Feature Article - September 2012
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Safe, Accessible, Durable & Green

The Latest Trends in Restroom Structures

By Chris Gelbach

When facility managers build or update a restroom structure, the decisions they make can profoundly affect the maintenance costs and durability of the restroom over time. Thoughtful planning can also ensure that the structure's as safe, usable and pleasing as possible for all patrons. When people don't like a restroom, don't feel safe in it or can't access it, it can have a huge impact on how long patrons stay at that park or facility—and even on whether they visit at all.

"Restrooms are so far in the subconscious that if you don't make it a forced-choice option on a survey of what park users want, they won't talk about it. Restrooms won't come up," said Carol McCreary, program director for PHLUSH, a Portland-based public restroom advocacy organization. "But when we force them to include restrooms as an option, people rank them first or second. They're just part of the basic infrastructure, and people need them."

Thankfully, new thinking on restroom layout and design can help facility managers address the concerns many people have with public restrooms. And new technologies are empowering them to tackle issues such as vandalism, odors and bacteria with greater success, while also offering greater design flexibility, improved environmental sustainability and enhanced durability.

"Our industry is able to find the problems, analyze the problems and solve the problems with new technology," said Chuck Kaufman, CEO of a restroom structure manufacturer based in Reno, Nev. "We have such a plethora of new materials, finishes, coatings and components that can solve these issues."

Safety First

Many people feel unsafe in public restrooms. They are often viewed as dank, dark, dirty spaces where strangers and trouble lurk—sometimes justifiably so. To alleviate these concerns and keep patrons safer, some experts are pushing for a clearer delineation between the public and private elements of the restroom experience.

"There's no reason why our restrooms should not be more private at the level of the stall," McCreary said. "There's no reason why we should have those 20-inch gaps under the doors. And we can create more safety by eliminating that semi-private space where strangers meet out of the view of the public."

A growing number of park facilities are addressing this issue with individual stall designs. Kellogg Park in La Jolla Shores, Calif., was among the early facilities to adopt this approach, providing 12 individual unisex stalls (including two ADA/family stalls) that can be accessed directly from outside. There are no sinks inside the stalls; instead, four outdoor sinks are provided. There are also outdoor showers on the ocean-facing side of the building for easy and public availability.

According to Mary Coakley, president of the American Restroom Association and an advocate for the Kellogg Park restroom structure's final design, the decision to put the sinks on the outside is an important one in terms of increasing safety and discouraging illicit activity.

"Speaking with state troopers and police at the different restrooms, some restrooms do have the individual stalls but they put sinks in them," said Coakley. "Police like the individual stalls. But putting sinks in them can cause a problem, creating a hotel for the homeless and a perfect location for drug use and other activities."

An individual-stall design with external sinks maximizes public spaces while keeping the private spaces fully private, thereby eliminating the enclosed gang spaces of group restrooms and minimizing opportunities for everything from sexual assaults to bullying. It also presents an opportunity for increased safety through electronic surveillance. "Those kinds of monitors don't work very well in the semi-private spaces, but they work really well in the public space in front of the restroom to deter the danger of an individual being followed into a private stall," McCreary said.

In fact, one of the biggest trends Kaufman is seeing is the adoption of 24/7 camera surveillance of public restroom structures, something that is becoming more affordable thanks to new technology. And, while early camera systems were sometimes placed close to the ground where they were accessible by vandals, they are now typically pole-mounted where they are out of reach. Along with signage stating that surveillance cameras are in use, these cameras have proven effective in discouraging vandalism as well as violence.