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

The Latest Trends in Restroom Structures

By Chris Gelbach

Built to Last

Despite recessionary budget pressures, most park districts and other facilities are still taking the long view and opting for more durable restroom structures that offer the best life-cycle value. "A lot of times they'll take the cheapest thing if they only have a certain amount of money, but if they have a little bit more, I see them opting for a product that will last longer with less maintenance," said Glenn Rachak, president of a Fort Collins, Colo., maker of prefabricated restroom structures.

According to Chris Giannini, a landscape architect in the greater Los Angeles area for David Evans and Associates who specializes in public park design, the choice to go with a hardier design is often obvious because of the way many parks are funded. "A lot of agencies will get a chunk of money to put a park in, but the reality is that there isn't money to maintain the park once it's in," he said. "So it's really important that I use materials that are extremely durable."

Given the severe vandalism these structures can face, manufacturers and architects are turning to other industries for inspiration in finding the toughest materials imaginable. For fixtures, Giannini often uses stainless steel prison ware because he knows they'll take a beating. And Kellogg Park painted its restroom structure with paint purchased from a company that provides paint for oil rigs in the ocean.

While using quality paint is key, experts debate the efficacy of anti-graffiti coatings. Some say it helps, while others simply recommend repainting within 24 hours anytime graffiti is present, and using non-absorbent materials that won't accept paint wherever possible. For instance, Kaufman's company uses toilet stall doors made of a composite material that is nonabsorbent and can't be cut without diamond tools.

For many facilities, a greater initial outlay on higher-quality materials can mean big savings over the long run. "A 30 percent delta in first cost can be eaten up with operating and maintenance costs in the first 6 1/2 years," said Kaufman, who also recommends smart landscaping as a way to reduce the economic costs of vandalism. "People tag buildings to be noticed. So one solution is to surround the buildings with vegetation and shrubs. If you put shrubbery at the back and sides of a typical restroom, you segregate the damage to the front area of the building and reduce your costs."

Because facilities are seeking buildings that will last over the long term in harsh conditions, rugged concrete structures are becoming increasingly popular. According to Smith, concrete structures offer the advantages of longer fire ratings, the ability to be earthquake rated for different seismic zones with steel reinforcement, and the ability to handle winds of up to 130 to 150 miles per hour.

It is also typical for manufacturers to offer impermeable coatings for the concrete block, grout, mortar and floors that resist urine and other matter to keep the structures odor-free over the long term. And some companies are even now offering toilet seats, door handles and grab bars with antimicrobial finishes containing colloidal silver ions to prevent the spread of germs.

A New Flexibility

In recent years, precast concrete buildings have become more popular, in part because the number of companies manufacturing these buildings has grown, along with the number of options they can provide to customers.

"There was a time when I would stay away from those products if I was after a certain architectural style or wanted to do something unique," said Giannini. "I would use them only in instances where the budget was really low and there wasn't a great deal of architectural theming with the project."

But today, Giannini notes that the notion of prefab concrete buildings being just basic A-frame structures is obsolete. "These companies have established a great deal of flexibility now. The last couple of projects, I've been able to design the building in terms of what I want it to look like, and they've been pretty flexible about meeting that expectation."

Today, these kinds of buildings can be more easily customized to match existing structures, even historical buildings. And with a wider variety of stains and finishes available, they are even being used in remote locations where customers want a rustic look more traditionally associated with a wooden structure along with the durability of a concrete building.

One example is a restroom structure recently built in North Carolina's Hanging Rock State Park. "It's out in a remote location where people go rock climbing," Smith said. "It's a beautiful area, and they didn't want to put a Porta-John out there or a high-maintenance, easily vandalized wood building. So they went with a precast concrete building that still has a rustic look and fits into this very remote, pristine forest."

Prefabricated options have also expanded to include larger buildings that can be transported to the site in two or three separate segments, or shipped flat, for installation by the manufacturer. For this reason, more and more facilities are now opting for combination buildings that include restrooms, storage space and concession areas within a single structure. "It offers a combination of cost savings and ease of use," Smith said. "They can make one purchase instead of setting up multiple contracts."

This approach also enables facilities that are closed part of the year to have someone keep tabs on one building occasionally to prevent vandalism, instead of three or four.