Feature Article - October 2021
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When Nature Calls

Optimizing Public Restrooms to Support Outdoor Activities

By Chris Gelbach

As the nation continues its ongoing coexistence with COVID-19, there is an increasing acknowledgement of the importance of public restroom structures in park environments—and of the importance of getting these structures right for both the safety and comfort of people looking to recreate outdoors.

In a recent Recreation Management survey to participants in a webinar on public restrooms, 94.8% of respondents said cleaning and sanitizing was among their top concerns for reopening restrooms. Coming in second and third were security of staff and users (59.5%) and vandalism (46.6%). More than half (51%) of respondents said that all-gender restrooms were a relevant topic to them.

Unsurprisingly, manufacturers of public restrooms that serve the parks and recreation market are seeing a move toward structures that address many of these issues and concerns. And the biggest shift many have seen is toward single-user restrooms.

Single-Family Restrooms, Accessible by All

"What we have seen as a trend in the last year is toward more single-family ADA restrooms," said Dave Worthington, manager of the concrete restroom structure division of a precast concrete supplier based in Ottsville, Penn. These typically include a toilet, a sink, sufficient room for accessibility with an interior of around 7-by-7-feet and a baby changing station. According to Worthington, these spaces are great as flexible options for families with small children of different genders and also to provide all-gender restroom accommodations. "We've seen more of those buildings in the last year, where there are even two of those units or four of those units in building structures," Worthington said.

A growing preference for single restrooms is one that other manufacturers are seeing as well. "A lot of times nowadays we're doing just single-stall restroom designs that are labeled unisex or all-gender depending on what the state requires," said Chris Gaughan, regional sales manager for a manufacturer of precast concrete restroom structures based in Minden, Nevada. "And what that's doing is creating a safe space for everybody to use the facilities. A lot of times we're even putting the handwashing stations on the outside of the building now. So park users that are just looking to wash their hands to stay clean don't have to go all the way into the restroom to do so."

Gregg Zentarsky, Northeast sales manager for a producer of precast concrete restroom structures headquartered in Spokane Valley, Wash., is also seeing more parks opt for designs based on the family-assist restroom concept, including one design featuring four separate restrooms, each with an ADA toilet, ADA sink, ADA shower with a shower bench, and in some cases, a baby changing station.

Worthington is also seeing more requests for adult changing stations, a trend that is likely to increase over time as our society continues to age and prioritize inclusivity in building design. "Typically, they're stainless-steel units and they take up a little bit more space when they're folded down, so that has to be a design consideration when building new facilities or even retrofitting old ones," Worthington said.

Kyle Earlywine, co-owner of a modular flush restroom provider based in Vancouver, Wash., is also seeing some clients go beyond previous norms for accessibility. "The motorized wheelchairs are not the same size as a manual wheelchair, and they require more space once you get inside," Earlywine said. "There's the baseline ADA requirements for restrooms, but there's a lot of room to go above and beyond in terms of accessibility. I didn't hear that being brought up five years ago. And it's still not a common thing, but I am hearing it more than I used to."

In addition to potential accessibility benefits, COVID safety benefits, all-gender access and convenience for families with children, these types of buildings can offer advantages in being easier to clean because you can just close down a single unit for cleaning instead of having to close an entire restroom section down.

In a world dealing with COVID and the potential of other airborne diseases, ventilation is also important to help keep users safe. Worthington noted that his company's structures incorporate mechanical ventilation fans in the walls that are typically tied to occupancy sensors in the room. The fan then runs for a preset period (often 10 to 20 minutes) after the last person has left, helping to ensure sufficient air changes in the room.

Gaughan noted that his company's buildings are designed to exceed code for passive ventilation with gable ends that feature open stainless-steel screening and undercut doors to allow for additional passive ventilation.

Earlywine noted that the feasibility of some ventilation-improvement technologies can vary greatly by geography. "In Minnesota, when it's negative 20 degrees outside, the heating system required for circulating the air and keeping it warm inside is thousands of dollars more," Earlywine said.