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These public toilets are prettier than your house

The award-winning outhouses at Longs Peak aren’t just beautiful, though—they’re a technical solution to a long-standing problem at Rocky Mountain National Park.

If you’re spending time at a national park, the highlights probably include the striking natural landscape, the fresh air, and whatever wildlife you’re lucky enough to spot. The worst part? Probably the bathrooms.

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But that’s not the case if you happen to be climbing Longs Peak, a 14,300-foot-tall mountain located in Rocky Mountain National Park. The three backcountry bathrooms located along the trail blend right into the surrounding rock, with open-air roofs and windows that provide quite the view while you’re doing your business.

[Photo: Jesse Kuroiwa/courtesy AIA]
The prefabricated structures—which recently won the AIA’s Small Project Award for buildings under 5,000 square feet—are mostly composed of metal cages called gabions that are filled with rocks from the surrounding areas. These gabion walls help structurally fortify a thin steel box that composes the outhouse’s interiors, enabling the structure to withstand heavy winds of up to 225 miles per hour.

Designed by the design-build program at University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop, the bathrooms cleverly take advantage of local materials and only require eight days to assemble on-site. All the building materials had to be helicoptered in, and mules and llamas brought food, supplies, and construction tools up the mountain. Each day, the students who worked on the project woke up a 5 a.m. and hiked from their campsite below the tree line up to the toilets’ location. The designers claim that the quick installation and use of rocks as ballast for the structure lessened the impact of construction, reducing destruction to the surrounding plant life by 33%.

The National Park Service first installed backcountry bathrooms along the Longs Peak trail in 1983. Since then, the the number of visitors to the park has doubled, and the toilets were so outdated that the rangers had resorted to shoveling waste out of the toilets into five-pound buckets and then carrying it down the mountain on the backs of llamas. These new toilets instead use a newer system of waste management from a company called Toilet Tech Solutions. The toilets divert urine into the environment—as the company’s website put it, this mimics the way “‘normal’ mammals do their business”—and only collect dry, solid waste, which reduces the amount of waste that needs to be hauled down the mountain by 80%.

Llamas still carry the bags waste down the mountain, but with the Waste Away Toilet, the bags are much lighter and need to be replaced less often—with no shoveling required. This kind of toilet is already used in camp toilets in Mt. Rainier National Park and at Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. Of course, even though the waste system is more modern and these just might be the most beautiful outhouses ever built, there are still some things even good design can’t change—like the smell.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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