Feature Article - September 2012
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Safe, Accessible, Durable & Green

The Latest Trends in Restroom Structures

By Chris Gelbach


Parks and other agencies also have the option of going with pre-engineered buildings sold as a kit that can then be shipped to the site and put together by a contractor. This approach offers a great deal of flexibility in terms of design, but requires more effort in making sure that the contractor constructs the building correctly.

A variety of factors, including local labor costs, can factor into whether building onsite or going prefab will be the most cost-effective. And factors such as weather, commitment to regular maintenance and exposure to salt water and other stressors can affect the relative life of concrete versus cinder block and wooden structures in various environments.

In terms of speed, there's no doubt that prefabricated buildings can be installed more quickly than buildings built on site. For this reason, Giannini finds that their use can sometimes make larger projects go more smoothly. "These buildings can be pushed toward the end of the project and dropped on site within a couple of days. So there's an advantage in terms of construction scheduling that I think is really helpful," he said.

New Options in Green Design

Sustainability in restroom-structure design is another trend that has been gathering momentum in recent years. Trends such as low-flow and no-flush fixtures can frequently offer cost savings in addition to environmental benefits, depending on the application.

One example would be areas where water supplies are limited, or where running sewer and water would be cost-prohibitive. "If you're in an area with limited water resources, the vault-type waterless system is a great alternative," Rachak said. "Even the low-flush toilets use around 1.5 gallons of water. You do that 1,000 times, that's a lot of water."

Most commonly, a downtown location with pre-existing water and sewer will typically opt for a traditional toilet facility, whereas dry facilities are more often seen in remote locations where running water and sewer out would be difficult to put in place. But sometimes cost can also play into the equation. "Theoretically, the ones without the plumbing are going to be a little cheaper," Smith said. "At a ball field, say, where they could run the water and sewer in, they may still opt for the pump-out system."

Those particularly focused on an environmentally friendly option may also consider a compost toilet. Don Mills, sales director for a manufacturer of compost toilets based in Greater Boston, sees customers selecting this option in response to the need to protect the environment, particularly water resources, or when they wish to have a non-smelling toilet system in a remote location where a Porta-John or vault toilet would be their only other option.


For parks and rec applications, Mills sees compost toilets most often used in golf courses to replace a Porta-John with a better-smelling alternative that fits in with the character of the course. He also sees them being used in park facilities with a tight budget that want something to go into a remote area. But dry and composting toilets are occasionally seen in urban situations, as well. One notable example is the Bronx Zoo, which opted for composting toilets instead of establishing an expensive sewer connection or building a new septic system near the Bronx River.

Both vault and composting toilets can be long-lasting, with the lifecycle of the material selected for the external structure often being the determining factor in durability. "The life cycle of the composing unit is unlimited because it's made of polyethylene," said Mills. "There are many instances where the structure has been replaced and the underlying compost units have not."

Another green feature being seen more and more often in restroom facilities is solar panels. Used on a small restroom in a remote location, the panels can affordably power the restroom's lights and fan and provide significant savings when compared to the cost of running power out to the structure. The panels can also be customized for optimal use in a variety of climates, from the bright sun of Phoenix to the cloudy skies of Seattle. "Every system is designed for that latitude and is sized completely differently based on power needs, latitude and weather," said Rachak.

According to Rachak, a basic solar system for such an application can be purchased for as little as $2,500. But larger applications requiring more panels typically cost more and require longer to achieve a return on investment. For instance, Giannini recently used solar panels in a building a small sports park. "They're more than cutting their utility bill in half annually, but it will probably take about 12 to 15 years before they get a return on their investment on the panels."

From restroom layouts to a wealth of new technologies, facility managers have more options at their fingertips when it comes to restroom structures than ever before. With proper research and careful attention to the specific needs of the application, they have the ability to select a restroom structure that will perform admirably for decades. In the process, they can encourage patrons to come and stay just by giving them a safe, pleasant place to go.