We called on Ontario Parks Architect Matthew Harvey to give us the lowdown on latrines…the good, the bad, and the stinky!
Over the course of my 25-year architectural career at Ontario Parks, I am asked from time to time what I do for a living. I proudly respond: “Wow, I design latrines!”
If that person doesn’t apologize, turns around and leaves hastily, then we could end up with an argument like this:
Why do latrines smell?
The answer is not as obvious as it seems.
Vault toilets, as we call them, are large concrete tanks that are pumped as needed. As long as the contents remain in the tank, the tank must be vented. A properly vented tank can be relatively harmless.
Algonquin Provincial Park Private Conceptual Designs, 1975
But it is not always so easy.
Private Algonquin Conceptual Designs, 1975 (2)
Large vents outside the tank that extend above the roof line are necessary. They are often dark in color to promote warming and create what is called a “stack effect,” which pushes air up the toilet downpipe (the one you sit on), toward the vent and beyond, where he can not enter. detected.
If you place a toilet under trees or near a large body of water, where the air can become stratified due to the cooling effect of the lake, then the odor will stay in place and not escape. Hence the dreaded vault toilet smell.
Site location is crucial for a successful toilet!
What are the two bars at the bottom of the drop tube for?
They are child hunters. And I know for a fact that the children have been left without them.
It’s not all latrines, right?
In fact, provincial parks have a multitude of facilities for our campers. We have backcountry “thunder boxes” (where you can experience the sublime pleasure of doing what bears do in the forest).
Comfort Station, 2015, Lake Charleston Provincial Park
At the other end of the spectrum, we have large, sophisticated “comfort stations,” in the lingo, that accommodate all your needs, from showers, bathrooms and laundry; all genderless and accessible.
Comfort station, circa 1990s, Neys Provincial Park
What about rustic stone and wood design?
This is an interesting part of the story.
Park design as we know it was pioneered during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the United States (under President Franklin D. Roosevelt) established the Civilian Conservation Corp as part of the New Deal.
Comfort Station, 1987, Rainbow Falls Provincial Park
Young people who were unemployed were trained to build the park infrastructure that exists in the United States today. The design of the buildings was done by architects working for the National Park Service.
Restroom building, current Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park
Because Franklin D. Roosevelt had spent his summers as a child in the Adirondacks, the style of American parks imitated classic Adirondack cabins with their stone foundations and log walls. When parks were established in Canada, they looked south and decided to adopt the same look.
What do you like most about working in latrines?
Board-and-batten toilet, 1971, Algonquin Provincial Park
Designing dependencies is like playing jazz standards. You have a basic structure and you follow it, but it’s also always changing to adapt to conditions.
When looking at older designs, you see a great variety in “stone and wood” finishes. Sometimes they are granite slabs, sometimes they are carved limestone ashlars. Sometimes it looks like a log and sometimes like boards and battens.
We are constantly evolving and improving designs to make them more welcoming and easier to maintain.
And needs are never static. We are always improving accessibility.
Do you have any favorite latrines?
Oh yeah. I like the Dr. Who “TARDIS” dirt toilets in Frontenac Provincial Park (which were recently replaced by our classic wooden dirt toilet design).
TARDIS earth pit toilet in the field, installed circa 1970s and 1980s in Frontenac Provincial Park
I also love the “Centenario” vault toilets built with their stone fronts.
Classic wood and earth toilet (design to replace previous “TARDIS” model), Frontenac Provincial Park
I admire the use of hockey pucks as spacers between the bottom of the wood vault toilet walls and the top of the holding tank concrete slab. Perfect creative use of a cheap and readily available material. So Canadian in its inertia, durability and discretion.
Have there been failures in the latrines?
Unfortunately, latrine failures occasionally occur. We remember the unannounced replacement of a concrete vault with a plastic vault that ended up floating like a ship on the ground because the plastic was not heavy enough to counteract the buoyancy of the empty tank.
Floating tank toilet failure
Unauthorized toilets have also been built, without design or ventilation, leading to surprising results due to the smell inside!
Unlucky DIY Toilets
From time to time, we come across DIY toilets (which can be very creative).
Please, please Please do not try to build your own bathrooms in our provincial parks. Proper management of human and pet waste in our provincial parks is critical to the health, safety and enjoyment of visitors and our ecosystems.
Latrines… where is the future?
We have experimented for many years with composting toilets to replace the use of vault toilets with holding tanks underneath. The advantage of composting toilets is that, if properly constructed and maintained, they produce compost and generate fewer odors.
Composting toilet at Warp Bay, along the coastal hiking trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park
The difficult part is finding effective, easy-to-maintain compost toilet designs that don’t require a construction site with an upper level for the toilet and a lower level to service the composting tank. We are constantly looking for new designs in hopes of possibly implementing them in the future.