Feature Article - September 2014
Find a printable version here

Stronger, Faster, Cheaper

The Pros of Prefab Restroom Structures

By Chris Gelbach

When park districts consider building a public restroom as part of a new or existing facility, they often weigh whether to go with a site-built structure or a prefabricated one. As they do, they are realizing that premanufactured structures are becoming a more attractive option for a growing array of applications. More and more companies are offering these products as traditional industry stalwarts continue to innovate. The result is more options for parks in terms of construction materials, building layouts and aesthetic options that can provide sturdy, safe, functional buildings for patrons at attractive price points.

One of the main considerations with attempting a site-built building is the complexity and cost of the task. This often will involve hiring an architect, an engineer and all of the building trades required to build the restroom onsite. This can make site-built buildings less cost-effective than prefab ones in areas with higher labor costs.

"Time is money when it comes to site labor," said Glenn Rachak, president of a custom manufacturer of prefabricated restrooms based in Fort Collins, Colo. "Anything you can do on site to save time saves money in the long run, even with the shipping rates going up the way they have the last five, six years."

The time to install also is typically much quicker with prefab than is possible with a site-built approach. While a plant-built concrete building still requires time for curing, it typically can be completed much more quickly. The installation itself can take several hours to several days, depending on the building type and complexity. "We can do a two-month turnaround start to finish, where it might take two months just to get the plans drawn up to start constructing the thing on site," Rachak said.

Preparing the Site

Prefabricated buildings still require some site preparation before the building arrives, including sewer and water lines to the site if it won't be a vault-style building, and preparation of the foundation according to manufacturer specifications. Many buildings arrive pre-plumbed and pre-wired. Some manufacturers also will perform the installation, while others will not.

Prefabricated park restrooms are available in a variety of materials, including wood frame, precast concrete and concrete masonry unit (CMU) structural designs. This gives park planners a variety of choices in finding a prefabricated solution to fit the architectural and vandal-resistance needs of the application.

The type of building material selected can affect where and how the building can be delivered. Rachak said his company has put its prefabricated buildings everywhere from sea level to 12,000 feet. "We've even helicoptered in units," he said. "Once you get into helicoptering in buildings, you get into a much larger expense. But you're not hauling a crew two miles into a worksite where they can't even drive, either."

While such extreme measures are rarely necessary, they also are not an option for heavier block CMU buildings. "We used to helicopter buildings in when we were building wood-frame buildings," said Chuck Kaufman, president of a manufacturer of public restrooms based in Minden, Nev. "But the maximum you can helicopter is 16,000 pounds. Once you start using masonry products, where an average building weighs 40,000 to 80,000 pounds, forget it."

According to Kaufman, the trucks that deliver CMU buildings are typically two to four inches above the ground, so curbs, unlevel ground and ravines can be impediments to site access. "Planning for ingress and egress to the site with huge trucks and trailers or cranes is often not considered," he said. "Trees, overhead utility lines and other obstacles must be planned for before the loads arrive."

If the restroom structure will be part of a larger project, Kaufman recommends that it be put in during the first phase of the project before surrounding infrastructure such as grass, grating and underground piping is installed. "We used to do work on golf courses, and then I quit it," he said. "They never put bathrooms on the course until it has been open for three or four years. And then you tear the you-know-what out of the course trying to get these buildings in."

Some manufacturers also offer precast concrete buildings that can be delivered piecemeal as another option. "If you're going to deliver it in pieces—four walls and a roof in its simplest form—you can deliver it if it's narrow access or remote and assemble it at the location," said Moffette Tharpe, managing director for a manufacturer of precast concrete buildings based in Midland, Va.

No matter the delivery method, it's important to discuss all of these considerations thoroughly with the manufacturer before moving ahead with the project. Good communication on site preparation also is required, including preparing the foundation and details on where the "stub out" pipes and electrical conduits will be located. "It's important so the precaster can locate the holes precisely in the floor," Tharpe said. "That's probably one of the most frequently made mistakes. Make sure there's good coordination between the site preparer and the manufacturer of the restroom."

Another consideration, according to Rachak, is having the proper water line size if it's a flush building. "You might go so far down the line in this project with whatever manufacturer and then realize you need a two-inch water line and you only have a one-inch and you might have to put in a pressure tank," Rachak said.

Because of all these different considerations, Gary Burger, national sales manager for a manufacturer of concrete buildings based in Hillsboro, Texas, recommends having the manufacturer come out and visit the site before installation. "Each manufacturer will have different abilities in terms of being able to give you a turnkey solution," he said. Since the number of companies in the field has exploded in recent years, Rachak advises also asking for references so you can get a sense of what they do and what the experience of their previous customers has been.