Feature Article - September 2011
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Last Things First

Trends in Restroom Structures

By Rick Dandes

In park or athletic field design, restrooms can be a divisive issue. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, restrooms are often the last thing architects and facility owners think about when designing a facility, according to Mary Coakley, board member, the American Restroom Association.

"It's often an afterthought," she said, "given as an assignment to the most junior architect in the firm."

It shouldn't be.

In a practical sense, people using public parks and recreation facilities need access to a restroom. People have high expectations and expect that a restroom should be available in public places as a natural public service.

But, restrooms can also be a public liability and keep people away from a recreation facility if the restrooms are dirty, or if they smell, are dark inside and feel unsafe. Those kinds of facilities attract people that you would rather not socialize with. Restrooms that are not properly cared for, then, can be a nuisance, attracting vandals, and becoming a management and maintenance issue for public agencies.

"This is why," Coakley said, "you want to make sure the restroom design provides maximum function in minimal space, with a focus on safety, accessibility, availability, low maintenance, attention to vandalism and vagrancy, and aesthetics."

Safety Conscious

Safety is a key factor designers must keep in mind.

For this reason there is a trend toward having unisex bathrooms. This addresses certain safety issues because when you have a half-men's, half-women's concrete structure, the entrances are always on the sides of the building.

"Ask yourself, would you let your child go in there alone? Or would you go into the restroom with your child?" said William E. Fee, principal, Carducci Landscape Architects, San Francisco.

"Do you tell your child to not touch anything before he or she enters the room?" he continued.

Parents today are very careful to protect their children from child abduction and abuse. In most parks the parents keep their children within arm's reach. Parents are not about to let their child "go to the bathroom" alone. If the child is a different gender from the parent, then a unisex family restroom with a safe place to change a diaper serves the family the best.

All states have different building codes, Fee said. The current California Building Code, depending on occupancy type may require more fixtures for women than are provided for men.

All of these issues, from safety to cost and aesthetics, came into play recently in El Dorado Hills, Calif.

"When we installed three new permanent restrooms at three parks in The El Dorado Hills Community Services District (EDHCSD), said Darrah Ramsbotham, construction director, "our goal was to have permanent restrooms that would function well, architecturally blend with the surroundings, and be durable, such that vandalism and maintenance expenses could be kept to a minimum."