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The Compost Toilet - a work in progress

'Art is simply how you look at life' Hamish Fulton

Our history is in the earth, everything that has ever been is returned to it.

Working towards a regenerative culture means we need to think in a circular way. In nature waste from one process is always used in another, everything is in continual transformation.

Water is one of the most precious resources and we use it for the disposal of human waste. More than a quarter of the average household water use comes from flushing toilets. At five flushes a day, one person may use as much as 2,336 gallons each year.

Compost toilets are dry or waterless toilets, they don’t use water to take the waste somewhere else. No chemicals or bleach are used. Urine is diverted into a soakway. After a resting period ‘Humanure’ is produced from the solids, rich in the basic nutrients that fertilise soil for plant growth. We eat plants and our waste product is returned to feed them.

The building of this compost toilet is a collaboration with the land in which it is sited, and is deeply contextual. This is a departure from my past work. The making is the experience, the process of working directly with, rather than representing, nature. It will involve the spontaneity of using materials at hand or sourcing as locally as possible. Being in a non linear network of chaos and uncertainty is the way nature works, following the feedback loops of an evolutionary process.

I will be working with the natural patterns and forces of the world. The genre could be based loosely with Land Art or Earth Art, a movement that uses the natural landscape to create site-specific structures, art forms,and sculptures. The sculptural equivalent of nature poetry.

Considering this journey and the final piece as art challenges traditional art made with no function, often bought and sold for profit, using resources and just existing to be seen.

Far from the infinitely repeatable uniformity of Duchamp's urinal, this will be a deeply personal relationship with the individuality of an organic structure, never repeatable which is in service to the Earth.

In an interconnected world, all acts of service contribute to the solution of all world problems.

The trees I planted over 20 years ago are now becoming quite large. The Woodland Trust placed them fairly close together and advised some thinning would need to be done. I first did this about 10 years ago, the logs and 'brush' (branches and twigs) were scattered around the wood to create habitat.

This time around the trees are big enough to be used in a small build. A compost toilet and shower will be great for when people come to visit over the summer and camp in the meadow. I also intend to hold outdoor workshops including learning to work with 'green' wood, gardening for wildlife and forest school for children. I will use it as much as I can, when the weather permits!

Chris Snelgrove is project manager and builder for this, he is an experienced wood man, and builds yurts. He was a civil engineer and has designed the look and the functionality of the build. Chris has a deep affinity with what I call the gesture of the tree, working with its individual character, and a tool for every different task. I am enjoying learning from him.

The project began in autumn 2020 and continued through the 3rd Covid lockdown.

Oaks for posts

A last listen to the selected trees using the plant music device and a prayer of thanks for their sacrifice.


Chris cut a wedge out first then does the main cut on the opposite side. This helps guide the trees to where you want it to fall.

The sound of the chainsaw and the sight of the trees, that have been growing under my watch for so long, falling, was quite painful.


Suddenly this tree is severed from its root system and is not a living being but a piece of wood.

These oaks, striving for light, have grown very tall and straight and will make perfect posts.


Chris taught me to use a traditional tool called a Spoke Shave, which held at a certain angle can be used to effectively strip the bark from the trunk.

The foundations

Holes were dug and filled with rubble for the foundations. The pit where the poo will compost down continually filled with water over a very wet winter. The layer of clay in the soil did not allow it to drain away.

Making the frames

The front and back of the building were constructed on the horizontal, using the scaffolding tower I had to keep the wood off the ground. A cherry tree is used for the horizontal at ground level, the wood is quite orange inside.

Chris chiselling sections for the joints which will be screwless

A horizontal crossbeam and upright post to be fitted together.

Finally the frames are lifted into place and braced.

The barn where I live was constructed in 1762 in much the same way...

Crossbeams for the roof and the first plank going on. The planking was salvaged from a building being stripped out less than 1000m from the build.

The roof complete. I had an old square window knocking about so we made a skylight for a James Turrell skyscape experience whilst on the loo.

Chris wittled these pegs from some seasoned oak. It needs to have been cut for at least a year.

The beams are held in place while the hole is drilled. A modern drill make this far less laborious...

The peg is then knocked in. Pegs need to be seasoned oak so they don't shrink.

The 'green' oak of our beams will shrink around the pegs to make a tight fit.

The reclaimed floorboards going down.

Coppiced hazel being fitted for the uprights.

My job to weave the 'withes', much harder work than it looks!

to be continued...

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