Eco-toilets test the waters

A group of UM architecture students are spending this semester consumed with something most people do not think twice about – a toilet.

The students are a part of a studio program focused on designing and eventually constructing an eco-friendly prototype for a “mobile bathroom” that can be used in rural areas as well as disaster situations. The structure will include a composting toilet, shower and hand sink.

In the future, they think the prototype could become part of a solution to help the estimated 2.5 billion people living in poverty who have no access to a sanitary water and restroom facility.

Ariana Ragusa, a fifth-year student, said she is excited to be part of this project.

“We see the theory of architecture become the reality of architecture,” she said. “After spending hours and days on the computer you want to put these things that you’ve learned into practice.”

Rocco Ceo is the professor who co-teaches the design and build studio course with Jim Adamson, a founding partner of the Jersey Devil design and build group. Now in its fourth year, the group of about 20 students meets three times a week. The studio is not a mandatory part of the curriculum and is open only to fifth-year seniors and graduate students.

The students are currently in the research and design discussion stage. Both instructors are passionate not only about using green and sustainable energy but also about encouraging their students to take ownership of every project assigned to them.

“This semester we’re doing an off-the-grid composting toilet, shower and sink for a South Dade farmer,” Ceo said. “He has a bunch of farm hands that he hires, but he has no facilities for the workers and needs a solution to the problem.”

The “eco bathroom” will serve as a prototype for more facilities that the program hopes will be built in the future. Ceo said that the end goal is to have the mobile bathroom used in disaster recovery and rural areas for people who desperately need access to a bathroom and clean and hot water.

Ceo said that the students do not get to decide their projects each semester, but do get to choose the design and ultimate construction of the assignments given to them. This semester the “eco bathroom” project was suggested by Earth Learning, a nonprofit organization, to  provide a mobile sanitary facility for Verde Garden Farm.

Verde Garden, located in Homestead, focuses on providing job training, life skills and micro-enterprise opportunities for formerly homeless people and others. The farm community partnered with Carrfour Supportive Housing and the Homeless Trust of Miami-Dade County in an effort to establish housing, while Earth Learning focuses on developing the farm and nursery components.

“A big part of sustainability is knowing where things come from and where things go,” said Mario Yanez, executive director of Earth Learning. “Part of taking responsibility for our waste and finding ways to re-incorporate them back into the eco-system in a manner that’s responsible is paying attention to them. Things should be visible and educational.”

The students on the project share their supervisors’ enthusiasm.

“This kind of green technology is what’s really happening now in the field, so getting acquainted with it before graduation is essential,” said Francisco Jimenez, a fifth-year architecture student.

Adamson and Ceo like seeing their students grow and take control of the project.

“The most appealing aspect of it is the challenge, seeing the students come up with the solution to a problem and then build it,” Adamson said.