When Nature Calls
Optimizing Public Restrooms to Support Outdoor Activities
As the nation continues its ongoing coexistence with COVID-19, there is an increasing acknowledgement of the importance of public restroom structures in park environments—and of the importance of getting these structures right for both the safety and comfort of people looking to recreate outdoors.
In a recent Recreation Management survey to participants in a webinar on public restrooms, 94.8% of respondents said cleaning and sanitizing was among their top concerns for reopening restrooms. Coming in second and third were security of staff and users (59.5%) and vandalism (46.6%). More than half (51%) of respondents said that all-gender restrooms were a relevant topic to them.
Unsurprisingly, manufacturers of public restrooms that serve the parks and recreation market are seeing a move toward structures that address many of these issues and concerns. And the biggest shift many have seen is toward single-user restrooms.
Single-Family Restrooms, Accessible by All
"What we have seen as a trend in the last year is toward more single-family ADA restrooms," said Dave Worthington, manager of the concrete restroom structure division of a precast concrete supplier based in Ottsville, Penn. These typically include a toilet, a sink, sufficient room for accessibility with an interior of around 7-by-7-feet and a baby changing station. According to Worthington, these spaces are great as flexible options for families with small children of different genders and also to provide all-gender restroom accommodations. "We've seen more of those buildings in the last year, where there are even two of those units or four of those units in building structures," Worthington said.
A growing preference for single restrooms is one that other manufacturers are seeing as well. "A lot of times nowadays we're doing just single-stall restroom designs that are labeled unisex or all-gender depending on what the state requires," said Chris Gaughan, regional sales manager for a manufacturer of precast concrete restroom structures based in Minden, Nevada. "And what that's doing is creating a safe space for everybody to use the facilities. A lot of times we're even putting the handwashing stations on the outside of the building now. So park users that are just looking to wash their hands to stay clean don't have to go all the way into the restroom to do so."
Gregg Zentarsky, Northeast sales manager for a producer of precast concrete restroom structures headquartered in Spokane Valley, Wash., is also seeing more parks opt for designs based on the family-assist restroom concept, including one design featuring four separate restrooms, each with an ADA toilet, ADA sink, ADA shower with a shower bench, and in some cases, a baby changing station.
Worthington is also seeing more requests for adult changing stations, a trend that is likely to increase over time as our society continues to age and prioritize inclusivity in building design. "Typically, they're stainless-steel units and they take up a little bit more space when they're folded down, so that has to be a design consideration when building new facilities or even retrofitting old ones," Worthington said.
Kyle Earlywine, co-owner of a modular flush restroom provider based in Vancouver, Wash., is also seeing some clients go beyond previous norms for accessibility. "The motorized wheelchairs are not the same size as a manual wheelchair, and they require more space once you get inside," Earlywine said. "There's the baseline ADA requirements for restrooms, but there's a lot of room to go above and beyond in terms of accessibility. I didn't hear that being brought up five years ago. And it's still not a common thing, but I am hearing it more than I used to."
In addition to potential accessibility benefits, COVID safety benefits, all-gender access and convenience for families with children, these types of buildings can offer advantages in being easier to clean because you can just close down a single unit for cleaning instead of having to close an entire restroom section down.
In a world dealing with COVID and the potential of other airborne diseases, ventilation is also important to help keep users safe. Worthington noted that his company's structures incorporate mechanical ventilation fans in the walls that are typically tied to occupancy sensors in the room. The fan then runs for a preset period (often 10 to 20 minutes) after the last person has left, helping to ensure sufficient air changes in the room.
Gaughan noted that his company's buildings are designed to exceed code for passive ventilation with gable ends that feature open stainless-steel screening and undercut doors to allow for additional passive ventilation.
Earlywine noted that the feasibility of some ventilation-improvement technologies can vary greatly by geography. "In Minnesota, when it's negative 20 degrees outside, the heating system required for circulating the air and keeping it warm inside is thousands of dollars more," Earlywine said.
When selecting a site for a restroom structure, Zentarsky recommends locating the structure as close to the midpoint of a park as possible, or at a central location close to where various park amenities, trails and fields converge. "A lot of times our customers don't have that foresight because they had a building here and they're just going to replace that building," Zentarsky said. "But if you can move a building to where it's centrally located … that's the best place to put it. You get more people to use it. And that's exactly why you buy it."
He also recommends situating the building so that the restroom doors are visible and facing a nearby road. "Typically, a police officer or a park employee drives by to take a look at the building," Zentarsky said. "You want to make sure that the doors are facing the road so someone doesn't have to get out and walk up to the building, which typically doesn't happen. Making sure it's not a hidden building is very important." This can improve security, greatly diminish vandalism and cut down on homeless people using the building as a meeting place.
It's also important to consider whether specific locations really need a restroom in close proximity—a typical example being facilities placed near a playground for young children, since they often don't give much advance notice before having to go.
Earlywine noted that when it comes to more sustainable options, some ideas work better than others. For instance, solar may work better as an environmental statement than as a practical option in some restroom applications. "If you have power right there, a restroom really doesn't take that much energy," Earlywine said. "And the things that do take a lot of energy, like hand dryers, you can't run off solar. Or by the time that you do, you've built a solar farm."
But other options can provide ecosystem benefits without the downsides. He noted that a metal roof and a green roof with vegetation growing on it can be implemented for about the same cost and can also last longer than a shingle roof that might need replacement after 30 years. "A green roof also looks great. Aesthetically, I think people feel more in touch with the environment and are just happier seeing some grass on a roof or other vegetation," Earlywine said.
He also noted that other options, like rainwater collection, can be a tremendous and money-saving option for restrooms without a water connection. "It's not just for the environment—you are saving dollars and maybe even time and effort if you're refilling those vaults yourself. It's something where you're using environmentalism to actually benefit your bottom line," Earlywine said.
Similar benefits can be realized through the use of waterless urinals in areas where their usage prevents the need for a water line to be constructed. But in other situations, Earlywine often sees clients opt for ultra-low-flow urinals instead. "They use so little water that there's really not much difference between them and a waterless urinal, and they don't require special maintenance," Earlywine said.
Go With the Flow
Likewise, there can be tradeoffs when it comes to different options for water faucets. Worthington estimates that about 80% of the flush valves and faucets his company puts in are photo-sensor operated. "The staff want to make sure that the fixture is flushed after every user, so that has become more prominent in the last five years," Worthington said. "And with sinks, it limits the amount of water that's used because someone can't just leave a faucet on manually." Those options also provide a more COVID-friendly, touch-free operation.
But sometimes other considerations can be more paramount. Gaughan often sees a benefit in more basic options that help keep the building functioning with minimal input. "Sometimes the technology goes the opposite direction," Gaughan said. "We utilize a push-button metered sink faucet, so it automatically turns off. But it's a very simple mechanical option compared to the available sensor sinks, which can be a little more finicky and a little easier to vandalize. We see people burn out the sensors."
Keeping It Clean
Many antimicrobial product options exist—from coatings for grab bars to chemicals that can be added to the concrete mix to additives to interior paints. But many restroom structures are best served by using durable materials that can be easily cleaned. "We provide a hose reel and a hose bib in the utility chase of every one of our buildings, so that maintenance staff can keep up with the buildings efficiently," Gaughan said. Coatings that help prevent surfaces from absorbing solids or liquids can also be beneficial.
Earlywine also recommends looking at the sites you already have for guidance on what you need. "If you already have five restrooms in five different ballparks, use the information you already have about how much effort it takes to clean something and what could be improved," he said. "A lot of this stuff is site-specific. Some places you really will need to hose down the restroom. But not every neighborhood is a rough neighborhood where the restroom needs to be hosed down like it's been contaminated with radioactive fluid or something."
Earlywine also believes that new technologies that allow restroom users to provide feedback in real time on restroom conditions could provide real benefits moving forward. He mentioned the example of a technology called Flushcheck that allows restroom users to provide feedback on restroom issues using SMS, QR codes or the web after being prompted to do so by in-restroom signage. That feedback becomes an immediate actionable alert that notifies janitorial staff by email or SMS, and an online dashboard provides additional information on restroom performance.
When it comes to security, a highly visible location is optimal. Manufacturers are also seeing some parks departments opt for cameras as the cost of those technologies come down, but many others are just opting for the most vandal-resistant structures they can install.
"We're seeing more customers put perimeter cameras on the corners of the buildings and then running their camera system back into the mechanical chase area between the restrooms," Worthington said. "From our standpoint, we're precast concrete buildings. So let the little kids with aluminum bats beat on the building. They're going to damage their bats before they're going to cause any damage or get access to the buildings."
Another option manufacturers are seeing clients opt for more and more are magnetic locking systems that automatically open and close the restrooms during the appropriate hours. In addition to security benefits, this technology can offer maintenance benefits, particularly for large park districts that may have dozens of restroom facilities.
Designs featuring lighting that is visible from the outside can be another way to make these spaces more secure and observable. "All of our buildings come with occupancy sensors on the lighting," Gaughan said. "So right away, the police department and parks and rec staff can know if somebody's inside the restroom. If it's off hours or when people shouldn't be there, they immediately know."
Finding the Right Solutions
To find the right solution for your application, it's helpful to talk to the professionals. "All our sales reps have multiple years of experience selling these buildings," Zentarsky said. "Everybody has seen hundreds of projects, and we've got a pretty good idea of what to do and what not to do."
That being said, not all manufacturers are the same, and some provide different options than others, so it's important to do your research. Earlywine mentioned that while his company offers flush vault toilets, a lot of people looking to install restroom structures without access to utilities don't know that a flush vault restroom is even an option. "People don't really research restrooms on a regular basis," Earlywine said. "You may read about cars without needing to buy a car, but you don't read about restrooms without needing to buy a restroom—not if you're working for a recreation area, anyways."
But it's something your visitors are thinking about. While they may seem utilitarian, public restroom structures are an important consideration for people and how they plan for a day outdoors. "We need to encourage outdoor activity in whatever way we can, and restrooms are going to be an enormous part of that," Earlywine said. "People are not going to be really excited about going out and spending several hours in a park or trailhead or other outdoor recreation area, or even downtown if there's not a restroom option."
Just as closing down restrooms during the pandemic may have discouraged some much-needed outdoor recreation, providing these amenities and keeping them clean and pleasant can be a surprisingly effective way to boost attendance and visitor satisfaction. RM