Patron-pleasing plans for restrooms and locker rooms
By Kelli Anderson
Ask just about any recreation facility manager what it takes to make restrooms and locker rooms appealing to patrons, and the top answer will not be granite countertops, gold faucets or crown molding. Hands-down, the number-one response is most often cleanliness followed by its hands-off cousin, hand-free design. Other not-so-surprising but equally important components that add up to restroom and locker room success—like privacy, security and family-friendly design—aren't exactly new kids on the block either, but newer technology and creative solutions to age-old problems continue to satisfy the evolving expectations patrons have for these important spaces.
As antibacterial products continue to fly off store shelves, the latest flu epidemic hits the newsstands and legions of the populace (on orders from their physicians) wage war on germs with more frequent hand-washing and less germ contact, it is no surprise that restroom and locker room spaces continue to add more hands-free design elements or anti-microbial/bacterial-treated material in response.
Patrons, now equipped with an ever-growing germ-consciousness, care more than ever about clean restrooms and locker rooms. In response, an arsenal of electronic and red-sensor devices has developed: soap dispensers, faucets, paper-towel dispensers, flushing devices and the ever-classic hand-dryers.
As with any product, given time and incentive, newer generations work out their kinks and bugs. Newer designs in paper-towel dispensers, for example, are less likely to be mistaken for relatives of the Sherman tank and offer more aesthetically pleasing options, while simpler designs and more fool-proof mechanisms make the experience an improved one for patrons used to the now-it's-working-now-it's-not scenario of earlier models.
Hands-free design is also on the increase in architectural design. Airports, among the first to use door-free restrooms, designed a hallway with a stub wall to create a U-shaped pathway at the entrance. Recreation facilities are finding that this design, especially when double-wide to accommodate wheelchairs and parents with strollers, is a great solution from both the sanitary as well as the ADA perspective.
In an ideal world, facilities would enlist the aid of an entire battalion of cleaning staff to wipe out each and every offending germ, graffitied love-note or dust bunny. However, when 24/7 care is not an option, there are plenty of strategies that can make these spaces not only look good on the surface but actually be clean in the areas where it really matters.
Installing the right materials and products is a step in the right direction.
"Tile, tile, tile; drainage, drainage, drainage," summarizes Mike Rock, senior director of event operations of the Pepsi Center in Denver. "You want to have tile corner to corner and floor to ceiling. It's great for removing graffiti, and it's easy to clean. And drains? You can never have enough drainage—it allows you to wash down, hose out and mop out more easily without having to carry buckets back and forth."
Durable materials also rank high on the list of restroom and locker room do's. For Rick Neish, manager for Aramark facility services and Service Master, based in Chicago, solid plastic and stainless steel earn his nod of approval.
"A better type is solid plastic instead of metal—it's durable, wears better, doesn't rust or have parts that come loose," he says. "Solid plastic or stainless steel is best for partitions, trash receptacles, towel and tissue dispensers; those hold up over the long haul."
However, metal lockers—the most affordable in upfront cost and therefore still popular—have found a way to combat their longtime corrosion enemy: water. Some metal lockers are now being designed with solid plastic bases to prevent rust damage where it is most common. Solid plastic and phenolic lockers are still a durable favorite, with wood coming in number one for luxury and aesthetics.
Toilet partitions, it turns out, have had quite a colorful history going from the more common marble of the 1920s to today's varieties of metal, painted metal, laminates, solid plastics or stainless steel. New products, however, in the search of the Holy Grails of surface materials—graffiti-proof, durable, scratch-proof, waterproof, noncorroding, LEED-certified—are being developed all the time.
Fiberglass-reinforced plastic surfaces are one such relative newcomer touting virtues of cleanability, durability and mold/mildew resistance. Likewise, a soon-to-be-released product with a solid-color reinforced composite material boasting a harder surface than solid plastic and made of recycled wood fiber is another such Holy Grail contender due out later this year.
Anti-microbial surface products are also all the rage in the war against germs. According to Jon Domisse, director of marketing and product development with a bathroom fixture and locker company, polyester resin surfaced-based products seem to be the most effective followed by solid plastic, plastic laminate and then tiles and concrete.
Spray-on anti-microbial products are typically not as effective depending on where they are applied: Where there is a lot of contact such as on door handles, these treatments tend to wear off. But overall, the jury is still out on whether products marketing themselves as anti-microbial are as effective as their claims. Ultimately, nothing can take the place of regular cleaning.
Neish suggests that monitoring at regular intervals and implementing a checklist system is key.
"Workers initial, time and date the various tasks to be completed on a posted form to show the manager what was done and when," Neish says. "It keeps cleaning staff honest. Intervals of every two hours is an adequate inspection, but major events are one-hour intervals."
Along with initially designing areas with easy-to-reach cleaning surfaces around toilets and faucets, posting lists that require such things as picking up debris, noting broken items, attending to trash overflow and refilling dispensers (just some of the tasks that need policing to keep restrooms and locker rooms ship-shape at all times) will help ensure that those spaces get the attention they need.
Educating your cleaning staff on which cleaning products to use and where to use them is another invaluable component in the cleanliness equation. Making sure easy-to-ignore spaces are attended to—like back sections or the outside of the toilet bowl—is essential to getting beyond the average surface-clean.
"We should be cleaning for health first and appearance second," says Anthony Trombetta, education and training manager of International Sanitary Supply Association, Inc. in Lincolnwood, Ill. "The most common mistakes are first made by the managers and supervisors due to lack of a good training program. Wrong chemicals are used on the wrong surfaces, chemicals are combined causing unsafe situations, and cross-contamination occurs by using the same cleaning tool to clean the toilet and then the sink. All of these problems can be avoided through proper training."
Besides looking clean, these areas also need to smell clean. Having an adequate exhaust or ventilation system will go a long way to eliminating unwanted odors, to say nothing of combating mildew-loving moist environments.
"Usually it's a problem of inadequate exhaust system size, or that the system is not working properly," Neish says. But if adequate drainage and ventilation are not the issue, chances are that cleaning needs to be more frequent and/or more thorough.
Keeping patrons happy isn't just about providing the positives, it's about eliminating the negatives. Removing the frustration of lines, poor traffic patterns, overcrowded spaces and empty dispensers may not sound glamorous, but it's an essential part of the patron-pleasing package.
"The two most critical elements in these spaces is keeping them very clean and well-stocked," Rock says. "What drives people to complain are paper towels being out or soap being empty. Have sufficient hand towels. Increase staff to restock or have ample-sized dispensers that don't have to be constantly filled." Rock recommends one towel dispenser to every four people.
Placing hand-washing and hand-drying areas so that they draw traffic through the space from one entrance to the exit will also help keep patrons from stepping over each other in their efforts to get in and out quickly. Some counter designs now incorporate the soap dispenser, sinks, towels and trash receptacles so that all hand-washing functions are accomplished at one station, thereby eliminating the mess and safety hazard of wet hands dripping water across the floor. Other designs place the trash receptacle at the exit so patrons dry their hands while on their way out in an efficient assembly-line fashion.
Knowing your base and anticipating the need before designing a restroom or locker room space will also prevent a lot of headaches, both for the patron and the manager. Assess the peak periods of activity such as at special events, and plan enough stalls or urinals accordingly. Know if your clientele tends to be mostly collegiate, adults or families with children.
Often, college clients, for example, don't bother with lockers and providing cubbies in workout areas suits their needs best. Families with children now appreciate and expect family changing areas off of locker room spaces where they can handle the privacy needs of both male and female together. And where there are large groups of children for classes like swimming, half-lockers are ideal. Adults, on the other hand, typically expect a more service-oriented space with full accompaniment of lockers and range of services.
In all cases, providing extra-wide corridors, double-wide doors and door-less entries will make entering and navigating these spaces more comfortable for the able-bodied as well as those with mobility devices, children or children in strollers. Everyone wins.
One group of clients that continues to enjoy increasing trend-attention is the family. Family changing areas remain hot as the recreation industry vies for their entertainment dollars. Privacy design in locker rooms is on the increase in general but is particularly noticeable in the family changing area where parents and guardians find the privacy of these spaces a welcome change to the awkwardness formerly experienced in adult changing areas. These spaces, if designed well, can take up minimal square footage and provide an efficient, patron-pleasing use of space.
"We need to have family-friendly spaces," says Allan Wilson, director of building services at the University of Denver. "If you're going to welcome families into a building, it doesn't make sense to not offer family changing areas."
In the University's recreation center, two family changing areas that accommodate up to 20 families each were built with a central locker space and changing rooms off to the sides.
Family changing areas can house a simple changing space for four to five people with obligatory baby-changing station (now a must-feature in all restrooms and locker rooms, male and female, where children are permitted) as well as include toilets, sinks, mirrors and showers.
Even in restrooms, sinks are now being introduced with dual heights for child-friendly reach and that also accommodate wheelchairs. Also popular among children—although not designed necessarily with children in mind—is the newer foam soap dispensers. Children love the texture and are more enticed to wash, while facility managers love the cost savings from a product that takes less to use, and maintenance staff love the reduced mess from a product that does not leave sticky puddles.
Where children are going to be present, sturdy design is also critical. For example, partitions—occasionally mistaken by children as playground equipment—that are only supported from the ceiling can be more easily pulled loose than those partitions supported from the floor.
Safety is not just an issue for children, however. Patron-pleasing plans also provide environments that are safe both physically and perceptively.
"First we want patrons to feel that their articles are safe," says Tony Hayes, project manager for the department of facility management for the Chicago Park District. "For safety of belongings we use reinforced materials, which are very strong and difficult to break. We don't want corners or sections where people can hide behind. We have private changing areas up front and keep it open in the back and have attendants at all our parks."
Slippery floors are another danger that can be avoided with the right materials.
"We installed a hard-surfaced floor," Wilson says. "It's an epoxy surfacing that not only has great color and is easy to clean, it's durable and it's safe."
A still too-common problem, Wilson notes, is recreation facilities using slippery flooring material. Installing nonskid floors in restrooms and locker rooms where water is likely to be present avoids one of the most common safety hazards. Installing enough drains to remove water is another common-sense essential.
But when it comes to making a restroom or locker room memorable, it's all about aesthetics and perks. Letting the sunshine in is one way to brighten any space, or set the mood with indirect lighting and dimmer switches. Certainly choosing high-end materials like stone and wood are a never-ending favorite. For some facilities, decorating and designing these spaces to be more like a beautifully decorated home environment keep patrons not only happy but staying longer and subsequently more likely to spend more on other services like concessions.
Happily, choosing high-end finishes and surfaces, like marble, can have the additional benefit of actually deterring vandalism and graffiti.
"Giant slabs of marble are best for dividers," Rock says. "People respect it and don't mark it." And when they do mark on it, it cleans easily.
Waiting rooms or lounges positioned just outside the entrance to a locker room area are increasingly popular as they beckon patrons to rest in their comfy chairs, sip a drink, watch TV or listen to soothing music. Of course for some patrons, especially the professional athletes, almost no penny is left unspent in these functional-turned-luxury spaces.
"Players are coming in earlier and staying longer whereas 20 years ago they were in and out," Rock observes of his facility's professional athletes who are enjoying their new NBA Denver Nuggets locker room renovated just last year.
The team's locker room area has a film room or mini-amphitheater, leather chairs, a lounge with high-definition TVs, fish tanks, video games, wood cabinetry, large locker spaces, carpets, art on the walls, and reflective lighting perched above cabinets. It's a high-end home away from home.
For the more average-Joe among us, there is still a trend toward more spacious areas, more services and more privacy.
"We're looking for high-end surfaces and high-end services," Wilson says. "We want our locker rooms to be clean, safe, well-maintained, but more importantly, we want to provide good service. Water closets need to be spacious, comfortable. We're starting to see more privacy showers put in as the population is aging. We have a mix of both, but we program it so there are choices. Having a range is a trend."
In Wilson's facility, locker rooms go from the very basic to the luxurious with services that provide blow-dryers, laundry services, hand lotions and towel service.
But regardless of the level of sophistication, restrooms and locker rooms are only as successful as the most basic details.
"Materials have to be specified so that they're safe, clean, aesthetically pleasing," Wilson says. "You know what it comes down to? It comes down to whose paying attention."
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