Ever wonder what goes into the design of an outhouse at Ontario Parks?

Ever wonder why outhouses—  at least the ones in Ontario’s provincial parks—  have steel bars at the bottom of the chute?

Small design tweaks include changing plywood doors that porcupines loved to gnaw on

Comfort stations are an updated version of the classic outhouse in Ontario's Parks. (Supplied by Ministry of Environment, Recreation and Parks)

Ever wonder why outhouses—  at least the ones in Ontario's provincial parks—  have steel bars at the bottom of the chute?

Matthew Harvey, an architect with Ontario Parks, said they are, bluntly-put, "kid catchers."

"When I started the job 26 years ago I asked the same question," Harvey told CBC's Morning North. "And they said to me 'well there was an incident, and a kid.'"

"It came to light that they needed to put them in to stop kids from going down the hole."

Archives from Algonquin Park show the conceptual design plans for a 'prefab privvy.' (

They also learned, through trial and error, that those catchers had to be made from stainless steel to prevent corrosion. 

It's just one of the features in the design of Ontario Parks outhouses, Harvey said. But the most Canadian feature of the outhouses are the spacers used to keep the structure off the floor.

"To my personal delight, there are hockey puck spacers on the bottom," Harvey said. "It gets the bottom plates up off the floor so they don't rot away, and there's nothing more inexpensive and easy to obtain and inert as hockey pucks."

Harvey said despite the simple design of the traditional outhouse, the parks have had to make some minor changes to the base model.

"Quite often it will be made of a pressure treated wood to keep it from rotting," he said. "And the interior finishes we've moved from plywood because that was like candy for porcupines, they love eating that."

"But what we've got instead are these panels with fibre-reinforced plastic coating, which is very similar to what you see on the inside of hockey arenas for the boards."

"It's a very similar material and it's durable. Takes a lot of abuse and you can hose it down. It's also used in slaughterhouses," Harvey added.

Plywood doors, a standard on one outhouse model, had to be changed out when it became "like candy" for porcupines. (Supplied by Ministry of Environment, Recreation and Parks)

He said that most design changes come from feedback they've received through park users.

"The campers aren't hesitant to let you know when you've got a dud or whether you've got a winner," Harvey said. "But more importantly, park maintainers and superintendents are also not shy to share their opinions about the performances of these things." 

One of the most significant changes to outhouses in recent years comes not from the materials used to build them,but rather from the signs. 

Harvey said Ontario Parks have been working with Parks Canada to come up with a standardized signage system to be more inclusive and consistent.

"On signs for washrooms where they're barrier-free, we just have the barrier free symbol and sometimes a barrier-free symbol with a toilet. We don't indicate a sex on it," Harvey said. 

"That way for whoever needs to use it, it's there. We don't make any sort of distinction about who has access to it."

One of Harvey's favourite privvies is one he calls a 'Tardis' in Frontenac Park. (Supplied by Ministry of Environment, Recreation and Parks)

As for the future of the outhouse, Harvey said he'd like to see more emphasis placed on exploring composting technology. Even with a push in that direction, it's unlikely they'll be disappearing anytime soon, despite people asking him why parks still use them.

"When your power goes down, which is quite common in northern Ontario, you can't flush the toilet because of your power." 

"So quite often when everything goes south, you can still always use a vault privvy.  So they are never going to disappear."

One common name for an outhouse is 'Thunderbox' (Supplied by Ministry of Environment, Recreation and Parks)


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