Going with the Flo?

An award-winning new toilet concept saves water and promotes health—but will anyone actually buy it?

Design blogs are buzzing about Arizona State University’s “the Flo” toilet, which won silver in the “Breaking the Rules” category at the 2009 Northwest Design Invitational. It’s not the sustainable aspects of “the Flo” that are attracting the most attention, however. Instead, people are fascinated—and repelled—by the toilet’s form, which requires users to squat above a bowl placed 10 to 12 inches from the floor. “People have a strong reaction to it,” admits Tamara Christensen, who worked with John Takamura, Dosun Shin, and Dean Bacalzo to design the Flo. “It’s provocative, and we confronted that.”

Controversy aside, the technology created by the team is highly innovative and unlike any system currently in use. (The team hopes to patent its design with the money it won from the award.) According to Takamura, there are two keys to the Flo’s sustainability: an electromagnetic ball valve and a set of micro-hydro turbines. When the toilet is flushed, the turbines spin, collect energy, and store electricity for the ball valve, which regulates the amount of water fed from the tank to the toilet. (The Flo uses slightly more than a gallon per flush.) The unit also has an infrared sensor-activated auto-flush, and a built-in sink for hand-washing—the sink water is then reused for the toilet. Everything is powered by the turbines. “If you buy the toilet, you don’t need to plug it in,” Takamura says. “It’s like having your own little hydroelectric power plant in your home.”

Christensen says that the team was well aware of the public’s potential squeamishness about the design, and she believes some of the questions and reactions have been fair. “We were pushing up against people’s comfort zones and toilet paradigms,” she says. “Of course we were laughing a lot of the time, like, ‘Who’s going to use this?'” It’s not a bad question. Can even the most eco-sensitive Americans be convinced to adopt a toilet that requires squatting? For what’s it worth, Christensen points out that the position seems to be better for your health than sitting. “If you go to the bathroom three times a day and you’re using this posture, it promotes joint and hip health,” she says. In addition, some of her research suggested that, in cultures where squat toilets were used, people had better colon health. For now, the designers hope that the toilet will attract younger, more adventurous buyers, and that as the design gradually starts to seem less strange, the Flo will win over green-minded and health-conscious consumers.

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