Building an Outhouse

If you're establishing a homestead in a remote area, building an outhouse is something you'll probably want to do in short order. A properly managed privy is at least as healthful for people and land as a septic system.

| March/April 1972

building an outhouse - dig pit

For the pit outhouse, dig an excavation that measures 3 1/2 feet x 3 1/2 feet and is five feet deep. This hole may later be cribbed in, but the cribbing is not absolutely essential.


One of the very first and most important buildings needed on a remote homestead is a privy, which isn't as complicated to construct and maintain as you might have imagined. Both the surface privy and the pit outhouse are simple, straightforward, and easy to understand. As long as you follow some general rules for building an outhouse, you can hardly go wrong modifying either type to suit your own particular materials, skill, or location.

A properly managed privy is at least as healthful for people and land as a septic system and is far more than a place to evacuate waste. Ours is a sanctuary in which to be quiet with no one to ask why you aren't busy; to think or read with no one waiting to get in to shave; to watch a small, pretty piece of the day pass outside (one of the clapboards on our outhouse has a crack that's perfect for viewing through, like Arctic sunglasses). It's a place where body and self are at peace with the rest of the natural world.

Old homestead backhouses were typically screened by a spreading lilac and "going out to smell the lilacs" has long been a useful euphemism in our family. Our antique accommodation was also christened "The Reading Room" by my father for its quantity of old catalogs and magazines and it is next to impossible—while selecting a page of the right texture not to get interested in an article from an old Ohio Farmer or Saturday Review.

To make a page useful beyond its own printed words, we always crush and roll it in our hands. That softens the paper and distributes pressure. Even slick, colored pages can be made fairly efficient and safe this way. Newspapers are better aged until the ink is thoroughly dry. Old telephone books are splendid. For that matter, no one will disqualify you for using commercial toilet paper in an outhouse. It doesn't provide much in the way of reading matter but it is comfortable and does disintegrate rapidly.

I suppose open-pit privies are necessary for the great numbers of people who visit parks and other remote locations, but I find such designs disagreeable. Our old Reading Room located on a gentle hillside of sandy loam is kept healthy by earth, air, bacteria and regular doses of ashes or lime.

Wood ashes are best. If every use of an outhouse is topped by a cupful of them, the building will always have sweet earth smell with never an odor. Coal and trash ashes are almost as good. Superfine agricultural quicklime does a fair job too if you don't mind the strong smell of lime hovering around.

t brandt
12/3/2011 5:04:50 PM

I saw the humor in your comment. You're also right about the rarity of those diseases and it's not like that pit is going to be the only breeding pool for mosquitos on the property. Then again, John's comment is perfectly true, too. The TreeHuggers can always ease their consciences by using olive oil if they feel a need to supress the bugs. It would work just as well.

john sealander
12/2/2011 4:40:07 PM

OH pleeeese! I hardy think that 2.28 gallons of Kerosene per YEAR, as an effective and relatively benign insecticide, qualifies as "addictive use of petroleum products". Particularly when the average American uses 2.8 gallons of petroleum per DAY (CIA Factbook, 2003 data) That's 2 barrels per person per month (it's a 42 gallon barrel) or 1022 gallons annually. You're objecting to 2 one thousands of a percent increase in annual usage? Really? On our farm we use less than 35 gallons of gasoline per year for our tilling and material transport (with a lawn tractor and trailer), chain saw, weed eater, etc; produce a large amount of our own food (including meat), including some to sell at the Farmer's Market. Since one barrel of sweet crude produces about 20 gallons of gasoline, how many barrels did you burn through last year in your car? Mostly we buy sugar, salt, cooking oil and some other food basics at the grocery and are more self-reliant and independant of 'the system' than most folks. Give us all a break...Petroleum products will never 'go away'; I would be delighted to use something less poisonous that will break down into it's carbon basis and safely recycle that human waste on my fields. And terrible diseases are only rare when you're not the one getting them. My hat's off to the author for some really useful information. Learn to love carbon, it's who you are!

tmjoint young
12/2/2011 12:16:11 PM

C'mon... Kerosene? Gotta get away from the addictive use of petroleum products. Caulk the thing well and deal with some bugs. Besides... the diseases you mention are rarely if ever in North America.

bob loveless
2/9/2009 5:50:21 PM

Years ago a man named Chick Sale wrote a small book titled "The Specialist", who built privies. Some of his specifications for a good privy were: it should have a lean-to roof, rather than peaked, because there would be two less corners for the wasps or "mud daubers" to build in; It should face East so that the morning user could enjoy the warmth of the morning sun; and the door should swing inwards so that the user could kick it closed quickly if someone approached while he/she was enjoying the morning sun. I don't remember other specs. Sorry.

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