Flushed for choice

Christopher Middleton chronicles his love affair with the loo
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As a child, I grew up in a house that had four people, one loo and one bathroom. The phrase "en suite" had yet to be invented, and in traditional British sitcom fashion, when the toilet was occupied - you banged impatiently on the door.

As a child, I grew up in a house that had four people, one loo and one bathroom. The phrase "en suite" had yet to be invented, and in traditional British sitcom fashion, when the toilet was occupied - you banged impatiently on the door.

Now, as a parent, I find myself in a house which has five people and (since last week) four loos (three with bath and shower attached).

To be honest, I can't quite understand how it's happened. When we arrived in our Thirties-built house (me, wife and three children), there was just one loo and one bathroom. Then we converted the loft into a bedroom for teenage daughter A, at which point, adding an ensuite bathroom-cum-loo up there seemed a sensible idea (perhaps one day we could rent it out).

Next, we needed a utility room for the washing machine and tumble-drier, and it seemed foolish not to put a loo in there at the same time (ground floor, useful if you were coming in from the garden or on your way out of the front door).

Then our two other children started staying up later and wanting the bathroom at the same time as us - but refusing to share it with us (at a certain age, the sight of parental flesh becomes viscerally repulsive).

So what did my wife and I do? Did we (a) stand firm and wheel out Monty Python we-lived-in-a-shoebox stories of our own lavatorial deprivation as children? Did we (b) insist that our teenage daughter give up her claim to sole use of her loft bathroom and let her brother and sister in there as well? Or did we (c) feebly cave in and build the two younger children their own separate loo and shower room, adding a loo to our own bathroom in the process?

Er, in the end, Option C was the one we went for. Why? Because we could, I suppose - the same reason as people buy a second home in Bulgaria or Azerbaijan. One comfort in all this, though, is that I am not alone. Just as we've all been persuaded by Jamie Oliver to transform our kitchens into dinner-party palaces (thereby making our dining rooms redundant), so we are now being swept along on a tide of enthusiasm for extra ablution-power.

According to a report entitled Bathroom Market UK, by AMA Research, we now spend £827 million per year on new bathroom fittings - compared to just £649m in 1998. And when it comes to washbasin, bidet or whirlpool spa design, we are, so to speak, flush for choice; last year, Moods Bathrooms (the country's largest distributors) increased their product range from a mere 82 to a mind-boggling 430.

So does all this mean we're much cleaner as a nation? No - just more impatient. "I simply haven't got time in the morning to stand around on the landing waiting for my daughters to finish washing their hair," says Kent commuter Andrew Gibbs. "I found I was missing my train so often that I had no option but to convert our old downstairs coat cupboard into my own shower and dressing room."

Others have had the same idea, too. A quick survey of my neighbours' houses reveals mini-bathrooms that have been created out of everything from garages to garden outhouses, from stairwells to airing cupboards.

As for new houses, two loos is an absolute minimum, if only because current building regulations (Part M) now demand that even the smallest house has a wheelchair-accessible (ie ground floor) lavatory. More and more apartments, too, are being built with two bathrooms.

"We have to accommodate the trend towards 'pairing purchases' - that is, siblings or friends hooking up to buy together as the way onto the property ladder," says Stuart Wallace, managing director of Bellway north London. "Whereas a couple are happy to share a bathroom, pairing purchasers want their own private space. For similar reasons, investors buying properties for rental purposes want two bathrooms in a two-bed apartment, as this enables them to rent out to individuals, and not just couples."

House-buyers, meanwhile, want still more. "These days, the optimum number of bathrooms seems to be three, regardless of the size of house," says Alan Taylor, sales and marketing director of Rushmon Homes. "There's also an increasing demand for flexibility of use."

So where will it all end?At the up-market Wycombe Square development, in Kensington, developers St James Homes are building six-bedroomed townhouses with no less than five bathrooms-cum-loos, four of them en-suite.

There is, it seems, no resisting the triffid-like advance of bathrooms across the land, despite small pockets of resistance from disenchanted individuals such as my friend Alan (full name withheld for reasons that will become obvious).

"Previously, we had a stand-alone loo, and if I made it uninhabitable for a bit, no one minded," he complains. "Now we've got three loos that have all got baths in them, and I feel guilty because I know that people will be coming in there to have a shower or wash their hair. So although we've now got more loos than ever before, I feel bad about using any of them."

It's a valid point, though not something you'll find mentioned in the glossy bathroom brochures, where the subject of smell just doesn't come up.

Nor does another uncomfortable statistic - the one which says that while in this country we're moving inexorably to a one-loo-per-person level of provision, in the slums of sub-Saharan Africa 87 per cent of people don't have access to a toilet at all.

Not that this thought amounts to much when stacked up against the combined forces of the world sanitary fittings industry and our own lifestyle ambitions. At the same time, though, it might just make me think twice about how totally and utterly my personal happiness depends on having that fifth bathroom.