Bristol Housing Festival
Re-imagining better ways to live in our cities


ThinkBig, Think Smalls...


Think Big, Think Smalls! 

As we seek to reimagine the future of our city through models of homeownership, building and alternative ways to live in our cities, Bristol Housing Festival project manager and founder of At The Well cafe-laundrette, reminds us that we need to re-imagine all our daily routines and systems, even seeming menial tasks like doing our laundry! 

Ellen, who runs a laundrette in Bristol and has a doctorate in Construction Innovation from the Engineering Systems Centre (a collaboration between the Universities of Bristol and Bath), is convinced that shared laundry facilities could have a valuable role in both building neighbourly local communities and reducing our environmental footprint. Read on to find out why.

In 2012 we (my two sisters, my mum and I) opened a cafe-laundrette in Stokes Croft, Bristol. We wanted to create a community space in which everyone in this diverse area could feel welcome. The inclusion of a laundrette was never a quirky twist to give our cafe a unique selling point, it was essential to our vision for this new neighbourhood space. 

We founded our startup business on the inkling that launderettes might be uniquely placed to establish and nurture community in our time. After seven years of trading we are privileged to have created a space where people from all walks of life regularly come and use the amenities; the washers, driers, wifi, printer or just come to buy a drink and use the cafe-laundrette as a Third Space

We think laundrette-cafes could have an exciting future in the UK, reducing our environmental impact and establishing neighbourly communities on our high streets and in our cities.

But what inspired this combination? What is it about laundrettes?

Between 2004 and 2007 we all had the opportunity to travel to Zambia, visiting a range of projects supporting vulnerable women and orphans. Against a back drop of desperate material poverty we were struck by the rich social fabric and sense of community. Back home in the UK we realised that the reverse is true. We are materially rich but socially poor. Furthermore, our cities, homes, systems and technologies seem to be evolving to further erode community. Self-service checkouts, pay-at-pump, Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo, Monzo (all of which I use and generally rate), are all, under the banner of efficiency or personal convenience, reducing the need for basic human interaction. 

Using my local high-street laundrette (I hated having washing hung all over my flat) I came to the revelation that even in the UK, laundrettes were places where social interaction was acceptable, welcomed even. If only laundrettes could be staffed by friendly people who could talk you through the use of the machines and pour you a cup of coffee, I thought! Four years later we named our cafe-laundrette At The Well, because we wanted it to reflect the neighbourly community that daily forms around the tap-stand (or well) in Zambia. A place where people would come together to wash, to drink and generally bump into one another and exchange stories. 

The history of laundrettes in Britain

The first public laundry facility in Britain was opened by Kitty Wilkinson in her own home in 1832. An epidemic of cholera had broken out in Liverpool and Kitty took to letting poor families wash their clothes and bedding in her kitchen for a small fee. She taught her neighbours about the relationship between dirt and disease and how clothes could be laundered to kill of cholera bacteria. Recognising the benefits of Kitty’s initiative the city council opened the first official public wash-house and baths in 1842, which Kitty went on to become superintendent of. In the light of the public-health benefits demonstrated in Liverpool, wash houses, or steamies as they were known in Scotland, were opened across Britain. By 1915 there were wash houses in every major city in the country.

 For women wash-day became a social gathering, an opportunity to get out of the house and catch up with friends and neighbours. During the war eras the community at the wash house provided a valuable support network for women. The demise of wash-houses coincided with the invention of domestic washing machines. This new labour saving technology was swiftly adopted and by 1959 almost half of all households had a washing machine. With the purchase of a washing machine, laundry turned overnight from a communal activity into a solitary one. For some women this was immensely liberating, for others it was immensely isolating. In many cities women fiercely opposed closure of their local wash-houses.

The gender gap in housework has substantially reduced but laundry is still disproportionally undertaken by women and is classified as a ‘female-typed’ task in gendered housework studies. Research looking specifically at gender division in laundry (click here for an example)  has identified a difference between laundry done in the home and out of the home. The emergence of high-street laundrettes (the UK’s first coin-operated launderette opened in May 1949 in Bayswater, London) was perhaps significant in challenging traditional gender ideologies around laundry. To our surprise, rightly or wrongly, we have observed that the majority of our laundry customers At The Well are male. At a time when we are looking to reduce gender inequality, both in the workplace and the home, cafe-laundrettes, which enable a whole new type of multi-tasking would no doubt make a fascinating social demographic study. 

Laundrettes in popular culture

In the latter half of the 20th century high street laundrettes became hugely popular; they offered modern labour-saving washing technology in a social, community space. The popularity of laundrettes in their hey day is evidenced by their use in popular culture and advertising.

On boxing day 1985 Levi’s launched a new advert Launderette’, which featured pin-up Nick Kamen stripping down to his boxer shorts to put his jeans on to wash. The steamy ad became an overnight hit and is still one of the most evocative adverts in TV history. The laundrette was the ideal fit for this advertising campaign, for not only was fifties Americana bang on trend but laundrettes, like Levi’s jeans, were egalitarian - designed to appeal to the masses. 

A laundrette was also chosen as the setting for the 1985 cult classic My Beautiful Laundrette’.The film was an exposé of an number of divisive social issues in 1980s Britain, including the class divide, immigration, mixed-race relationships and homosexuality. In this film a laundrette proved to be the ideal neutral, non-judgemental space in which to set an enduring film challenging social prejudice. 

It was also in 1985 that laundrette supervisor Dot Cotton first appeared in Eastenders. Ever since, Walford’s laundrette has been privy to some of Albert Square’s most intimate going’s on. Over the years Dot has become a household name and the unchanged appearance of the laundrette has provided audiences with a comforting continuity and sense of nostalgia.

The unceremonious appeal of the laundrette is perhaps best summed up in the lyrics by Aesop Rock & Kimya Dawson in their hit Delicate cycle’. 

“My dad worked at the laundromat, which was really cool to me. I would meet all kinds of people there and I would look them in the eye and I'd say "Hi! Excuse me, but do you mind if I shine the glass while your clothes dry?”

I was 26 years old the first time I lived in a house with a washer and dryer in it and that was the year I bottomed out. Maybe what was missing was the sense of community that comes from hauling your big old load out in public and airing your dirty laundry. Maybe what was missing was the company of other people, who also don’t have the amenities at their convenience, whose homes aren’t so set up that they never have to leave.

I miss the smell, the dust, the coins, the trust, the squeaky carts, the vibrations. The bucket full of bleach, the dryer sheets, the old pay phone, the giant sink. And watch my daddy mop the floor and my heart started with a quarter.”

In an age when we are only ever one-click and 0% finance away from having whatever we need delivered to the comfort of our homes, we are inching ever closer to never having to leave our homes. Might we too be at risk of bottoming out? 

So why do we think there is a future for laundrettes?

Although the number of laundrettes on our high streets has substantially reduced, laundrettes in all their egalitarian, nostalgic, neutral, non-judgemental, unceremonious  - ‘ordinariness’, continue to appeal. In December 2018 Google’s flagship store on Regent Street, featured a cafe-laundrette in their Christmas window display. Creative design agency ‘We Are Amplify’ said that the cafe-laundrette was an opportunity to “make the everyday more extraordinary”. Similarly, a cafe-laundrette (ours in fact) was chosen to advertise the new Audi Q2, as both were deemed 'untaggable. The laundrette is clearly hipster, and not just in Scandinavia. 

In November 2018 Bristol joined cities all round the world in officially declaring a Climate Emergency. We urgently need to re-imagine and take radical action to dramatically reduce the impact of our daily lives on the environment. This includes seemingly innocuous, everyday tasks such as doing laundry. 

Business models that enable 'collaborative consumption, sharing the use of assets or services, have the potential to tackle both global warming and community break down at the same time. Sharing white goods, such as washing machines and tumble dryers, reduces the demand for materials, increases the utilisation of physical assets, creates demand for efficient and durable technologies and ultimately reduces the burden of disposal at the end of their useful life.

When I moved into my first flat in the city I started using my local laundrette for the tumble drying. Whilst rows of white sheets billowing against a brilliant blue sky is a glorious image, this is regrettably a far cry from the experience of busy city-dwellers. Few are fortunate enough to have a garden with a line and the British weather is too unpredictable. Rather as people's living space decreases their laundry is increasingly likely to end up draped over airers, chairs and cupboard doors. Not only does this make laundry an unsightly, twenty-four hour palaver, but it fills our living spaces with moisture, aggravating asthma and contributing to condensation and mould growth in our buildings. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for reducing our dependence on energy usage but in urban environments just hanging laundry around our homes is a good solution.  

Furthermore, the environmental impact of doing laundry is certainty not limited to operational energy usage. Laundrettes could be well placed to tackle the problem of microfiber pollution, for example. Like so many Blue Planet watchers, I was horrified to learn that washing synthetic clothing is significantly contributing to filling our oceans with countless tiny plastic microfibers. Laundrettes could provide a viable scale to quickly retrofit or roll out emergent filter, water treatment technologies or ultimately more disruptive innovation in laundry services as they are developed. 

There are already businesses that can collect and return your laundry via an app on your smartphone or via a drop-off locker on the street corner. Is laundry also to appear to vanish online? I suggest that this would just act to hide the centralised commercial laundry factories and associated vehicle movements that would be required. Rather, lets’ design-in neighbourliness by reinventing the humble laundrette in our communities. Let’s make them efficient, environmentally-conscious, attractive and comfortable places to be. Let’s use our laundry as a reason to walk from our homes and meet our neighbours. Maybe everyone will learn to love doing laundry and the excuse it can provide to catch up or sit and read, write, draw, design, dream or just drink a pot of tea or a cup of coffee. 

sigh jones