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This story was originally published in March 2021.
There was a time when all it took to construct an outdoor privy in Maine was a shovel, some wood and a bit of sweat. Not anymore. Modern privies — or outhouses, as they are more commonly known — are subject to many of the same state and municipal plumbing codes as indoor toilets.
The basic design and purpose of an outhouse, however, has stayed the same. An outhouse is a simple four-walled structure with a wooden floor, a roof, a door and a bench seat with a hole cut into it. That hole empties into a pit latrine dug to hold human waste.
Before the days of indoor plumbing, just about every residence in Maine had an outhouse located separately from the house. Some were single-hole structures designed for one person to use at a time. For those with larger families, two- or even three-holed outhouses were built.
These days there are still folks who want the simplicity of an outdoor toilet. But before you decide to build an outhouse, there are few things you need to know.
Under Maine law, outhouses are considered alternative toilets and must follow the same health and construction regulations as modern indoor bathrooms. These regulations cover depth of the hole, setback from waterways and residential buildings, elevation and maintenance. All of these factors have to be evaluated by licensed professionals before you can start building your outhouse.
“An outhouse is considered a legal septic system in Maine,” said Brent Lawson, soils evaluator and plumbing inspector with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Before you can start building, you need to have a site evaluation.”
That means hiring a private state-licensed septic evaluator to visit your property and go over the proposed location and plans for your outhouse. In Maine, plan on spending between $250 and $300 for a site inspection. According to Lawson, a septic evaluator is going to look at your soil type, the water table and how far the bedrock is below the surface of the ground. Using that information, the evaluator will prepare an engineered plan for your outhouse and instructions on how to prepare the ground around it to become the disposal field, much like the leach field in a traditional home septic system.
“You are still going to need a building permit from your local plumbing inspector,” Lawson said. “And to get that permit, you need the [engineered] design.”
The cost of that permit varies depending on the municipality, so it’s a good idea to check prices with your town office or county administrator before starting your outhouse project.
Most often people wanting to build an outhouse these days are camp owners or folks living off grid, according to Lawson. Up in St. Francis, Mary Jandreau Landry is among those whose vacation camp has an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing.
Landry grew up using outhouses in wilderness settings in the North Maine Woods and has less than pleasant memories of them.
“I remember clearly trying not to sit on the seat and feeling the wood from the base digging into the back of my legs,” Landry said. “I don’t think there is a soul on Earth who has ever experienced an outhouse that didn’t have a fear of what was really down in that hole. The worst of it, that I save for last, is the smell. Aside from every other disgusting part, the smell is the surest aspect that will get you in and out as fast as possible.”
Proper engineering, construction and maintenance of an outhouse can mitigate many of the unpleasant issues people associate with an outhouse, according to Lawson. When built and cared for properly, an outhouse can be comfortable and odor free. The key, he said, is making sure it is well ventilated and using additives like lime, wood ash or sawdust dumped into the hole to neutralize the odors. As for the comfort factor, people can get as creative as they want.
The better built and maintained the outhouse is, the longer it will last structurally — in fact, outhouses can last decades. Eventually, of course, the hole may fill up. According to Lawson those contents, mostly solids, are considered hazardous materials. Any liquids will have leached away through the ground.
“You can have someone come in with the proper [septic waste removal] equipment to suck the solids out and take them away,” Lawson said. “Adding lime or other materials that promote composting of the materials down in the hole will help keep it from filling up quickly.”
Today, Landry has a wilderness camp of her own — complete with an outhouse. When her husband was building it in 2014, she made sure she took the lead on the outhouse’s interior design.
“I was having my home’s countertops replaced and I had one section that was the perfect fit for the outhouse seat base,” she said. “They had nice rounded edges which I knew would feel much better than the rough edges of those planks that scratched my legs so long ago.”
That design feature, coupled with the regular addition of lime by her husband into the pit has made her modern outhouse a more enjoyable and upscaled version than those of her childhood — with one exception.
“The only issue my husband can’t fix for me is the question of all time,” Landry said. “What is really down that hole?”
Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000. More by Julia Bayly