Essential Amenities

From Aesthetics to Safety, Park Restrooms Adapt

Many options exist when it comes to visiting parks and other outdoor recreation spots, from urban playgrounds to hiking trails way off the beaten path. Some are focused around sports activities while others cater to canines. You can visit a farmers market, catch some live music or simply find a place to catch your breath. But one common denominator when it comes to visitor satisfaction is restrooms, and it's a major consideration for destinations to make these structures as inviting as possible, no matter how basic they might be.

We've heard a lot about how the pandemic has brought more people out to recreation sites, which in turn has led many overseers to reevaluate the amenities they provide for guests. Comfortable, safe, accessible restrooms are at the top of the list as they encourage longer stays and provide an essential amenity. "Updated bathrooms are moving up on our customers' wish lists for parks," said Gregg Zentarsky, a sales manager for a manufacturer of precast concrete products, including prefab restroom structures, with offices and manufacturing facilities across the U.S. He confirmed that their orders are up along with quoting and customers' requests. "The pandemic shone a light on keeping public restrooms cleaner, and all our concrete buildings fit the bill due to the ease of keeping (them) clean."

Setting the Tone

"It appears to us that more cities are investing in parks and recreation than ever before, and families want to live in communities with a thriving parks culture," said Hannah Duncan, marketing and communications director for an Oregon-based designer and manufacturer of structures, including restrooms. She added that the ability to customize structures to meet a community's needs is of particular interest.

We're not talking about simply plunking down a porta-potty on a sports field, so it's important for decision-makers to consider aesthetics when choosing exteriors for a new restroom structure. "Parks can set the tone for an entire city," said Duncan, "and cities across the country are looking for ways to provide facilities for the community without taking away from the surrounding atmosphere."

Duncan said that some designs are timeless. "Customers are always interested in board and batten siding with a stone wainscot, but we have also seen a more recent trend in single-slope roofing structures."


You might find cedar shake roofs or ribbed metal roofs, while other common exteriors include exposed aggregate, barnwood texture, flagstone, split-face block, Napa Valley rock, stucco and simulated brick. There are smooth or textured paint options, and customized form liner finishes to simulate wood, stone and various other finish textures.

"Customers are always looking for a more aesthetically pleasing building," said Zentarsky, "but matching existing buildings on site is usually a must for most of our customers. (We) typically can come pretty close to matching our customers' existing buildings with our breadth of textures and colors we have to offer. We're finding that the combination of stone and lap siding seems to be the trend right now."

Exterior add-ons might include covered entrances, privacy screens or alcoves for drinking fountains.

Interior considerations include waste receptacles, mirrors, hand dryers and toilet paper holders. Fixtures are most commonly vitreous china in flush buildings, though stainless steel is also an option, used mostly if vandalism is a problem.

"(We) offer motion sensor features for all of our standard restroom fixtures," said Duncan, who added that there's been an uptick in these features since the pandemic.

Zentarsky said that both baby and adult changing stations are becoming the norm in newly designed buildings. "Also, we're seeing a major increase in electronic locking doors being ordered to elevate our customers' need to physically open and close their bathrooms on a daily basis."

Assess Your Needs

Planners need to consider park activities and average daily attendance when choosing what size structure is appropriate. It's estimated that about half of park visitors will use the park restroom, and a single-occupant unit can typically service up to 45 people an hour. Depending on park layouts, flow and the number of entrances and exits, sites may choose to place larger multi-user structures around main entrances or heavy-traffic areas, or multiple single- or double-module units spread out around the site.


Smaller plumbed units may use a 4-gallon water heater while larger multi-user structures may utilize a 30-gallon tank. Plumbing is often hidden and secured in a separate utility chase, and equipment rooms and storage areas can be added, providing plenty of functionality. "People who work on these buildings and the overall care of the park have found that storage and equipment space incorporated into the park's restroom building is a great asset," said Duncan.

And what about incorporating showers into the buildings? "Shower buildings are extremely popular right now," said Zentarsky. "We sell multiple designs of buildings with showers only, along with a line of buildings with both restrooms and showers included."

Concession area add-ons are also popular. "This is another building that's taking off throughout parks across the country. (Our) standard concession buildings include all the amenities that are typically needed such as three-compartment sinks, mop and hand sinks, roll-up concession windows and outlets throughout."

Duncan agreed that showers and concessions are very common. "(We) don't charge extra for a custom design, so it actually saves our customers a lot of money to incorporate several features into one building. It avoids multiple bid processes and hiring multiple contractors along with other benefits."

No Water? No Problem!

There is still plenty of demand for waterless vault structures too, often found at remote spaces where there isn't access to water or plumbing, such as trailheads or campgrounds, according to Duncan. And these structures also offer a wide array of options when it comes to styles and material choices as overseers look to blend them in with their surroundings.

These are still being ordered predominantly by the U.S. Forest & Park Services," explained Zentarsky, "along with any other customer who does not have readily available utilities at their restroom site." His company's polyethylene-lined concrete vaults hold 1,000 gallons, accommodating approximately 15,000 uses.


There is also an option for a flush vault restroom that operates without utility connections. The modular structure features a standard flush toilet, sink and waterless urinal. Wastewater and water for flushing the toilet are contained in a precast concrete vault below the floor. As long as there is water available or water can be brought to the site, the water tank can be filled. Kyle Earlywine is co-owner of a Washington-based company that manufactures the prefab, self-contained restrooms, and he related that they're very busy these days, and most projects are the self-contained units. "We are doing larger multi-module projects, but the vast majority of our projects are still stand-alone, or single module."

It should also be noted that Earlywine voiced his frustrations when it comes to supply costs and lead times, which have both increased lately much faster than usual, a sign of the times affecting the industry.

Aside from remote locations, one place you might see a flush vault restroom is a golf course, since expanding utility lines across a course would be cost-prohibitive. "We've done a ton of those—that's how we got started; we're still doing a lot of those," said Earlywine.

His company also offers various exterior and interior choices, and he pointed out that aesthetics are indeed important, wherever the structure is going. "Why would you want to hide the restroom? You want to make it easy for people to find. And if it's going to be in a high-traffic area and everybody's going to see it, you want to make it look nice, make it blend in. Let's say you're in a national park somewhere that goes back 100 years; you want to match the architecture that was there many generations before."

One current project that Earlywine discussed is the Veterans Memorial located at Riverdale Regional Park in Adams County, Colo., opening later this year. The purpose of the project is to honor living military members as well as recognize those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The project will feature numerous unique elements including a life-sized replica of the USS Colorado battleship, which will extend into the park's lake. "It's a big, beautiful building; we're happy it's being built and proud to be a part of it. It's a gorgeous high-ceiling interior with fancy tile and all these touches, and underneath the floor in the middle there's a vault that eventually gets pumped out by a pump truck—no one knows it's there." Earlywine explained that there's no water tank—other than for hot water—as it's connected to site water.

Conservation & Inclusion Still Trending

The flush vault restrooms are engineered to reduce water consumption by up to 70% compared to conventional flush restrooms, as toilets use as little as a half a gallon of water per flush. A rainwater collection system is optional for supplementing flush water. And used sink water can also be filtered and reused for flushing. Power alternatives include grid, solar or battery. Earlywine is also excited about innovations they're investigating, including solar water heaters and Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) systems. These are not necessarily new, but they're new with regard to restroom structures.


Sustainability and energy conservation are influencing many industries, and it's a welcome trend. "The green industry for construction buildings started quite a few years ago and has advanced ever since," said Duncan. "(We) offer efficient fixtures, natural lighting and venting. We have also designed and supplied buildings with a living roof structure or solar panels for added sustainability."

And as Earlywine points out, "The environmental option is better in terms of cost in many ways."

Another trend in parks and other recreation destinations has been to make these spaces more accessible and inclusive for everyone. If your playground is truly designed to be more inclusive, shouldn't your restroom near the playground offer the same consideration? And keep in mind that not all disabilities are physical; many are emotional or sensory-related, and these don't necessarily fit into ADA guidelines. Loud or unpredictable noises from hand dryers or flush systems, for example, can be traumatic for someone with a sensory disability, so in that case manual options might be considered.

Duncan said they've been involved in several "all access" park projects that emphasize inclusivity for people with a range of disabilities. "(We're) seeing more family-sized restrooms making space for families and caregivers, as well as restrooms with adult changing stations incorporated to provide more privacy and accessibility to public spaces."

Simple add-ons like grab bars around drinking fountains and toilets—including vault risers—are good ideas as well.

Addressing Maintenance Concerns

When it comes to cleaning and maintenance, many feel that the simpler the structure, the better. Structures we've discussed here can all be simply washed down with a brush and soapy water.

"Our all-concrete construction (walls, roof and floor), along with the way we use only wall-hung fixtures, make for the easiest building a park will have to maintain and keep clean," said Zentarsky. "Washing the building out with a hose without concern of damaging the interior wall and ceiling surfaces allows the maintenance crew to clean our buildings in a fraction of the time it takes to clean a conventional building." He also points out that the concrete design stands up to vandalism very well.


If vandalism is a major consideration for a particular location, structures and fixtures should be customized to be more resilient to graffiti, physical damage and fires. And if this a particularly high risk, Earlywine's website recommends studying the principles of CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design). Safety considerations include having single-occupant restrooms that lock and having undercut doors to see if someone is in the restroom prior to entering. Provide mesh vent screens so someone can call for help in the event of an emergency. Other safety features include concealed magnetic locking systems in door jambs and continuous hinges on exterior doors to maximize security and reduce vandalism.

In Illinois, Aurora is the second most populous city behind Chicago, with a population of around 200,000 people. The Fox Valley Park District (FVPD) oversees 168 parks and 2,500 acres of parkland in Aurora, North Aurora and Montgomery, Ill. John Kramer is director of operations for FVPD, and he explained that many of their parks are situated in urban settings, while others are on school properties, in residential neighborhoods or are community parks or green spaces along the Fox River.

Vandalism and safety are of course major considerations with regard to restroom structures, according to Kramer. "Vandalism is a serious problem, and we do select surfaces that can accept anti-graffiti coating, surfaces that resist scratches and can be cleaned and sanitized. Restrooms are constructed with safety in mind as to location, envelope, entry considerations and lighting."

Kramer said they've replaced and renovated—both in-house and contractually—several existing structures and have a new event space and restroom under construction with another slated for future construction. "We've recently built the most modern ones in traditional construction fashion with CMU (concrete masonry unit) construction."

He said they have some prefab structures, "at least one 30-plus-year-old precast concrete water and sewer restroom and one wood kit water and sewer restroom in district. We've looked at the drop-in composting toilets—no water and sewer connections—but have not found a logical location for those at present."


Kramer described some of the interior choices, including solid surface partitions and metal mirrors. They mainly use the china fixtures, though some are stainless steel. "China is more prone to damage but aesthetics are still important. Some fixtures are touchless, but we find those do present problems. Largely most restrooms have low-flow fixtures, manual flush valves or touchless."

ADA accessibility requirements are adhered to, and Kramer said the recent trend is "restrooms with three facilities: men, women and family changing/unisex with changing tables in each."

Added storage areas and maintenance rooms are a must and a key factor, according to Kramer, "from a storage and ease-of-maintenance-and-cleaning perspective. Our restrooms all have access control for timed door lock functions to open and close them for reservations and daily open access, so those electronics are all secured in these maintenance rooms."

When it comes to cleaning, "our staff provide the best feedback as to what materials and designs work best from a sanitation perspective. Surface cleanliness—especially recently—has been a high priority. From epoxy floor coatings, exterior paint or masonry finishes to partition materials."

With 45 miles of trails in the district, Kramer said a recurring request is additional restroom access along the trail routes, hence the reason for the new construction. "When constructing new neighborhood parks, we do look at adding restrooms based on our existing restrooms in the area and the programmed use of the site—pickleball, baseball, etc."

Restroom structures are also popping up more on urban streets, and Duncan's company offers a single-user, prefab sidewalk model that can be customized to match local urban scape. "Sidewalk restrooms are gaining traction in particularly populated and metropolitan areas", said Duncan. "They're built entirely out of steel to withstand a great deal of use and resist vandalism and destruction. A drain is included so it can be entirely sprayed down with water."

The structures feature louvered vents all around for heavy ventilation, are plumbed into the city's water and sewer, offer optional storage areas and have lights/electricity. "In fact, they can come with a blue/green light system, which prevents the location of intravenous veins when inside to prevent camping inside for illicit drug use."

Just when you thought that restroom designs had peaked, you realize that innovations, ideas and upgrades are endless. RM