It’s Urinetown 2006: Green Architects Use Heads of the Future

The architect Robert Fox, a partner at Cook + Fox Architects in New York, was talking about his favorite new urinals.

“The porcelain sides are extremely slippery, so when you urinate, the urine goes down the sides and down the hole,” he said. “It is not sitting on a pool of water like a typical urinal. When you are peeing, the pee is going away immediately.”

The urinals he enjoys so much are a new kind of urinal, favored by “green” builders, that use no water.

“There is blue liquid in the chamber underneath, and the blue liquid is lighter than urine,” he said. “So the urine sinks and the blue liquid stays on top and forms a seal which keeps the odor in.”

Mr. Fox is the architect behind 4 Times Square, the tower built by developer Douglas Durst that now houses the Condé Nast corporation as well as the white-shoe law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

In 2000, when that building went up, the two considered waterless urinals for the building where Graydon Carter and David Remnick hit the head. But the technology wasn’t there yet.

Nor was it available for some other tower developers—notably the Hearst Corporation, which is expected to open up its 46-story tower at 57th Street and Eighth Avenue for business this summer.

Opponents of waterless urinals (more on them later) point out that they were tried out at the New York Times Building on West 43rd Street a few years ago—but that the company reverted to old traditions in 2004 because the cartridges had to be replaced twice as frequently as expected, and because of odor and bacteria concerns.

But at Messrs. Fox and Durst’s latest project, the tower at 1 Bryant Park, waterless urinals are a big part of the plan.

Some of these waterless urinals are already seeing action at the Statue of Liberty, and down at a public restroom in Battery Park City. They look so much like ordinary urinals—white, porcelain and contoured—that they could easily be mistaken for a Marcel Duchamp sculpture turned upside down. The biggest difference is the lack of, well, a flusher.

A reporter visiting the urinals at Battery Park found that they don’t seem to smell, though the men’s room had a couple of ceiling fans, so it was a little hard to make an objective assessment.

Waterless urinals date to 1891, when a Swiss entrepreneur used sunflower oil instead of light blue liquid to make odorless outhouses. But they have experienced a rebirth now that the green building movement has taken a hold of our internal plumbing.

The Battery Park City kybo opened in 2004. In summer, hundreds of people use the six units each day, according to Jim Cavanaugh, president and chief executive of the Battery Park City Authority.

“We’ve had them for two years and we have not had any complaints,” Mr. Cavanaugh said.

Aside from Battery Park City, waterless urinals have been installed in only one other place in Manhattan: in the offices of the Durst Organization, which received special dispensation from the Department of Buildings four years ago.

At the Bank of America building, the men’s rooms are expected to save three million gallons of water a year, out of a total of 14 million gallons used by the building, from the installation of waterless urinals alone.

Combined with other water-conservation techniques, Mr. Durst’s new urinals will qualify him for a 25 percent discount on the city’s water rates. And considering the other energy-conservation techniques in the building, such as a cooling system in the floors and temperature controls at one’s desk, Mr. Durst expects to earn the first platinum rating given by the U.S. Green Building Council for a skyscraper.

The Bank of America is leasing more than three-quarters of the building at rents said to be the highest in Manhattan, around $100 a square foot per year. In other words, male employees there will be expected to make million-dollar deals on their 100,000-square-foot trading floors, arrange mergers and loan a small country’s worth of money out overnight. And then, when they gotta go, they are going to go in a glorified privy?

“They haven’t had a problem with this. We discussed this and they agreed,” Mr. Durst said of the Bank of America. “Most people don’t even realize it’s a different system. There is no odor, and they look exactly the same.”

Waterless urinals, which cost about the same as the traditional kind, use cartridges in which the lighter-than-urine liquid forms a trap that keep sewage gases from seeping into the room, the same way that regular sinks and flush toilets have U-pipes. These cartridges need to be changed about every 7,000 uses, or every three months, according to the manufacturers.

“The principal barrier people have is that flush urinals always smelled, and when somebody reads about waterless urinals they think, ‘How bad is this going to smell?’” said Klaus Reichardt, the managing partner for Waterless Co., which started making flush-free urinals 15 years ago. “But when we talk to them and show them, all of the sudden they say, ‘This is incredible.’”

Mr. Reichardt says that restrooms using waterless urinals smell better because water actually causes a chemical reaction with urine, in which urea is broken down and ammonia released.

“We have a silly saying,” he said: “‘Peeing is believing.’”

Plumbers Crack

Waterless urinals are catching on because they can reduce water costs by as much as a third, and they also qualify a building for as many as three out of the 24 points needed to get certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as an ecologically sustainable structure.

Besides, never underestimate the joy that real-estate developers must feel because they get to gross out the public while flouting their environmental progressivism.

The urinals have been used to great acclaim—as if anyone has ever said anything nice about public toilets—at the Rose Bowl, the Jimmy Carter Library in Georgia, as well as in California elementary schools, the San Diego Zoo, a couple of Wal-Mart stores and even the Taj Mahal in India.

But in New York, it wasn’t till December that the city’s plumbing code was revised and approved to permit waterless urinals by the City Council.

Now, the city’s Department of Buildings will undertake a study to determine what standards the urinals have to meet.

Mr. Durst doesn’t expect any difficulties meeting whatever standards they set up, though. In other words, everything’s coming out smoothly.

That’s not so everywhere. In other cities, all this happy bathroom talk has pissed off—guess who?—plumbers.

Out in California, water-based building codes are falling left and right under pressure from the state plumbers’ union, which has mobilized against proposed changes to health codes and funded a counterattack.

Lobbyists for the state plumbers’ union have come up with 13 examples where the urinals proved to be disasters and in some cases were even replaced. But the complaints that have reached the media—and what reporter would pass on a story about exploding urinals?—have come mainly from university students: “My reaction to the new waterless urinals?” wrote one med student at the University of California at San Francisco. “They stink: literally.”

“A University of California at Berkeley professor found that hydrogen-sulfide levels could reach health-threatening levels during the changing of one of these cartridges,” said Richard Drury, a lobbyist for the California State Pipe Trades Council. “Also, there has been a tremendous level of odor complaints related to no-flush urinals. There was a study by Bristow, McClure and Fisher in 2004 called ‘Waterless Urinals: Features, Benefits and Applications,’ that said that 37 percent of non-flush urinal users have odor complaints. And many of them have removed them. They have pulled them out of the walls. The Oakland airport was retrofitted at great expense.”

However, upon closer examination, the study, published this year in the Journal of Green Building, turns out to be pretty favorable towards these things: “Waterless urinals can offer a viable alternative to the conventional flush-type,” it concludes.

Also, that 37 percent who made odor complaints turn out to be just 10 people. The whole survey was based on 27 responses from people who maintain facilities with waterless urinals. “However, several users reporting this problem also noted that improved maintenance helped alleviate it,” the paper went on to say.

In New York, plumbers have been more laissez-faire about the whole thing. U.A. Plumbers Local No. 1 wouldn’t return phone messages, but Mr. Durst said that the union was amenable to the changes.

And if Mr. Fox’s enthusiasm for the waterless urinal becomes a feature of his architectural work, expect to see him—er—marking out a larger territory.

He’s even planning to retrofit the new offices of his architectural firm, Cook + Fox, with waterless urinals.

“We are using our whole offices as a laboratory for green building techniques, so that if we are talking to a client about waterless urinals and the client asks, ‘What is that?’, we can just take a walk down the hall.”

And who’s the lucky model who gets to demonstrate?