Feature Article - July/August 2002
Find a printable version here

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

Users want hands-off approach

Even sinks can be stylish.

And then there's the cootie criteria. In an age of fatal infectious diseases that has spawned antibacterial soaps, lotions and even toys, users' awareness of sanitation has ballooned.

These concerns have changed the face of the modern public restroom as much as handicapped-accessibility laws. Hands-free is key, from no-touch toilets, lavatories and showers that use infrared sensors, to angled, doorless "corridor" entrances. (Then there's many women's all-time favorite public bathroom device, toilet seats that rotate a clean covering of plastic with every use. Several years ago, when a Chicago newspaper criticized the cost of these items featured in a few of the city's high-profile venues, female readers responded in scores that the seats were worth every penny.)

"People just don't want to touch anything anymore," says Zingsheim, noting high germ counts recorded on faucet handles and doors, among other places.

Sense of security

And the laws of unintended consequences have fallen favorably on the side of touch-free technology as well: the designs inhibit vandalism. "If they don't touch it, they're less likely to break it," Zingsheim reasons.

Beyond sanitation, security issues are dictating locker room and restroom designs as well. Those curved corners, mirrors and open spaces may look cool, but they serve an important purpose, Dunkelberger says, by improving security.

Locker room and bathroom security breaks down into two issues: personal safety and theft and vandalism prevention. For personal safety purposes, Sasaki promotes banks of lockers that are no more than eight to 10 lockers, with "islands" of lockers rather than dead-end rows. This configuration improves visibility, and the islands offer a means of escape in case of an attack. A main circulation path should allow staff members to walk that route and see the entire bath or locker room, he adds.

For security, staffing and planning become as much of an issue as design, Dunkelberger notes. Thieves and even vandals have become much more sophisticated in their approaches, especially in upscale facilities where lockers may yield valuable booty. Operators need to plan regular but random walks through bath and locker facilities to prevent thefts.

Even locker rooms and restrooms with a small budget can become vibrant spaces. Creative lighting, paint on exposed block and strong colors all give the space energy.

"It can't be every quarter hour, for example, because experienced thieves will figure out your timing and post lookouts as well," he explains. Security patrols can be disguised as good customer service, he adds. "People like to see a body in there to chat, to add visibility, and to handle any needs they may have."

Even surveillance cameras cannot replace the presence of a human being, Dunkelberger adds.

"A visible camera is basically going to keep an essentially honest person honest, not prevent a thief," he says. "These guys know they can block their faces with baseball caps to prevent identification."

Small, 8-by-8-inch lockers in exercise or pool areas also can reduce theft, Dunkelberger adds, by encouraging users to bring their valuables with them to high-traffic, high-visibility exercise or swimming areas.

Full-sized locker designs also are evolving to prevent theft and vandalism and improve security, Zingsheim notes. Manufacturers are starting to offer open lockers, without doors, lockers with mesh, see-through doors and even clear locker doors, to improve visibility and piece of mind. Many plastic lockers now include a full-length latch bar, with continuous brackets, so vandals or thieves cannot wedge screwdrivers into them.

And when it comes to vandalism, beauty is more than skin deep in restrooms and locker rooms: It serves as a deterrent. An attractive restroom is less likely to be vandalized than an unattractive facility, Burcher notes, because "if it looks good people will treat it better—there's a certain pride of place."

At the Fernwood Park Natatorium pool house in Chicago, a DeStefano project, vandalism decreased significantly after the building's rehab.