Gray Uhl, Plumbing Guru
This designer has seen the industry create fixtures that use less water and foresees a future in which a house’s water use is a closed-loop system.
How did you end up as director of design for American Standard?
I am a third-generation employee of American Standard. My grandfather joined the company in 1929, and my dad was an engineer at an American Standard research-and development facility. He was on the team that helped pioneer ceramic-disk faucet cartridges, still the state of the art in drip-free faucet technology. I’m really proud of him for that.
As a kid, I would go to work with my dadon Saturday mornings, but I found myself hanging out with the industrial-design team more than Dad’s engineering team. I followed both Dad and Granddad into the industry, but my contribution is monitoring and interpreting trends as an expert in both customer training and media relationships.
What are the most significant developments you’ve seen over your career?
Over the span of my career, I have seen toilets go from a “water-saving” 3.5 gal. per flush to 1.28 gal. per flush today, all without giving up comfort and performance. With the advanced tools that we have today, we are doing things that were not believed to be possible just 10 years ago.
The other big change is the number of bathrooms that consumers now believe is essential: pretty much one per bedroom. I grew up with four brothers in a house with just one bathroom.
How concerned are you about water conservation?
We aim for “better use of water” instead of “water conservation.” It’s really the same idea, except the former is about know-how and the latter is about sacrifice.
What tools do you use to design water-conserving fixtures?
We have developed powerful computer tools that let us see what is happening with the combination of air and water inside a fixture in real time. Once we know how they interact, we can determine the precise volume and geometry to deliver the greatest performance with the least water. We also do a great deal of testing to make sure that our products not only exceed expectations, but that they also work in conjunction with the existing infrastructure. When we have done our jobs right, users don’t even realize that they are conserving water.
How are you approaching the topic of aging in place?
As a designer, my most recent revelation is that aging in place is not the same as the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. The definition of ADA is too limiting to fulfill the ergonomic and aesthetic desires that people are looking for in their home. In every design, we address the reality of special needs no matter what your age. If we can create a great design that works better for those with limitations, then the design will work better for everyone.
Accessibility and safety are as important to young people as they are to those of advanced age. In fact, we just launched a collection of grab bars that look like bath accessories, yet provide safety for all users. At no point does style go out the window.
Tell us about the Flush for Good program. How did that come about, how is it developing, and what’s next?
In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation threw down a challenge to the plumbing industry to find solutions for a global sanitation crisis. I didn’t even realize that almost half the world’s population doesn’t have the piping and sanitary conditions we take for granted. I didn’t know that every day, 2000 children die due to circumstances related to lack of access to adequate sanitation.
We used the same engineering tools that we use to create flush toilets in the United States to pioneer life-saving solutions in Bangladesh with the Flush for Good program. We designed a small sanitary plastic toilet pan that’s connected to a latrine pit and provides a tight seal that keeps out flies and prevents cross contamination. These pans are affordable, easy to maintain, and simple to use. The final tallies aren’t in yet, but we know we’ve reached hundreds of thousands of people.
The Gates Foundation just awarded us a second grant to design a similarly low-cost sanitation solution for sub-Saharan Africa. We aren’t sure yet how the new version will differ, but we do know that this region doesn’t have the ready access to water that users have in Bangladesh.
Illustration: Jacqueline Rogers