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In the minds of many Americans, outhouses are a symbol of the old west, an antique concept that predates electricity and running water, and a commodity that, for most, is long forgotten. Unless, of course, you are one of the lucky few who understands the benefits and has come to love taking a walk outside.
While it can be difficult for some people to recognize the positive aspects of owning an outhouse, once you have lived it, you may find it harder still to abandon the practice. Whether you live in a dry cabin or you simply enjoy the idea of stepping out and away from other people, outhouses are most assuredly not a structure lost in time, and for off-gridders who love them and the innumerable designs that make each one unique, they are more than just a lost art. They are a structural stroke of genius.
The ‘Hole’ History
The concept of outhouse design dates back to Europe more than 500 years ago, and the structure has undergone numerous changes and improvements since then. During that era, many people were illiterate, so with the emergence of his and her outhouses, symbols were added. The sun or stars represented men’s rooms, while the half crescent moon was reserved for women. Over the years, either because men use or maintain the facility less frequently, it was women who kept outhouses clean and in working order, leaving the crescent moon as the only remaining and identifying symbol for outhouses to this day. While the structure has seen everything from the introduction of toilet paper to heating and insulation, standard outhouses still have the same basic features that they did hundreds of years ago — except now, they can be design masterpieces and personal works of art.
Every outhouse has a few general rules that have to be followed when building one, but from that point, the rest is completely up to you. Make sure that it is 50 to 150 feet from your home to avoid any unpleasant smells, unless you can regularly discard wood chips and fireplace ash down the hole to mask odors. Next, make sure that it is downhill and away from any underground water system that you may have in place, as this avoids toxic contamination and keeps your water source clean. Due to the dangerous build-up of methane gas that accumulates in outhouses, especially those with no windows or air spaces, always make sure to incorporate a vent from the pit chamber to outside, which will reduce odors and keep you safe. Lastly, common depth when digging a hole for the facility is about eight feet, but if you live in a state where temperatures reach below freezing, it is advisable to dig just below the frost line for proper decomposition.
Anyone who has seen an outhouse or even a cartoon sketch of one knows the basic four-by-four wooden structure with one door and a slanted roof for ventilation. While these are most common on hiking trails or old hunting camp-type locations, many people who build outhouses for their own home don’t see a need to improve on what works. But if you live in an area where outhouses are prominent, chances are you have seen some pretty interesting designs and ideas that make you want to go home and redo the whole thing. The following are some of the most unique concepts and basic ideas that will have your outhouse seeming more like a luxury than a dated water closet.
Although this (right) may seem like an average, not everyone incorporates a window and a rain roof. If you live in a wet climate, the benefits of ventilation from a window may help reduce mold, while the roof is a nice touch, both aesthetically as well as for protection in the rainy seasons.
Depending on how much time you plan to spend building your outhouse, this unique design adds more personal space than the average outhouse while nearly masking its identity. The rustic design is suitable for its purpose, and the exterior plants and flowers help to mask any unpleasant odors that may surround the structure.
The double-decker outhouse comes with a long history of jokes, from the trickle-down-theory to the unfortunate soul on the bottom. Fortunately, this design, which has been also been placed next to homes with a walkway from the upstairs, has a pipe that leads down and away from whomever may be using the lower portion. The design is more of a novelty these days, but is still used by people who have space issues or two story homes.
A-frame outhouses are extremely common and an easy way to assemble your own outdoor facility. They are also a great design for those who wish to get away from the standard outhouse, and they can be made using a variety of excess supplies found around your home.
One of the strangest designs we have found, the spherical outhouse may be difficult to build and require a few extra trips to the hardware store, but if you are looking for unique, one-of-a-kind outhouses that guests will be excited about using, try finding some plans online for this project. The door may be a bit tricky, but you can always design your own and make it work for your purposes.
In the old days, people would leave the door open to their outhouse while they were using it to keep the odor down and provide fresh air. While many old-timers admit to still doing this, even when they are indoors, this split-door outhouse is the best of both worlds. Privacy when you need it and a nice breeze or view when you want to leave the door open. These doors can be purchased, fabricated or thrown together using wood you already have laying around.
Regardless of how you design your outhouse, it is still and will always be used for the same purpose that it was created more than 500 years ago. Bachelor outhouses tend to be basic and right to the point, but since it seems that women have kept them alive and evolving through the centuries, it can be nice to create your own space and add some warmth to it. For people living in states with temperatures that exceed freezing, putting a large piece of Styrofoam with a hole cut out for a seat will keep an even temperature compared to standard toilet seats. Sometimes all it takes is a twig as a paper holder, a book rack, finished wood paneling, or a simple picture on the wall to make your outhouse unique. Painting also adds color and warmth, so look around at some ideas before you start overhauling your outhouse.
Designing your own outhouse can be a great project and leaves room to be creative. Just make sure to follow the few simple basics of planning and placement of your outhouse, and the rest is up to you. Making yourself comfortable and adding small touches of either antique or modern feels is a great way to make your outhouse unique and serves as a great conversation piece. Whether you go with the tried-and-true design or something a little more strange, outhouses are more than a private room outside; they are part of your home and maintain the ability to reflect your creativity. Always take safety precautions seriously when undergoing new construction and make sure to check local regulations before you start building your outhouse, as some states and countries have different rules regarding outhouses.
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