I was sitting in a meeting with the owners of an affordable housing project — a disastrous building from the early 80s, a nightmare with neither form nor function. Its exterior was a huge expanse of off-white vinyl siding, orange brick, and forest green trim. Its interior was filled with badly degrading finishes, serious ventilation issues, and extensive water damage.
Fortunately, the building had recently changed hands, and the new owners wanted to improve the residents’ quality of life. Thus, our meeting quickly transitioned to a conversation on cultural considerations. About a third of the building’s residents were East African immigrants, and this building simply did not meet their needs (not that it met anyone’s needs particularly well). However, there were some unique cultural dilemmas that needed to be addressed.
The first was the range hoods, which inexplicably vented directly into the upper kitchen cabinets. While venting a range hood into a cabinet is certainly bad practice, it doesn’t necessarily end in disaster. However, the client brought up the fact that East Africans often make and eat meals communally, slow-cooking food in large pots, sometimes for hours at a time. The enormous amount of steam this generates ends up inside the medium-density fibreboard (MDF) cabinets, leading to a horrifying amount of degradation. In some cases, the cabinetry was literally disintegrating onto the stove top.
Another issue was water damage in the building’s bathrooms. The vanities were made of the same laminated MDF as the kitchen cabinets, and were subject to the same level of damage. The client’s initial assumption was that the water damage had been caused by bathroom hygiene practices. In some parts of the world, including East Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, water is preferred over toilet paper. This cleaning technique is accomplished through the use of a vessel known as a lota, which is similar in appearance to a watering can. During lota use, perhaps some of the water was getting onto the floor and seeping into the base of the vanity?
The client immediately suggested bidets as a solution, and the contractor sitting in on the meeting ran some quick calculations. The price was significant, because bidets (even the retrofitted toilet seat variety) would need both plumbing and electrical access. We parted ways at the end of the meeting, with the client agreeing to discuss the issue with the building’s residents.
At the next meeting, the client arrived armed with new knowledge. They had spoken with a member of the East African immigrant community, and had learned three very important things:
- The cultural toilet practices were not going anywhere anytime soon. The woman they had spoken to knew third-generation immigrants who still followed this practice and fully intended to pass it on to future generations as well. Lota use was something that would have to be addressed, not simply treated as a temporary situation.
- Bidets were not a suitable solution. In the opinion of East Africans, a bidet simply does not accomplish the same task as a lota. The resident’s uncle had a bidet installed at his house, but whenever the family gathered there it went unused, since everyone preferred to use the lota that always sat beside the toilet.
- The water damage was unlikely to be coming from lota use. Lota toilet practices are generally very controlled, and would be unlikely to cause significant water damage. However, Muslim East Africans have to perform a series of ritualistic washings before prayer, six in total. According to her, although some Muslims will perform these washings in the bathtub, others do not see this as a proper choice, and would prefer to do it standing in the middle of the bathroom. It was far more likely that this was the source of the water damage.
Needless to say, this series of realizations flipped our understanding of the problem completely on its head. We, with our limited understanding of the culture we were serving, had assumed that we understood the root cause of the water damage. But we had been wrong. As westerners, we had assumed that the western equivalent of water-based toilet hygiene would be a suitable substitute for the lota. But we were wrong again. And we had completely missed the real reason for the water damage in the bathrooms, a common religious practice that no one in the room had considered until it was brought to our attention by a resident.
In the end, we addressed the problems, both easy and hard. The range hoods were vented (correctly this time) to the exterior of the building, and a waterproof floor with an integrated cove base was installed in the bathrooms. However, the hard problem did not have to be so difficult. The importance of consulting with a member of the community we were trying to serve cannot be understated. It was a lesson we could have learned far earlier, and one that I intend to apply to all future projects. Not all designs end up at the right solution, and ours very nearly didn’t. But I’m glad that in the end, we heard the voice that needed to be heard.
Justin Horst is an interior designer for Cuningham Group’s Live studio in Minneapolis. He applies his knowledge of diverse design fields including interior design, experience design, and industrial design to his work at Cuningham Group.