Designing from the Drain Up

Building better restrooms and locker rooms means paying essential attention to cleanliness, attractiveness and ease of maintenance

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Upscale, downscale or in between, facilities managers ultimately want the same things for their buildings: efficiency, ease of maintenance, good security and aesthetics that appeal to users. And nowhere does that apply more than those oft-overlooked but essential spaces: restrooms and locker rooms.

This upscale locker room displays some of the latest trends in locker room design: solid-surface sinks, recessed waste receptacles, curved spaces and interesting paint.

Locker room and restroom design is finally coming out of the (water) closet as architects and manufacturers urge owners to make a statement in these little spaces that make a big impression on users.

Survey after survey show that toilet and locker facilities matter to users, so much so that a difference in locker rooms can make people choose one fitness center over another, especially for women users, says Brian Dunkelberger, AIA, of Sasaki Associates architects in Boston. Bathrooms (or lack thereof) mattered enough—as much as moneymaking skyboxes—to drive the $600 million reconstruction of Soldier Field in Chicago, home of the Chicago Bears. And even more than class enrollment mix-ups, scheduling conflicts or poor coaching, hell hath no fury as a park-district mother faced with unsanitary locker room conditions.

"There's a level of awareness that if neglect has taken place in a restroom, you can expect more of the same in the rest of the facility," says Steve Zingsheim, an executive with a manufacturer of locker room and restroom products. "When people build a facility, they spend all this money on entrances and meeting rooms, but where is everyone going to end up at one point? Statistics show that 80 percent of the people who set foot in a place will see the bathroom."

To improve restroom and locker room aesthetics, architects say the solution is truly in the can.

"Paint and color is the easiest thing, but it's probably the most feared thing for clients," says John Burcher, AIA, a partner with DeStefano + Partners architects, Chicago. If you don't have the budget for high-end materials or for a drastic rehab, paint goes a long way to change the look of your facility. There's no reason you have to use pale pink in the girls' room, blue in the boys' or your standard almond."

Recreational facilities should convey a stimulating, fun environment, and strong color makes that statement, he adds. And since repainting comprises a standard part of good maintenance, owners can update their facilities regularly by changing colors.

No matter what the location, public restroom facilities can have class, like this bathroom at O'Hare International Airport.

The life-giving effects of color also extend to lockers, Zingsheim says, especially as plastic lockers and partitions have become more durable. Colored units cost no more than the traditional gunmetal gray and hide signs of wear better since the color penetrates all the way through the materials, he adds.

Another way to improve form—and function—is by paying attention to the little details that can make a big difference in aesthetics, cleanliness and maintenance, Burcher says. Towels or hand dryers should adjoins sinks, so patrons don't have to cross a room with dripping hands. Wastebaskets also should be nearby, or better yet, tucked under vanities and be in sufficient number to prevent overflow. And in the smallest details, such as wastebaskets, planners can choose stylish over stodgy without added cost.

"There's no reason to choose something boring when attractive, inexpensive alternatives exist," he says, pointing to mass merchandisers like Target or Ikea.

During the design process, owners may begin to suffer from design and budget burnout by the time toilet and locker issues roll around, Burcher says, but a few extra dollars invested initially can translate into big savings and greater efficiency over time.

Floor drains, for one, cost money to install, but save owners maintenance costs over time and greatly improve sanitation as well.

Solid-surface materials for countertops can also translate into savings over time despite the fact that they cost more than laminate initially. The materials are harder and more stain-resistant than laminate, and scratches can be rubbed out with a scouring pad. They resist magic markers, iodine, burns and impact and are even Class A fire-rated.

"Your initial material cost is going to be higher, but you have to look at the life-cycle cost," Zingsheim says. "While a trend-conscious retail establishment might be only three to five years, a school or a rec facility is looking at a 25-year life cycle."

Finally, solid-surface products are easier to install, with less than a dozen plumbing connections for a large sink unit, compared to potentially 100 different connections for individual china lavatories. Those installation savings may cover any additional materials expenses.

Users want hands-off approach

Even sinks can be stylish.

And then there's the cootie criteria. In an age of fatal infectious diseases that has spawned antibacterial soaps, lotions and even toys, users' awareness of sanitation has ballooned.

These concerns have changed the face of the modern public restroom as much as handicapped-accessibility laws. Hands-free is key, from no-touch toilets, lavatories and showers that use infrared sensors, to angled, doorless "corridor" entrances. (Then there's many women's all-time favorite public bathroom device, toilet seats that rotate a clean covering of plastic with every use. Several years ago, when a Chicago newspaper criticized the cost of these items featured in a few of the city's high-profile venues, female readers responded in scores that the seats were worth every penny.)

"People just don't want to touch anything anymore," says Zingsheim, noting high germ counts recorded on faucet handles and doors, among other places.

Sense of security

And the laws of unintended consequences have fallen favorably on the side of touch-free technology as well: the designs inhibit vandalism. "If they don't touch it, they're less likely to break it," Zingsheim reasons.

Beyond sanitation, security issues are dictating locker room and restroom designs as well. Those curved corners, mirrors and open spaces may look cool, but they serve an important purpose, Dunkelberger says, by improving security.

Locker room and bathroom security breaks down into two issues: personal safety and theft and vandalism prevention. For personal safety purposes, Sasaki promotes banks of lockers that are no more than eight to 10 lockers, with "islands" of lockers rather than dead-end rows. This configuration improves visibility, and the islands offer a means of escape in case of an attack. A main circulation path should allow staff members to walk that route and see the entire bath or locker room, he adds.

For security, staffing and planning become as much of an issue as design, Dunkelberger notes. Thieves and even vandals have become much more sophisticated in their approaches, especially in upscale facilities where lockers may yield valuable booty. Operators need to plan regular but random walks through bath and locker facilities to prevent thefts.

Even locker rooms and restrooms with a small budget can become vibrant spaces. Creative lighting, paint on exposed block and strong colors all give the space energy.

"It can't be every quarter hour, for example, because experienced thieves will figure out your timing and post lookouts as well," he explains. Security patrols can be disguised as good customer service, he adds. "People like to see a body in there to chat, to add visibility, and to handle any needs they may have."

Even surveillance cameras cannot replace the presence of a human being, Dunkelberger adds.

"A visible camera is basically going to keep an essentially honest person honest, not prevent a thief," he says. "These guys know they can block their faces with baseball caps to prevent identification."

Small, 8-by-8-inch lockers in exercise or pool areas also can reduce theft, Dunkelberger adds, by encouraging users to bring their valuables with them to high-traffic, high-visibility exercise or swimming areas.

Full-sized locker designs also are evolving to prevent theft and vandalism and improve security, Zingsheim notes. Manufacturers are starting to offer open lockers, without doors, lockers with mesh, see-through doors and even clear locker doors, to improve visibility and piece of mind. Many plastic lockers now include a full-length latch bar, with continuous brackets, so vandals or thieves cannot wedge screwdrivers into them.

And when it comes to vandalism, beauty is more than skin deep in restrooms and locker rooms: It serves as a deterrent. An attractive restroom is less likely to be vandalized than an unattractive facility, Burcher notes, because "if it looks good people will treat it better—there's a certain pride of place."

At the Fernwood Park Natatorium pool house in Chicago, a DeStefano project, vandalism decreased significantly after the building's rehab.

Driven by the women's market

Features like this water spa are designed to add a sense of luxury.

Security-conscious designs have been driven by women's spaces, originally to prevent sexual assaults, but have become universal. Similarly, amenity, lighting and space issues in restrooms and locker rooms have been dictated by women's needs as well.

"Women will walk away from a fitness club if they don't think the locker facilities are up to par; that's been shown in a number of articles over the years. Women's needs have led the charge for creature comforts in toilet and locker areas," Dunkelberger says. "Men, it seems, will take what you give them, but if they find out what's in women's locker rooms, they say, 'Hey, we'd like that too.'"

Among the restroom and locker room innovations pioneered by women's needs are comfortable chairs, private changing stalls and, more than anything else, the end of common "gang" showers. Women also require more dry vanity areas, with space for hair dryers, makeup and other personal-care products.

Bathroom lighting improvements have also been driven by women's demands.

"It's one thing to light the space, and another thing to make the users look good," Burcher says. "Whatever type of space, upscale or high-volume, people want to look good; they don't want to look like they just came off a spaceship from an alien planet. Fluorescent light is not forgiving."

DeStefano advocates bringing in natural light however possible, be it through textured or translucent glass or skylights, to improve toilet and locker spaces immeasurably. Additionally, operable windows can improve ventilation as well. Beyond that, a variety of fixtures with different types of lighting for different areas create a more attractive atmosphere that reflects well on user's reflections.

While these features may have been created with women's needs in mind, men enjoy them as well, Dunkelberger is quick to note.

"We can't deny that men have a strong vanity streak," he says, "and we appreciate looking better in good light every bit as much as your average woman."

Children too

Along with women, children's usage of bathrooms and locker rooms is changing bathroom design as well, especially in recreation facilities, which often host small armies of children tramping through.

Diaper changing areas for both men's and women's locker rooms have become a must, and private spaces for nursing mothers are becoming more prevalent as well. And child-sized toilets are becoming increasingly popular in kid-heavy facilities. In addition to making these smaller patrons more comfortable, the mini-sized toilets and urinals can greatly increase sanitation and decrease maintenance by improving the odds for kids whose aim is still evolving.

Trend watch

Beyond the family locker boom, bathrooms and locker rooms (being what they are) don't seem to experience many drastic design trends, but some changes in the way they're used and marketed are on the horizon.

What's Hot and What's Not
Even in the basic world of restrooms and locker rooms, trends come and go. With this handy list of what's hot and what's not, you can decide if your restroom and locker room facilities may need a bit of updating.
Hands-free controlsStandard fixtures, especially with dual controls
Natural lightFluorescent lighting
ColorInstitutional beige
Colored exposed block2-by-2 tile
Solid surface materials for countertopsLaminates
Antimicrobial carpetTerrazzo floors
Textured concretePorcelain tile
CurvesBoxy spaces and corners
Private showersCommunal showers

A few fitness clubs across the country, such as Sports Club LA, are starting to create and market executive-level locker rooms, where patrons who purchase a higher-level membership can enjoy even greater creature comforts than in the standard facilities. Some family-oriented, high-usage facilities, such as YMCAs, also offer upper-tier locker facilities to separate higher-paying health club members from crowded, kid-filled locker areas.

Upscale facilities also have begun featuring locker room concierges as a step beyond a bathroom attendant.

And while they haven't taken hold yet, "runners' locker rooms" may become the next quantum-leap innovation. Sasaki's Dunkelberger says, that while he hasn't seen one applied yet, he has fielded many questions about the possibility of outside-access locker rooms at city facilities, for people who go running during their workday. "You'd have card-key access from outside the building and would have basically just lockers and showers," he explains. A lot of people don't want the whole fitness club scene—they'd rather run outside—but they need a place to clean off."

Even if the Next Great Bathroom Idea takes off, its underlying requirements will remain the same: cleanliness, attractiveness and ease of maintenance. And for facility managers who pay heed to those three basics, quality restrooms and locker rooms are in the can.

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