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Sewer Gases & Viruses - Can We Let Something Else Through the Pipes?

On Tuesday February 11, I was reminded why the diagram below was in many of my architecture licensing exams. It actually had also popped into my mind many times while traveling in Asia . In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where the sewer smell fills the apartment units, in a new luxury residential high rise complex. In Hong Kong, where every time you flush the smell of sewer fills the restroom. In China, where in an unlucky day, the restroom door has to be closed to avoid the sewer smell from penetrating the rest of the apartment. And there is little you can do about this. Whether you are traveling or living there long term. The options are usually limited to covering every drain or tossing water into them because it’s a plumbing piping issue.

Tuesday’s report from CNN informed me that back in 2003 during the SARS virus outbreak, 300 people were infected and 42 died in the Amoy Garden complex in Hong Kong because of "improper" plumbing. I honestly did not imagine viruses were another reason why plumbing venting is crucial in buildings.

Although the current scare in Hong Kong seems to point to an isolated incident, where illegal plumbing work in one of the units is to blame, and not building officials or construction companies; it seems it will be easily forgotten again, because the root problem was not mentioned during both incidents: Quality expectations.

Construction companies around the world work under the same model: Cutting cost equals profit. Let’s look at US as an example. With extremely strict building codes, building contractors still manage to cut costs, but the line they are willing to cross is strongly defined by the quality expectations the customer has. Smelly restrooms are not within US customers’ expectations, and from personal experience I can tell you Asian developing countries have plumbing low on the priority list, and it’s hard to blame them. In China, many homeowners build their own homes in villages or city outskirts, and having a property of their own is more important than heating or even proper discharge plumbing. In Hong Kong, the existing unaffordable apartments are illegally subdivided into semi-affordable micro units that resemble human cages. And in Malaysia were makeshift toilet rooms are built with open trenches leading to back street gutters are still not uncommon.

Don’t get me wrong, one of the traits of Asian cultures is their adaptability. It’s amazing how much it has helped them grow in environments that no western country could have in the little time they have, but it also poses some limitations like health problems. And let’s be clear, western countries have also generated health problems from our lifestyle, like obesity, so no judgement behind my observations, just concern about how this can be improved for the world’s sake. What else will come through the pipes next time?

So what can be done to raise the expectations customers in Asian developing countries have for private and public sanitary facilities, construction quality, and social responsibility?

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