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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. Everything in nature is regenerative, waste from one process is always used in another, 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 grow plants and eat them, and our waste product is returned to feed them, the circle is complete.

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. Working in a non linear way means not being attached to outcomes. It 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. This approach is similar to Land Art or Earth Art, a movement that uses the natural landscape to create site-specific structures, art forms, and sculptures.

The difference is this will be a functional object. 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 piece will be a unique individual  organic structure, which is in intimate relationship with place and in service to the Earth. 

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

The installation is sited in 'the land' on which I live. The 350 trees I planted here 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. But I also intend to hold outdoor workshops here including learning to work with 'green' wood, gardening for wildlife and forest school for children. I will personally use it as much as I can, when the weather permits! It is about 200ft from the house.

Chris Snelgrove is the project manager and builder, he is very experienced working with green wood, and builds yurts. He was a civil engineer and together we have 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. Construction work was allowed and being outdoors encouraged. We worked on it one day a week and it provided a regular focus point and connection to nature in a difficult time.

Oaks for posts

A ceremony of gratitude to the selected trees using the plant music device which listens to the electrical impulses passing through the trunk.


Chris cuts 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. They have  given strength and structure to builds throughout history.


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 prevented it from draining away.

Making the frames

The front and back of the building were constructed on the horizontal, on top of the scaffolding tower I had which kept the wood off the ground. Here a cherry tree is being prepared for the horizontal beam at ground level, revealing the orange coloured heartwood.

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 mainly floorboards salvaged from Ashwell House, a care home in my village 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 to create James Turrell skyscape experience whilst on the loo.

Joining wood the traditional way

Chris wittled these pegs from some seasoned oak he had. 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 makes 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 on the floor.

Coppiced hazel being fitted for the uprights.

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

The weave is well on its way. The door is from one of my sheds and the hinges are from the local reclaim.

The hazel withies give the walls structural strength to take the daub.

I'd been looking out for the large piece of wood that couldn't come from the surrounding land. I found it in the Broads at Farihaven Gardens where they have ancient oaks and were selling slices of some that had fallen.

Cutting the plank to fit and marking the hole.

The location

I live in South Norfolk which is part of an area known as The Claylands. This landscape is on the great plateau of glacial till or boulder clay deposited by the retreating ice-sheet of the Anglian Glaciation. 

The clay lies not far beneath the topsoil and meant we we able to use the spoil from the pits dug in the build using the traditional 'wattle and daub' method. The clay is rich in nutrients which is why this is a predominantly agricultural part of East Anglia. Unfortunately intensive farming has caused extensive hedgerow loss and there is virtually no woodland.

The mud we dug out has a high clay content, mixed with sand and some hay from the meadow it makes the 'daub'.

The hazel structure slowly disappears.

The daub is applied to the outside.

to be continued...

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