Contrary to popular belief, not everything has been outsourced to China. In the unassuming outpost of Alsager, Stoke-on-Trent, 300 workers are involved in the production of 2.5 million pieces of vitreous china a year. That’s basins, the pedestals they stand on, and WCs and their cisterns.
From design and development to firing the clay, it all happens at Twyford Bathrooms. Many of its staff are dressed in the flimsiest of nylon tops and shorts, as this is warm work. The main 80m-long kiln heats up to 1250°C to vitrify the clay, giving it that smooth, super-hygienic, ceramic sheen.
Loos haven’t changed that much since Thomas Twyford came up with the first flushing water closet in 1888. From the bog standard to the deluxe, they’re still, likely as not, ceramic, with a lid, a bowl and a whish of water. Until 2001, the UK was all about flushing handles, but since then press button versions have been allowed.
And bathroom suite design hasn’t been impervious to the forward march of our designer culture. As Virginia McLeod notes – in her new book Detail in Contemporary Bathroom Design – Philippe Starck, Norman Foster, Antonio Citterio, Ross Lovegrove and Jasper Morrison have all had a go recently, for the likes of Ideal Standard, Duravit, Hansgrohe and Vitra.
The latest generation of designs will be displayed at the biennial International Sanitary & Heating Exhibition in Frankfurt, which opens next month.
A decent loo should last 25 years, so it can hardly be described as an fmcg. But there are three rich veins for manufacturers like market leaders Twyford and Armitage Shanks to tap into/ new-build housing, private home renovations and commercial fit-outs. McLeod points out in her book that, ‘Second only to the kitchen, the bathroom is the place where a considerable proportion of a budget will be spent when renovating a house, and when building from scratch.’
However, the poor economy is taking its toll. Developers are expected to build just 50 000 new homes this year – that’s down from 175 000 in 2006. ‘From a house-build point of view, it’s a nightmare,’ admits Twyford marketing director Anna Townley, who adds that new-builds traditionally account for 30 per cent of Twyford’s sales. And the poor housing market means fewer home-owners are refurbishing. That leaves commercial contracts like schools, hospitals and prisons.
And it’s here that there’s scope for design innovation. Twyford’s new Rimless WC was a response to the healthcare sector’s need to reduce the spread of infection. As Twyford’s product literature puts it, ‘The self-draining jets at the back of the bowl release water which flows entirely round the inside of the pan removing waste, and with no hidden rim, there is simply nowhere for the germs to linger.’
‘Schools will be getting Rimless this year, and we’re already trialling new variants of the range,’ says its designer, Scott Derbyshire, who has been with Twyford for nine years, a year of which went into developing Rimless’ flushing system.
The company is hoping that this innovation will become standard in all its WCs in the future.
But there’s another potentially fruitful angle for toilet manufacturers, and that’s water-saving. Government regulations advocate less and less water for flushing. The 2001 regulations specified a maximum flush of 6l, down from 7.5l in 1993 and 13l in the 1960s.
And now, the Code for Sustainable Homes includes low water targets. After all, water consultancy Elemental Solutions claims that flushes account for up to 40 per cent of domestic water use – and up to 90 per cent in commercial premises.
WC manufacturers are now trying to best each other with energy efficient models.
Unsurprisingly, the Nordic countries are decades ahead of the UK, and the Swedish Ifö Cera ES4 low-volume toilet has been distributed here since 1999. More recently, Twyford and Armitage Shanks have devised their own versions.
Armitage Shanks’ Concept is the work of product designer Robin Levien of Studio Levien. Meanwhile, Ian Randall, Twyford in-house designer of 16 years’ standing, is behind Flushwise. Both these claim to do a short flush on 2.6l and a longer flush on 4l.
But while there are incentives to reduce water consumption at Government level, the eco argument doesn’t cut the mustard with consumers, according to Townley.
‘Thirty per cent of the fresh water that you use in the house every day is for flushing the loo,’ she says, ‘but the environmental argument is a difficult sell because water is still relatively cheap. Only about 30 per cent of homes have a water meter.’
What was once a more straightforward business has become complicated by outside forces, in the shape of regulations, competition, the environment and the poor economy.
In these conditions, innovation is increasingly important, so it’s no wonder that Twyford is so pleased with Flushwise and Rimless, and is looking forward to the time when both these novelties will becombined in one loo.