correct way to use the toilet because there is simply no flush to use. By not flushing, fertilizer could also easily be reclaimed.

This is amazing. These people, who use a waterborne sanitation system, thought it could be improved. The infrastructure is not as entrenched as I had imagined.

But this is not the end of the story. After this, the question is how would you collect the waste? It used to be the nightsoil man, but what would the alternative be in a contemporary city? Where would the collection points be? How would you effectively harvest the nutrients? Where would the fertilizer be distributed to? How would you stop it from smelling? How would you keep it hygienic? Who would manage it? How many people would need to change their toilet system to make this a viable option? Would other people also see it as a better option? What would make people change their toilet system when most people don’t even think about where the water comes from and where the waste goes? And a plethora more questions to be asked!

Your thoughts are greatly appreciated. What do you think it would take to change?

Chee Kit Lai design

Chee Kit Lai design

Have a say on the blog and come along to the UCLoo Festival, opening on World Toilet Day (19th November), to try out a vacuum flush toilet that only takes 200mL per flush, see some new prototype toilets and waste treatment systems, see how UCL researchers are answering some of these questions, and apply for the make-a-thon so that you can join in the creativity of answering some of the questions. Please also donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this event happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and to seeing you at the UCLoo Festival!