Of Sinks, Erasers, and Cross-Ventilation

by Tina Blue
August 24, 2002

          The sink counters in the ladies' room at a place where I sometimes work are always a sloppy mess.  There is so much water everywhere that we all stand far back from the counter's edge and stretch uncomfortably forward to wash our hands.

          The mess is caused by the poor design of the sinks: the basin is too shallow, and the spigot goes directly from trickle to torrent.  There is no way to regulate the water flow, either.  No matter how carefully you turn the faucet, a waterfall comes roaring out, splashing a small lake up onto the counters.

          Every time I have to deal with this mess, I think to myself,
What's wrong with these idiots?  This is plumbing, not rocket science.  They've known for years how to design sinks that actually work right!

          But I have been noticing this sort of regression in a lot of areas of everyday life.  Take erasers, for example.  I've used pencils all my life, but only in the past few years have I had to deal regularly with pencil erasers that don't erase.  Sometimes the eraser is such a hard slab of rubber that it simply tears a hole in the paper--like trying to erase with a block of wood.

          More often, the eraser will actually "give," but instead of erasing the words on the page, it leaves a nasty pink and gray smear over them.  I have taken to keeping a supply of eraser "toppers," those little erasers you can stick on top of a pencil.  Or else I keep one of those chunky rectangular erasers we sometimes used for big erasing jobs in elementary school.

          But what's going on here? When did they stop knowing how to make erasers that actually erase? 

          No, wait.  They still know how to do that--after all, my toppers and my chunky erasers all work just fine, which means they must still have that advanced technology available
.  So why don't they put functioning erasers on pencils?

          Another thing we seem to have forgotten about is cross-ventilation.  These days, 75% of all homes in the United States are air-conditioned, and virtually all offices and most other workplaces are, too.  But when I was growing up, air-conditioning was a rare luxury, and not all that long ago it was simply nonexistent.

          So how did we survive before the advent of near-universal air-conditioning?  In fact, how do those hardy souls in other countries survive?  I don't remember encountering much air-conditioning in Spain or Mexico when I used to visit those notably hot countries in the 1970s, and my son assures me that air-conditioning is still rare in Spain. 
          Well, they had this thing back then--and apparently they still have it in other countries--called cross-ventilation.  Houses and apartments had good-sized windows and most of them also had fans.  You could get the air moving pretty well through the miracle of cross-ventilation.  Oh, yeah.  They also had
.  Shade was created by trees.

          But houses and apartments in this country are built on the closed-box model, and usually surrounded by an expanse of concrete or an expanse of manicured lawn.  Even if you open up all the windows, which are usually too small anyway, and run a fan or three, the air you are moving around is the same hot air, not a cooler breeze pulled in from a shaded area outside.

          Wescoe Hall, the building I teach in on the Kansas University campus, is so poorly designed that the windows can't even be opened!  If it is 60 degrees outside, it will be sweltering inside, and the air-conditioners must be turned on full blast. 

          And full blast for that building is astonishingly full.  In the middle of summer, when outdoor temperatures are topping 100 degrees, it is so cold inside my office that I must wear a jacket to work there, and when I step outside I am pathetically grateful for the heat that thaws out my icy hands.  What a huge waste of energy--and money!--to cool our offices to such an uncomfortable degree.

          And in the winter, the buildings are so superheated that I have to keep summer weight short-sleeved shirts in the office to change into.  If I dress for the winter weather outdoors, I will be miserably hot (and embarrassingly drenched in sweat) while working in the office.

          Oh, and the ladies' rooms in Wescoe Hall are also stupidly designed.  There are no sink counters, and the shelf over the sinks, where students and teachers could be expected to park their books or purses while washing their hands, all tilt downward!  There is no way to put a notebook or a pile of papers on those shelves without having them slide directly into the sink.  What exactly are those shelves for?  What could possibly be the purpose of restroom shelves that dump their contents into the sink?

          We know how to do better than this, so why don't we?  Why are so many things so badly designed that they are completely useless?  I could understand if we were breaking new ground in all these areas, but of course we aren't.  We are just screwing up things that have worked fine in the past. 

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