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Designing Minds 18: Good Ideas from Abroad

When is an idea from another country not just "different" but "innovative"? When it might be an improvement over the current homegrown way, of course.

In terms of design and functionality, I've noticed a few features on my recent overseas jaunts that would be just as practical here as they are in their country of origin.

The French WC

As you know from your own visits or from all those cookbooks and TV shows on Provence, the climate of the South of France is remarkably similar to Northern California--which is to say, dry. As I learned when I stayed at my brother's house outside Nimes, residents' water bills are more expensive than ours. As a result, conservation is a key concern.

One conservation method the French have deployed is a ""WC'' or toilet which is so common-sensical in design that it makes you wonder why you don't find similar fixtures here. Here's the trick: a dual-control flush (actually, a split button on top of the tank). If you press half of the button, you trigger a low flush for ""number one'' waste; pressing both halves provides a full flush for ""number two" waste.

This two-step control seems to solve the conservation issue better than the low-flow toilets we get by fiat here, which all too often seem to require two flushes to work properly, thus defeating the conservation goal.

The winner in the water conservation sweepstakes has to go the Japanese toilet, though, with a small lavatory sink built into the tank lid. As you wash and rinse your hands, the waste water falls from the basin into the toilet tank, where it is used later to flush the toilet. How's that for re-use of water?

Another design feature of the French toilet, at least those in detached single-family homes, is the fixture's isolation in its own small space away from the bathroom proper. In my brother's explanation, the French consider it undesirable to have the WC in the same room where you take a bath and perform your toiletries. Whether you agree or not, the design certainly frees up the bathroom by separating WC from non-WC use.

Shutters That Work

While a concern for water conservation might be considered modern, a concern for security of home and hearth is as ancient as the first mud brick dwelling.

The French countryside homes provide security for windows with thick wooden shutters. Not the faux ""French Provincial'' shutters you see tacked on the stucco of new subdivision homes in Contra Costa, but honest-to-goodness wood shutters that actually open and close.

They're not just a feature found on old farm houses, either; my brother's recently constructed home has heavy shutters which they open in the morning and close when summer days heat up or when they leave for the day.

Each set of shutters has a heavy steel rod as a locking device: no burglar with a jimmy or crowbar is going to pry open those shutters in less than an hour of hard labor.

Floor Drains

Although home designs and materials couldn't be more different in China, Japan and Thailand, one feature can be found in all three countries: floor drains in the bathroom.

One reason for this can be simply space, or the lack thereof; in a tiny bathroom, there isn't room for a dedicated shower stall, and so the shower head is often a flexible-hose type mounted on the bathroom wall. The floors and walls are all tiled, and a floor drain takes care of the water from bathing.

But even in the most spacious bathrooms in Asia there is generally a floor drain. While there are various cultural reasons for this--the Japanese, for instance, often sit on a small wood bench and fill a bucket from a spigot to soap up and rinse off before entering the furo (hot tub)-- the obvious benefit to an all-tile bathroom with a floor drain is the ease of cleaning. Just wash and rinse all the surfaces and fixtures, and the waste water drains away.

Easier housework? Now there's an idea worth importing.

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