Chicago Beachfront Stations Rely on Rainwater to Flush

At $1.3 million dollars each, it’s probably safe to say that Chicago has two of the more expensive lakeshore bathhouses around. The sustainable “comfort stations” designed by Muller + Muller, a local architecture firm, are in many respects bathrooms.

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“Its main purpose is to serve as public restrooms,” said Nick Perry, one of the architects on the project.

Talk about expensive flushing. But it’s how the water system works that is truly innovative. The comfort stations operate on what’s called a water-harvesting system. That is, they collect rainwater, deposit it underground, filter it, sterilize it and then, when the many beers you’ve had all day start talking back to you, the toilets are fully functional, sustainable and at your disposal.

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How it works

“It’s estimated that they can do up to 50,000 flushes in a year,” Perry said.

Does this sound like an episode of “Home Improvement” to you?

While $1.3 million is the price tag for the whole building, including onsite work, the water system itself is definitely a contributing factor.

“It’s a fairly expensive system for the amount of water it’s actually saving,” said John Bauer, president of Hinsdale, Ill.-based Wahaso, the water-harvesting company responsible for the systems used in the Muller + Muller project.

He explained that these demonstration projects are meant to educate people about sustainable options.

The basis of the system is a simple concept – collect, store, use – but sophisticated in nature. While the water is only used in the toilets and is not considered potable, it does get cleansed pretty thoroughly.

“Water is exposed to ultraviolet light and the UV strikes the DNA in any living organism [in the water] and sterilizes the water,” Bauer said.

But what if you need to go, and the rain gods aren’t hearing your call to nature? Not to worry, the systems are backed up to the municipal water supply, said Perry.

The Chicago Office of the Mayor on Wednesday presented Muller + Muller with a Greenworks award for Sustainable Innovation in the Built Environment for their development of the “Lakefront Comfort Stations.” At the moment, two have been built, one at Osterman Beach in Lincoln Park and another at Oakwood Beach in Hyde Park.

But there is more to these innovative restrooms than the sexy green flushing option. The buildings are entirely sustainable. The design of each station capitalizes on the lake’s surplus of breeze, using it to create an efficient ventilation system that doesn’t require air conditioning. Additionally, since the stations are only used during the summer months, Muller + Muller saw it effective to rely on the sun for light, and installed tubular skylights with reflective surfaces.

Could these be the bathrooms of the future? Perhaps. Right now, however, they are probably too expensive for most people. “A simple home system may cost about $10,000,” said Bauer.

“Something that seems a little mundane, can be so creative,” said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Commissioner for the City of Chicago Department of Environment.

“People are going to start touring a bathroom because of what they are doing. How cool is that?”

Suzanne Malec-McKenna
Nick Perry
312.432.4180 x 228
John Bauer