The lowly outhouse may be making a comeback. Some tiny houses being designed these days are not being outfitted with a bathroom or even a space for a composting toilet. While a specific design or structure may be sound and even really beautiful, it may not provide people with one of the most basic of human needs. A simple or more complex outhouse could be a viable solution.
The outhouse originated about 500 years ago in Europe, and was used primarily at inns or in public spaces. During this time, the ubiquitous symbol of the crescent moon on the outhouse door also began to appear. Since most people were illiterate during this time, the male outhouses were marked with the symbol of a sun, indicating masculinity, and the women’s were marked with a symbol of a crescent moon, which represented the feminine (also the Roman goddess Diana who was the protector of women). As time went on and the American frontier opened up, the men’s outhouses were not maintained as well as the women’s (since men tended to just go out in the woods), so the men’s outdoor commodes began to disappear, leaving the women’s (and their crescent moon symbol) behind. Eventually, outhouses became unisex and some even included several different sized holes for men, women and children.
Outhouses work every simply: a seating area inside is open to a pit dug into the ground. When solid and liquid wastes are introduced to the pit, natural organisms in the soil, bacteria and insects consume nutrients in the waste material. This helps the waste decompose and form compost inside the pit. As long as the input of waste does not exceed the rate of decomposition, the material will be composted and will not contaminate any local groundwater. According to a Science Daily article written a few years ago, outhouses may be a more sanitary way of eliminating waste in developing countries rather than a installed flush toilet.
Outhouses have come a long way since they first started 500 years ago. The tiny structures can now be modernized with electricity, heat, insulation, pumped water, a sink and even a shower or tub. Outhouses are also being integrated with composting toilets that are vented and even run on solar.
If you’re interested in having an outhouse for your tiny house, Mother Earth News has several articles on how to build an outhouse, sanitation issues, beautifying your outhouse and how to stay warm while visiting your outhouse in the winter. There are also several books available including the Vanishing American Outhouse by Ronald Barlow and the beautifully photographed Nature Calls: The History, Lore and Charm of Outhouses by Dottie Booth.