Redesigning the Public Toilet with Help from Building Services

Written by
Frances Hannan, Facilities
Oct. 25, 2023

Many people encounter public restrooms day to day. And in an era when more attention is being paid to the spread of disease, a reimagination of the public toilet could help limit the future spread of pathogens. 

Sugarman Practitioner in Residence Dr. Chukwuemeka V. Chukwuemeka is taking a behavioral science lens to the design of the toilet during his time at the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy at Princeton University. The Sugarman program supports practitioners in a variety of fields to pursue a breakthrough solution to a society-relevant problem 

To create a toilet that is accessible, safe, clean, easy to maintain and user friendly, Chukwuemeka is tapping his experience as an architect and designer and using the Princeton campus as a lab to make initial observations. Over the summer, Chukwuemeka met with members of the Princeton Facilities Building Services staff to see how they clean some of the public toilet spaces across campus.  

“Most of the designs of toilet spaces and toilet fixtures haven't actually been thought of from the perspective of cleaners,” Chukwuemeka said. “Considering the different spectrum of users, the cleaner is the most important, especially when you're thinking about infections. If the toilet cannot be cleaned or it's difficult to be cleaned, then people don't use an unclean toilet well. It's a spiral downhill from there.” 

During the observations, Building Services staff answered questions and showed how they work to clean the various facilities. “When he was asking the questions, it was the same questions that we have too,” Custodian Cameron Jeffries said. “Why is this made like this or why was it built like this? So, for someone else to notice this and be interested in this, it feels like this is a real issue and maybe it can be resolved.” 

The human element, says Chukwuemeka, is an essential element when creating a public toilet design that is easy to clean and maintain while enhancing user comfort, safety and health. By reconfiguring or introducing such elements as ventilation systems, bio-aerosol elimination, sterilization, and motion sensing, the new design can mitigate the prevalence of over 50 different infectious diseases and reduce the risk of epidemics.  

His research and observations while at Princeton are helping to shape his initial prototype “What all this is doing for me is a foundational, observational preliminary study that I want to replicate in the pilots that I'm making,” Chukwuemeka said. “The various experiments with the prototype will basically observe what people do. Then we design to match the human behavior.” 

“It felt good that someone was that intrigued and interested in what it is that we do on a day-to-day basis,” Jeffries said. “I feel like sometimes the custodians are overlooked, so you don't really have interaction much with people checking in to see what’s going on.” 

Working on this project at Princeton has been a great privilege, said Chukwuemeka. The support for interdisciplinary research has allowed him to consider architecture, design, epidemiology, behavioral science, policy, and entrepreneurship as he rethinks the design of this essential technology. 

“Sanitation is a primary element of our humanity,” Chukwuemeka notes. “By creating a design that factors in human behavior, we can improve the human experience and reduce the transmission of disease.”