Feature Article - July/August 2002
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Designing from the Drain Up

Building better restrooms and locker rooms means paying essential attention to cleanliness, attractiveness and ease of maintenance

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Upscale, downscale or in between, facilities managers ultimately want the same things for their buildings: efficiency, ease of maintenance, good security and aesthetics that appeal to users. And nowhere does that apply more than those oft-overlooked but essential spaces: restrooms and locker rooms.

This upscale locker room displays some of the latest trends in locker room design: solid-surface sinks, recessed waste receptacles, curved spaces and interesting paint.

Locker room and restroom design is finally coming out of the (water) closet as architects and manufacturers urge owners to make a statement in these little spaces that make a big impression on users.

Survey after survey show that toilet and locker facilities matter to users, so much so that a difference in locker rooms can make people choose one fitness center over another, especially for women users, says Brian Dunkelberger, AIA, of Sasaki Associates architects in Boston. Bathrooms (or lack thereof) mattered enough—as much as moneymaking skyboxes—to drive the $600 million reconstruction of Soldier Field in Chicago, home of the Chicago Bears. And even more than class enrollment mix-ups, scheduling conflicts or poor coaching, hell hath no fury as a park-district mother faced with unsanitary locker room conditions.

"There's a level of awareness that if neglect has taken place in a restroom, you can expect more of the same in the rest of the facility," says Steve Zingsheim, an executive with a manufacturer of locker room and restroom products. "When people build a facility, they spend all this money on entrances and meeting rooms, but where is everyone going to end up at one point? Statistics show that 80 percent of the people who set foot in a place will see the bathroom."

To improve restroom and locker room aesthetics, architects say the solution is truly in the can.

"Paint and color is the easiest thing, but it's probably the most feared thing for clients," says John Burcher, AIA, a partner with DeStefano + Partners architects, Chicago. If you don't have the budget for high-end materials or for a drastic rehab, paint goes a long way to change the look of your facility. There's no reason you have to use pale pink in the girls' room, blue in the boys' or your standard almond."

Recreational facilities should convey a stimulating, fun environment, and strong color makes that statement, he adds. And since repainting comprises a standard part of good maintenance, owners can update their facilities regularly by changing colors.

No matter what the location, public restroom facilities can have class, like this bathroom at O'Hare International Airport.

The life-giving effects of color also extend to lockers, Zingsheim says, especially as plastic lockers and partitions have become more durable. Colored units cost no more than the traditional gunmetal gray and hide signs of wear better since the color penetrates all the way through the materials, he adds.

Another way to improve form—and function—is by paying attention to the little details that can make a big difference in aesthetics, cleanliness and maintenance, Burcher says. Towels or hand dryers should adjoins sinks, so patrons don't have to cross a room with dripping hands. Wastebaskets also should be nearby, or better yet, tucked under vanities and be in sufficient number to prevent overflow. And in the smallest details, such as wastebaskets, planners can choose stylish over stodgy without added cost.

"There's no reason to choose something boring when attractive, inexpensive alternatives exist," he says, pointing to mass merchandisers like Target or Ikea.

During the design process, owners may begin to suffer from design and budget burnout by the time toilet and locker issues roll around, Burcher says, but a few extra dollars invested initially can translate into big savings and greater efficiency over time.

Floor drains, for one, cost money to install, but save owners maintenance costs over time and greatly improve sanitation as well.

Solid-surface materials for countertops can also translate into savings over time despite the fact that they cost more than laminate initially. The materials are harder and more stain-resistant than laminate, and scratches can be rubbed out with a scouring pad. They resist magic markers, iodine, burns and impact and are even Class A fire-rated.

"Your initial material cost is going to be higher, but you have to look at the life-cycle cost," Zingsheim says. "While a trend-conscious retail establishment might be only three to five years, a school or a rec facility is looking at a 25-year life cycle."

Finally, solid-surface products are easier to install, with less than a dozen plumbing connections for a large sink unit, compared to potentially 100 different connections for individual china lavatories. Those installation savings may cover any additional materials expenses.