Locker Rooms Feature Inclusiveness, Increased Safety
Locker rooms have had plenty of upgrades over the years, offering patrons at recreation facilities more comfortable amenities, more privacy and better-quality features. In recent years, locker room design also has focused on incorporating universal elements, while recognizing the need for more inclusivity and gender-neutral spaces.
"Universal design, inclusivity and 'at your fingertips' are trends patrons look for and expect these days. Inclusivity and 'access for all' can be accommodated with universal single-user rooms or universal multi-stall locker rooms. We like to combine these trends with open designs to enhance safety, allowing more eyes to monitor and self-patrol locker rooms," said Jason Ringdahl, principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, an architectural design firm in Denver.
One challenge with universal design, he noted, is "appropriate, socially acceptable iconography, since some of society is offended by what is available. Reconsidering iconography and signage will help universal design solutions be as inclusive as possible. We suggest using symbol(s) on signage, which represent the task and/or function of the space instead of the gender-specific user of a space."
While sanitation has been a focus since the pandemic began, "Prior to the pandemic, the societal focus on gender inclusivity continued to drive increased use of cabana-style locker rooms," said Stephen Springs, AIA, Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, an architectural firm based in Texas.
"The trend toward more upscale fit and finish has been going on for some time, and I would say is no longer a trend, but an expectation," he said.
Including a variety of locker room space amenities is an ongoing movement in locker room design, noted Hannah Evwaraye, AIA, NCARB, project architect at architecture firm Moody Nolan.
A new locker room design, she said, might include "a smaller footprint for an open changing room space or open shower area and include an increased amount of individual changing and shower rooms.
"While adapting family, gender-neutral or cabana-style changing rooms, individual rooms provide added comfort and safety for a wider range of patrons. In recreation settings, facilities are also adding individual dry changing rooms spread throughout the building, creating a more accessible and convenient location," she said.
Donaldo H. Visani, AIA, NCARB, architect and senior principal at architecture design firm OLC (Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative), shared his thoughts on locker room design, noting that some are based on pre-COVID trends.
One trend is locker usage.
"Facilities have seen an increase of members and users who come dressed to work out and do not require full lockers or even use of the changing or showering facilities," Visani said. "There are several reasons for this. They include more people feeling comfortable showering at home, the popularity of casual wear and flexible individual work options."
Another trend he has seen is security lockers. "Users may not be using full lockers as much, but they still need a place to store small items such as keys, wallets, purses and mobile phones," he said. "Providing these security lockers with USB or electrical outlets inside them has proven popular with users."
With electronic locks as a trend, Visani said that "Manufacturers continue to make improvements to the functionality, maintainability and battery life for electronic locks. Many provide keypad controls and network management.
"However," he said that "some provide touchless locks. These use wireless technology that can be opened with a card, a fob or mobile apps. This will increasingly be a go-to option when selecting locks since they are more hygienic and decrease the spread of viruses and bacteria versus other lock types."
Another trend he noted is "dispersed lockering."
"Not all changing (e.g., changing shoes) or locker use requires privacy or a locker room with restrooms and showers," Visani said. "For larger facilities, small groups of lockers throughout and close to activities [are] convenient for users, but also reduce the need for larger locker rooms, which in turn can help reduce construction costs. A small changing room or restroom nearby often suffices to meet any privacy requirements."
Two final design trends include sustainability and inclusiveness.
"Reduction of energy and water consumption continues to be the goal of good locker room design," Visani said. "These goals are driven by good practice and pushed forward by new building standards, stricter codes and technology improvements."
He explained that the reduction of energy use in lighting is addressed primarily by using mostly LED fixtures.
"In addition, a combination of motion sensors, timers and time-of-day color balancing to help with these efforts may be required by building codes," Visani said. "Diffuse daylight (when possible) helps in these efforts, but also provides flattering light and an enhanced experience. Water reduction efforts include touchless on/off controls for plumbing fixtures, shower head flow control, and low-volume flush toilets and waterless urinals."
For inclusiveness, "Family/accessible changing rooms with a shower, toilet and sink are increasingly common and popular, and have been included in recreation facility design to some degree for the last decade or so," he said. "These serve a large portion of the end users' needs that are not met by the traditional men's and women's locker and/or restroom facilities.
"However, national debates surrounding transgender access have spurred recent developments in locker design. Facility design should consider including unisex changing facilities and restrooms," he said. "For example, one solution is to provide individual restroom stalls with adjacent common area sinks and counters in addition to, or in place of, men's and women's bathrooms. A combination of formats will address the widest spectrum of access, privacy and convenience."
The Rules of Maintenance
"Designing locker rooms to be easy to clean has long been a best practice, but COVID has certainly increased awareness," Springs said.
"Many things are quite simple, like specifying easy-to-clean finishes and coved floor base. Some cost a bit more, but are now easier to justify, like fully-tiled walls (versus half-height or only the 'wet walls')," he said.
"Scrubbable ceilings are often not considered, but are a best practice. We often have the debate with clients regarding light vs. dark colors. The complaint about light colors has always been that it shows dirt: 'We're always cleaning.' These days, that is [the] expectation. It is also easier to clean what you can see."
Another common design debate is that of wall-hung fixtures and benches versus floor-mounted.
"The former is often seen as a maintenance challenge, but they are much easier to clean under and around on a daily basis. Unless you have a rough-and-tumble clientele, we recommend wall-hung for cleanability," Springs said.
"Equally important to design is craftsmanship," he said. "You can detail and specify fixtures and finishes perfectly, but it only matters if the install follows suit. For example, don't simply use the cheapest tile contractor, or you could be stuck living with a poor installation for years. Review the work regularly and insist on sticking to the specs.
"Along those lines, it is a bit of a premium to incorporate slab recesses and use thick-set flooring versus thin-set tile directly onto the slab, it makes a world of difference in avoiding ponding water. Having the tile setters control slopes to drains is much more foolproof," Springs added.
Ringdahl noted that "Designers still try to overcome the image of locker rooms of the past when they were uninviting and unpleasant. Patrons and users want safe, clean and easy-to-navigate locker rooms. We like to specify materials that are durable, easy to clean and hold up aesthetically over time."
He said that "Walls tend to be masonry with tile to give a clean look that is easy to maintain and impervious to moisture. Floors are another important focus area in locker rooms. Having appropriate slopes for drainage eliminates wet areas and ponding water, which can stain and create slip hazards."
While concrete floors are durable and cleanable, if they are not finished properly, they can stain easily from bodily oils and lotions. Tile floors solve that issue with the right selection of grout, tile and colors.
"Large floor tiles are a popular choice for many designers and the reduction in grout joints can simplify cleaning," Ringdahl said. "However, what many do not realize is that the grout joints help with slip resistance and the large tiles, while beautiful, may create an unwanted hazard requiring rubber mats to be added and inadvertently increasing maintenance requirements.
"Most importantly, though, are the levels of light in the locker rooms. The brighter and more welcoming a space, the more attention is paid to it and the more often it is cleaned by staff. Bright LED lighting is a first step," he said. "However, more natural light is even better. Think of your home as an example, the main entryway and gathering space are usually bright and welcoming. These spaces tend to get cleaned more than a pantry or office space, because the dirt can be seen more easily, and more of the 'public' visits those spaces."
Evwaraye suggested, "While designing a facility, it is important to design locker rooms with a layout and function that will provide success in operating and maintaining the facility."
For example, teams should ensure the appropriate material selections, as well as the transition of materials for ease of safety and maintenance, or proper dry and wet routes to and from a locker room. "Simple design strategies can help the success of maintaining a locker room prior to any maintenance implementation by staff," she said.
What's more, Visani said non-porous surfaces are a must and to consider using materials with anti-microbial properties.
"Lighter-colored surfaces with some mottling or texture brighten the room, but also do not reveal water spotting as do darker surfaces," he said. "The less grout the better, for cleanability. The exception would be for flooring. In that case 1-by-1 and 2-by-2 mosaic tiles are one of the better wet-area, non-slip floor surfaces given the three-dimensional grip provided by the recessed grout lines. In any case, epoxy grout is highly recommended for maintainability and longevity of any grout within wet areas."
In addition, "Reduce the amount of objects in the room, complexity of shapes and texture," he said. "The [fewer] surfaces there are, the better it is to wipe clean."
Effects of COVID-19
In reaction to the pandemic, design teams and owners are working together to ensure that locker room design can increase the safety of patrons and staff.
"Circulation routes are planned appropriately, maintenance plans are further developed and implemented, and there have been more discussions on the impact of improved indoor air quality and the design of HVAC systems," Evwaraye said.
For locker rooms specifically, she said, it has been beneficial to design circulation in a directional manner and decrease the amount of overlap of travel routes—for example, separating entry and exit points from the locker rooms.
"As for indoor air quality, there is an increased focus on the design of HVAC systems, particularly based on room type—for example, designing adequate ventilation in more congested and high-traffic areas. This strategy will help decrease the amount of pollutants and pathogens in the air," she explained.
As to whether or not COVID-related changes are likely to become permanent, Evwaraye said that "increased discussion of indoor air quality and ventilation should continue in locker room and recreation design. Proper design, filtration and ventilation could aid in the health of the building's patrons. There should also be an ongoing discussion in design to encourage hygiene and sanitation with locker rooms, promoting a safe environment."
Springs noted that from a design standpoint, he has observed that "some of our client 'holdouts' whose maintenance staff still demand traditional flush valves and faucets are reconsidering touchless fixtures.
"We believe touchless fixtures are much preferred by patrons. I also think that the COVID-triggered focus on sanitation will increase the trend toward foaming soaps and catchment-style hand dryers versus the ones that simply blow water all over the wall and floor," he said.
In addition, "UV lighting is gaining traction in these spaces for overnight disinfection, but this technology is in its relative infancy in locker room use. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so be wary of sales claims and rely on a reputable engineering consultant when considering their use," he said.
"From an operations standpoint and as users of these facilities, we can only hope that the focus on regular and more thorough cleaning 'sticks.' We often say that a 'pretty' locker room may or may not improve patronage, but dirty ones will certainly hurt it. I believe that has never been truer," Springs said, adding that the big picture "depends on the effectiveness of the vaccines in 2021. The quicker 'normal' returns, the less chance there is for lasting impact on the nature of these spaces. If new variants create a prolonged pandemic, I think permanent changes are more likely.
"Once operational capacities are back to normal," he added, "it is simply not practical to maintain some of the constraints we see today, such as turning off every other fixture or closing banks of lockers."
Over the past year, with locker room usage having been limited due to COVID concerns, Ringdahl said "Designers are looking into ways to compartmentalize spaces and create a 'Throughput Approach,'" which involves creating aisles of changing stalls, vanities, toilet stalls and urinals in which patrons flow from one space to another while maintaining social distancing.
The creation of rows and aisles of functions enables the operator to close sections for easy cleaning. "Designers are also providing locker rooms for specific functional use and then separating them to address limited-use locker rooms," he said, adding that the 'Throughput Approach" is a European and Canadian approach to locker room design that has slowly made its way into the United States.
"It provides options and areas that can be closed to the public during slow times, limiting the need for supervision and cleaning, cutting maintenance costs yet providing flexibility for both patrons and the operator. The flow of traffic and spaces' use are more linear, limiting patrons from crossing paths and coming in contact with each other," Ringdahl said.
Other changes, Visani noted, include "Less use of lockers overall due to occupancy and COVID-19 transmission avoidance; activity appointments tied to activities and, thus, the use of locker rooms; increased use of cleaning stations; and periodic staff cleaning of all surfaces."
He also suggested that HVAC systems can be used to assist in reducing COVID-19 from spreading.
"Increase the percentage of fresh air, via HVAC system or opening windows. (Note: This is not recommended with indoor pool areas without consulting a mechanical expert. Opening doors or windows in indoor pool rooms might cause moisture and odors to be pulled back into the rest of the facility, with the risk of rusting and mold formation)," he said.
In addition, "Provide better filtration systems (MERV-3 or higher, HEPA filters) and consider UV-C," Visani said.
"COVID-19 can be neutralized by UV-C light. UV-C light is safe for humans, if it is not directly visible [but can be dangerous]. Thus, UV-C systems are designed with this in mind," he explained. "An effective strategy used in health care facilities is an in-duct UV-C lighting system that can sanitize air that passes through it. A less costly, but seemingly effective option, is to install a ceiling fan with a UV-C light on top that treats the circulated air, but only above the fan-thus providing continuous, in-room COVID-19 killing ability."
Visani also said that all of the COVID-related changes are likely to become permanent, with the exception possibly of COVID-related appointment requirements.
"Locker room design in the past was certainly informed by the necessity for hygiene and sanitary concerns. These concerns have been heightened by COVID-19 and are driving the design changes listed above," he said. "There is mounting evidence that airborne virus transmission is of greater concern, thus HVAC systems mentioned above will continue to be developed and incorporated into the design of locker rooms and the facility overall. Designers will look for ways to provide operable windows within locker rooms or to maximize the quantity of fresh air brought in by the HVAC system.
"The actuality and visibility of constant staff cleaning of almost every surface will continue for the near future with its current intensity," he added. "In the future, there may be a slightly diminished emphasis or more efficiency, but the lessons of COVID-19 (and the potential for new viruses) are not likely to be forgotten for a generation, at least." RM