Rethinking design

Cleaners happen to spend more time interacting with built structures than the designers or builders of those structures. We experience how design often makes cleaning difficult. Cleaning mostly conforms to design and therefore happens after the fact but a more expansive view of design and cleaning considers the need to clean even before design and all through construction. Doing that saves much effort, time, space and resources throughout the lifecycle of materials, objects, gizmos and structures.

Designing for cleaning among others ensures ease of restoration and renewal. Designers and cleaners need to talk to each other despite perceived social and intellectual separateness. Designers ideally want ease of use and that is why cleaners clean. It is not easy to use if it is not easy to clean. It is unusual but not a bad idea for designers to spend time cleaning what they design in order to gain new perspectives and for cleaners to contribute to design just because they have intimate knowledge of spaces and built structures.

Taking cleaning into consideration is acknowledging that whatever we make will generate dirt simply through use, which will necessitate regular renewal and restoration, unless of course we are designing not for durability but for quick obsolescence and discarding, which seems to be the prevailing design intention. If we are designing for long-term thrivability and ease of use however, ease of restoration is key.

To facilitate cleaning, fixtures need to be easy to access, move and remove. Windows are a case in point. They should be transparent or translucent and be easy to open and/or remove – they should be designed to let in light and air which may seem obvious but is not always the case. Often one of the first things we do when we clean a space is to open the windows and let clean air remove stale air. Clean windows make a huge difference to a space because they allow more light which is a very easy and cost-effective way of changing the “vibe” of a space. Clean windows also create a feeling of spaciousness because they seem to remove the barrier between the inside and the outside since there is no dirt on them. If windows are not easy to remove or to access inside and outside, cleaning them is costly in many ways and when simple restorative actions become too costly in money, time and effort we tend to neglect or discard.

If a phone for example costs nearly as much to restore or repair as to replace when worn out or broken, replacement becomes more attractive and that adds to the waste we are already almost drowning in. Waste management and recycling which are environmental cleaning initiatives need to be considered not downstream at the point of discarding but upstream even before design.

A better way to design spaces is such that occupants can easily clean their own spaces themselves and not need a cleaning “professional”. After all, you do not need a PhD to clean anything. You only need the ability to identify and remove dirt. In addition, the process of cleaning your own space is so therapeutic and healing both for you and your space on many levels that you should regularly do it yourself even if it’s an office space. If it’s an office space, few activities bond people together than cleaning together.

An extreme example of a surface not designed with cleaning in mind is a painted, grooved white flooring in a high traffic area. A grooved floor is difficult to clean but painting it white adds insult to injury. By painting a floor white in a high traffic area that is not a laboratory or sterile environment, you may be unintentionally making a statement that people are not welcome to walk freely on it while making it difficult to clean.

Having said that, there are environments where sterility is important and dirt needs to appear easily because there is a strong need to avoid contamination. Such floors should be painted white so that the need to clean can be immediately obvious.

Floors on which people are welcome to walk freely should not be in sharp contrast to the color of earth in the area. A natural concrete or wood floor may be more dusty than a white painted floor but look and feel cleaner. Much time, effort and water can be saved by having flooring that does not require regular mopping, where regular sweeping or vacuuming makes a difference. An extreme example is dirt floors which only need sweeping and never need mopping. In such spaces, earth is not dirt, it is the floor.

My observation as a Cleaner on many levels is that the closer a material is to nature and culture in the area, the less costly it is to build and maintain, the easier it is to clean, the cleaner it looks even when used often. In any case, not all dirt is bad. After all, our bodies are composed of the same elements as earth. It is okay to befriend some dirt. The farther you are from nature, the harder it is to maintain, usually.

The one who suffers most from making cleaning difficult is of course the Cleaner who could be a janitor, house cleaner or the owner or occupant of a space. For a Cleaner nothing is more frustrating than the inability to easily see the difference your effort makes. True Cleaners exist to make a difference, to restore spaces, surfaces and objects back to beauty and wholeness and when they are denied that satisfaction, cleaning is not rewarding. But it is not only the Cleaner that suffers. The space also suffers.

The beauty of cleaning is that it applies as well to the intangible as the tangible. It is as practical as it is a metaphor. Designing for ease of cleaning goes beyond mopping floors or cleaning windows.

Our bodies are designed for ease of internal and external cleaning, which prolong our lives. Rest is a cleaner that restores our bodies and minds to wholeness again and again and most of the time, we do not need to pay for it. Food ought to cleanse and facilitate waste removal from our bodies and our cells as well as satisfy hunger. Eating food that does not cleanse is like living in a house where cleaning does not happen. At some point, the house becomes uninhabitable. The prevalence of food with minimal to non-existent cleansing value creates a huge market for medication which violate our bodies more than heal them. Much medication can be avoided and we will live healthier if we ate foods that are as cleansing as they are filling.

Relationships eventually become toxic when cleaning is neglected for long enough. They should be designed and built to facilitate regular “cleaning” and “waste removal” through empathic communication and forgiveness. Without these, no relationship can last, no matter how great it starts. Why? Dirt and trash get generated just because imperfect people exist and interact with each other. So cleaning needs to happen again and again. A relationship that is not designed for regular “cleaning” simply allows dirt and trash to accumulate and when that happens, “shared spaces” become unhealthy, not because dirt gets generated but because cleaning does not happen.

Designing and building with cleaning in mind is wisdom. Design should make cleaning an invitation and not drudgery. Design should welcome dirt that comes naturally from traffic, friction, interaction and transactions while making dirt removal easy. The simpler the design and the closer to nature, the easier and less costly it is to clean. The easier it is to clean, the more likely you are to clean. The more regularly cleaning happens, the more sustainable and thrivable a space, a human body, a relationship, an organization, a culture.

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