The shape of water efficiency

Tom Reynolds from the Bathroom Manufacturers Association (BMA) highlights the increasing urgency for a focus on water efficiency in new builds and retrofits

Water is rarely out of the headlines these days. Whether it’s about water companies and the issues around water pipe leakage or sewage pumped into our rivers and coastal regions. We have seasonal droughts putting enormous pressure on water reserves, and domestic water usage has risen 2% since 2017/18. A mix of poor national water management and climate change means UK water shortages are set to worsen. Research released in May 2023 by Kingfisher and Cebr estimates that seven out of 17 regions in England are set to experience severe water stress by 2030, rising to 12 by 2040.

Action, therefore, is urgently needed, and we all need to play a part.

The UK Government’s ‘Plan for Water’ sets out actions for stronger regulation, increased investment in infrastructure, cleaning our waterways, and, among other actions, delivering a ‘Roadmap to Water Efficiency’ in new developments and retrofits. 

We all hope the Government’s plan works, but what can individuals do to help avert a water crisis? What should architects be looking for to deliver a sustainable and water-efficient bathroom environment?

As the trade association representing UK bathroom manufacturers, the BMA and its members rely on a steady water supply for our products to work effectively. The bathroom space – often that sanctuary of escapism is a heavy water user. Around 70% of household water is used here, and bathroom manufacturers have long identified this challenge, bringing innovative products to market that can provide the opportunity to use less water without compromising aesthetics, functionality and user experience.

How to conserve water

Simple changes can often make a significant impact. Showering is one of the biggest energy and water-using activities; however, specifying smart showers is a step in the right direction. They can reduce or stop the water flow when someone is not directly under the showerhead, achieving significant savings. Reducing time in the shower can go even further, and some digital showers can have timers, prompts, and personalised programmes to fit a routine within a domestic setting. 

Flow regulators can reduce the water from 12 to nine litres per minute for mixer showers. And, for ultimate water efficiency, greywater recycling systems filter water to be reused for garden irrigation or the toilet. Savvy and environment-conscious clients seeking the best eco-friendly bathroom options will thank you for this addition.

The humble tap can also utilise water-saving design innovations. Flow regulators and aerators can be specified and do not impact the experience. In addition, cold start taps can prevent the unintentional operation of the boiler, preventing energy wastage. Using sensor-controlled fixtures in communal commercial spaces is another way to achieve significant savings.

Turning attention to the toilet, innovations like the dual flush valve have allowed consumers to significantly reduce their water use, lowering flush volumes from 13 to just four litres. 

Reputable bathroom manufacturers spend a great deal of time and effort developing water-saving devices for the domestic market and large commercial installations. Take, for example, hotels. The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance estimates that an average hotel can use 1,500 litres of water per room daily. Many establishments nudge their customers to consider water consumption within their personal spaces, but what about communal areas? 

Many communal urinal washrooms are set to flush frequently throughout the day, even if not used. However, recent innovations have resulted in the development of infrared sensor-controlled systems that automatically flush each urinal after use. One UK trial of this system within one hotel achieved a water saving of 84%. 

Driving the uptake of water efficiency

In architecture, where innovation meets creation, it’s crucial to remember that sustainability and water conservation buzzwords should never be dismissed as mere trends. Even in a place like the UK, where rain often graces our landscape,
we are not impervious to the ever-encroaching effects of climate change. It takes only a brief drought to plunge regions into water scarcity.

In response, Defra has charted a clear course for England, aiming to reduce water consumption per capita by 20% compared to the 2019/20 baseline. They envision a future where water labelling becomes ubiquitous on all water-utilising products, from taps and showers to WCs and appliances. The regulations for this mandatory water label are on the horizon, poised for imminent implementation. It is a cause that the BMA and its members have embraced wholeheartedly, actively participating and contributing to this endeavour.

Many international brands have already aligned with the Unified Water Label (UWL). This European-wide initiative clearly labels sanitary ware and bathroom fittings such as toilets, taps, and shower heads, showing how much water each product uses. The UWL, which we hope Defra will adopt, is similar to the energy efficiency labels we often see: red for high use and green for low usage, and it also shows how many litres of water per minute it uses. With many major brands and retailers using the label, the choice of designs, styles, and availability is uncompromised.

The truth is that water-efficient products are already within our grasp, tailored for both domestic and commercial settings. Yet, as stakeholders in our industry, we must collectively amplify the message that these products stand ready for adoption, urging their widespread use. 

The successful adoption of water-saving products, their proper utilisation, and the cultivation of water-efficient behaviours depend on the unwavering commitment of our entire sector. This commitment extends to architects and designers whose creative influence shapes the built environment. I implore architects to initiate the dialogue with their clients, illuminating the substantial long-term benefits to their finances and environmental footprint.

At this moment, architects can transform their designs into catalysts for change, champions of sustainability, and guardians of our water resources. Let us rise to the occasion for the betterment of our planet and future generations. Together, we can make a significant difference, one visionary design at a time.

Tom Reynolds is chief executive of the Bathroom Manufacturers Association (BMA)