Dirty Business

What Your Restrooms Say About Your Park

By Dana Carman

FOR MOST PEOPLE, the first choice in bathrooms would be their own. But unless people never leave their homes, they're more than likely going to have to use a public restroom at some point. Head outdoors to a park for a few hours or on an overnight camping trip, and urgency can take on a new meaning if a restroom facility isn't available or usable.

et's be honest, when in a remote location and nature calls, so to speak, most people will make what they can't find. However, in a more populated park area, restroom facilities are more than a bonus—they're a necessity. Especially when you consider that a park's usage can be influenced by the availability of a restroom, which is also why restroom design has come a long way, baby. No longer the cement blocks of our youths, today's restroom facilities are designed to be durable, vandal-resistant and downright pretty. And with so many options on the market today, there's no reason you can't find something to meet your needs, and those of the users of your parks.


You made the decision to install the new restroom at your park, so what are your options? Of course, you can hire an architect to design a building and a contractor to carry out the plans. Many people do that, especially if there are specific needs the building has to meet. But in a lot of cases, you may be able to utilize a prefabricated building that is attractive, vandal-resistant and can be made to look and feel the way you want it to. Not to mention, it costs less.

Prefabricated buildings are created off-site and then installed on your site in a matter of hours or days. According to Brian DeBreceny, parks and facilities manager with the Town of Sahuarita, Ariz., the decision to go with a prefabricated building in Anamax Park had a lot to do with the ability to modify the company's basic design to accommodate the park's needs.

There was already an existing facility in the park that was built a few years prior—a recreation center that has a restroom in it. It was important to DeBreceny and Ken Ventura, parks project manager, that the exterior of this new restroom match the older building's exterior.

"I think that parks have an appearance—either a color scheme or style—that you want to continue on with at the site," Ventura said. "So it was important to continue that whole theme throughout the park. It's important to how you're recognized. You go to a town park and there's a certain feel and look at that facility that you'd like to continue so people know they're at your site."

Prefabricated buildings generally involve concrete but can also incorporate other materials. Concrete has also come a long way and can be precast to look like other materials, such as wood or brick.

"Building materials continue to evolve, and various styles of architecture are available," said Dave Sheldon, communications manager for a prefabricated building manufacturer. So have the types of buildings, which are available as multi-use facilities as more parks are seeking restroom and concession facilities in one unit. In Anamax Park, a new prefabricated, multi-use restroom and concession building is being installed between the football fields, and the youth football team often creates a makeshift concession stand, so it makes sense to offer the user group what they need.

"The youth football team uses concessions to support their organization," Ventura said. "It gives us some flexibility, too. As tax dollars get shorter, it can be a potential revenue generation for us. If it's not being used by that group, we have the potential to use it during the off-season or another activity."

While the buildings are designed as a kit, the ability to incorporate color, or change roofing styles or interiors does exist with many prefabrication companies, so do your homework and ask around to find the company that is able to achieve your goals. With the range of styles available, it's not hard to find a building that, while it may not match 100 percent, will come so close that it's your best bet. Especially if cost and time are factors.

"There's no question about it that the utilization of the structural, architectural and engineering designs over a broad range of building styles and replicating that over and over is a much more economical way to produce small buildings like this," Sheldon said. "For an architect to do that work from the blank page is expensive compared to a manufacturing company that is using that similar design over many different styles and sizes in a repeated fashion."

For John Elias, park operations manager for the City of Coppell, Texas, cost wasn't as much a factor as size. "It's hard to find an architect that will draw you up a very small, straightforward restroom building," he said.

It would also be hard to find an architect and contractor that could whip up a restroom facility and have it ready to go as quick as a prefabricated building can be installed, which can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days in most cases. This can be significant if you can't close off areas due to construction or if your timing and the weather don't mix.

Another significant point of note is that prefabricated structures are already ADA-compliant, so going from purchase to installation could, in theory, be as easy as pointing and clicking depending on your park's needs.

Attractive Is as Attractive Does

Unfortunately, restroom facilities are too often the victims of vandalism, ranging from simple tagging to arson. This is why the structures on the market today are designed to withstand any kind of worst-case scenario and feature things like fiberglass reinforced panel (FRP), which is easy to clean and hard to mess with. Similarly, many opt for stainless steel fixtures rather than porcelain because the porcelain can be ripped off the wall and broken.

However, just because a facility is durable doesn't mean it has to be ugly. In fact, Claire Miller, preserve manager for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., feels that the nicer your facility, the less attention the vandals will pay. For Miller, when planning their newest facility at the trailhead of Lost Dog Wash, aesthetics were a top priority. The facility needed to fit into the landscape of the existing Arizona desert environment. To achieve that, the facility was made from rammed earth, which is soil mixed with cement and compacted into forms. The soil in this particular mix was the soil that was excavated from the site, so it was a perfect match for the natural landscape, not to mention a reuse of materials.

The building was designed by WeddleGilmore Architects and has won awards for its design and sustainability. Yet, despite its natural and striking appearance, Miller said it has yet to be the target of vandals. She believes it has to do with both design elements and how well-managed the area is.

"If you see a facility that's all tagged and dirty, you think that's the accepted behavior there," she said. "If there's something that's nice and supported by the fact that it's taken care of and you know others are out there watching it, it's less prone to that kind of activity."

Her philosophy on restroom facilities is simple: "Build it nice, keep it nice and take care of it," Miller said.

For Lost Dog Wash, however, it wasn't just about fitting into the landscape. "You could have the most beautiful park or trail and if you have nasty restrooms, people are going to remember," she said. "If you have a clean facility, people leave feeling overall positive about the whole experience."

Toilet Talk

Restrooms aren't traditionally something people gather around to talk about.

In general, the dirty business of restrooms is reserved for those in the business of well, other people's business.

"I have a really crappy job," joked Kevin Mart, president of a prefabricated and onsite-constructed restrooms company. "But I love it."

He's not the only one. In 2001, the World Toilet Organization (WTO) was formed with the vision of achieving clean, safe, affordable, ecologically sound and sustainable sanitation for everyone. Each year, the WTO hosts the World Toilet Summit, which invites those from all countries and various industries dealing with restrooms and the various issues to attend. This year's conference, which takes place October 31 to November 3 in India, will focus on sanitation-oriented topics. Information on the World Toilet Organization can be found at www.worldtoilet.org and on the summit at www.worldtoiletsummit2007.org.

The American Restroom Association, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group advocating for clean, safe, well-designed restrooms, will be at the World Toilet Summit again this year. The organization was formed after Robert Brubaker, program manager, was working on a separate initiative to support pedestrian activities. As part of that project, he discovered public outcry regarding the lack of restrooms and started a public restroom initiative that got picked up by local media and then, while attending the World Toilet Summit, ABC World News picked up on the group and the rest, as they say, is restroom history.

The organization was six weeks old and had gotten the kind of publicity generally reserved for much more well-established advocacy groups. But this group's message stood out, and not just because of the delicate subject matter.

"We were the only people in America doing this," Brubaker said. The organization gets a lot of queries from the public regarding restrooms, so it has a "really good handle on what people want," Brubaker said, which is why the Web site has many resources, including a page for parks and recreation, to advise on how best to implement restroom facilities. To begin your education, visit www.americanrestroom.org.

For park users all over the country, restrooms are an issue, but particularly in San Francisco where the Neighborhood Parks Council (SFNPC) is a part of a Restroom Task Force along with the Recreation and Parks Department that created a survey to assess people's opinions on restrooms. In the first few months the survey was up, there were 500 responses, which, according to Isabel Wade, executive director of the SFNPC, shows that it's a very important topic to people. Results of the survey showed that San Francisco needs to work on cleanliness and availability of facilities, but the creation of the task force showed, more importantly, that talking about toilets is something people do want to do, if it's done right. On the SFNPC's Web site, you can find out more about the Restroom Task Force as well as an interesting slideshow featuring toilet art. Yes, there is such a thing (and some of it isn't half-bad). There's also information on a unique park reporting system that is also a joint project between the SFNPC and the Recreation and Parks Department called ParkScan (www.parkscan.org). For more, visit www.sfnpc.org.

The Three M's: Maintain, Maintain, Maintain

Keeping it nice, however, can be easier said than done in some cases. In a survey conducted by the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council (SFNPC), 42 percent of those surveyed cited cleanliness as the single biggest problem with San Francisco park restrooms. Sixty percent of those surveyed rated their overall park restroom experience as very unpleasant or unpleasant.

According to the SFNPC, maintenance problems that result from of lack of staff are a huge issue. Park restrooms are such an issue in San Francisco, in fact, that a joint initiative was undertaken by the Recreation and Parks Department and the SFNPC to create a Restroom Task Force, through which the survey was conducted.

Not every parks and recreation department has the staff necessary to keep a restroom facility in tip-top shape. For each facility you have, there's the opening and closing before and after the parks open and close, the cleaning, and keeping the area secure enough that vandals will be deterred. How can you achieve all that?

Elias feels he's found a good solution: security cameras. At some of the facilities Elias oversees, the bathrooms must stay open later than he can staff, so those facilities stay unlocked, but not unwatched. At any bathroom that remains unlocked, cameras are placed around the area, and according to Elias, it's a relatively low-cost way to keep vandalism down as the costs to secure the building are low compared to what it could cost to repair if damaged.

According to Isabel Wade, executive director of the SFNPC, some restroom research into what other cities' best practices are uncovered another idea on how to maintain restrooms when staffing is an issue: outsource it to a local organization.

"In Portland, they have restrooms serviced by a disability group," Wade said. She also doesn't think the one-size-fits-all approach works when it comes to restroom facilities.

"In Santa Cruz, I saw they had a lot of port-o-potties screened by trellises that grew attractive vines on them, or they had a frame on the side with a lovely poster," Wade said. "If you made them as attractive as possible, that would certainly work. Parents are often happy just to have a port-o-potty. Let's look at other options."

Oh, Please Let it Be Open

The availability of the restrooms is another issue that lack of staffing affects. In San Francisco, availability also ranks high on the restroom survey as one of the big problems facing parks. The Park District of Chicago only offers facilities from Memorial Day through Labor Day in its parks. Robert Brubaker hears this complaint from people all over the country who are wondering the same thing about the public restrooms in their parks: Why can't we just get in to go to the bathroom?

Brubaker is the program manager for the American Restroom Association, a Baltimore-based nonprofit association advocating for the "availability of clean, safe, well designed public restrooms." According to the American Restroom Association, there is anecdotal evidence that people will shy away from certain physical activities if there are not restrooms available. Using the example of Chicago, some of those closed park restrooms fall along an 18-mile marked lakefront path used by many walkers, joggers and cyclists before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. In a 2002 study conducted by the ETC Institute of Kansas for Arlington County, Va., respondents were asked to pick three improvements they would most like to see in the parks/facilities they use most often. Drinking fountains, followed by year-round restrooms were the top two choices.

"Not having restrooms is keeping people out of parks," Brubaker said. And this, he feels, is very much an obstacle to getting people involved in fitness-related activities, which is especially bad given today's current state of obesity in adults and children.

He suggests that park managers survey their park users to find out how important bathrooms are to them. According to Brubaker, when people see "bathrooms" on a survey, it tends to rank high, but in his opinion, some don't like to mention it for various reasons, such as there's no money to build or buy a new facility, or those in charge don't want to deal with the various issues of maintenance. In those cases, the American Restroom Association's Web site (www.americanrestroom.org) offers various guidelines and suggestions to breaking down barriers toward offering good, clean restroom facilities.

"The whole issue of restroom facilities is a very big one for people," SFNPC's Wade said. "No business would hear over and over that people leave their facility because they don't have available toilets. A regular business would figure out how to deal with this."

In the Backcountry

Building onsite can be a problem if the desired location is very remote. In these cases, some opt for prefabricated buildings because the necessary construction vehicles can't or shouldn't access the location. Often waterless restrooms are utilized in these cases also because access to the sewer and water lines is unavailable. However, onsite building in remote locales can be done, albeit delicately. Kevin Mart, president of a prefabricated and onsite-constructed restrooms company, has placed prefabricated buildings in the middle of nowhere, literally.

For a project in Roaring Springs, a seven-mile hike in from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the materials were flown in by helicopter and excavation and building took place on site, as this facility was utilizing a composting toilet system.

For other similar projects, materials were also hiked in on the backs of people and animals. In one case in Glacier National Park, the caravan met a grizzly on the trail, and despite the scare only lost one window as a result.

"You never know what you're going to run across," Mart said.

Green the Way

These days, you can't talk about anything without talking about being green. And what's more green than open park space? That was one reason that the Lost Dog Wash facility was designed with sustainability in mind.

According to architect Phil Weddle, from an energy standpoint, "the project is off the grid electrically" by being completely solar-powered. The facility conserves water in two ways. One is by utilizing a greywater system that harvests reusable water for irrigation. Lost Dog Wash also features a composting toilet system.

Before you hold your nose, listen to this: Miller said she gets a lot of interest from people who want to actually go down and visit the composting system.

"People are very accepting that it is so environmentally sound," she explained. "It's a neat opportunity to talk about the environmental consciousness of Scottsdale's preserves. People ask for a tour to see the composting unit and how it works."

How it works is pretty simple. Unlike a vault toilet system, which is waterless but has the waste filter into a vault that needs to be pumped every so often, a composting toilet system breaks down the waste and paper the same way a yard composter works, with aerobic bacteria and fungi doing all the work. A ventilation system continuously works to pull air down and out so there's no odor. While it's essentially a self-contained process, composting toilet systems are not maintenance-free, so it's important to consider maintenance when implementing any toilet system.

From the user perspective, a composting toilet system looks just like any other flush toilet except there's foam in the base instead of water, which is what carries the waste to the composting system. In order to utilize a composting system, space beneath the toilet fixtures is required.

Vault systems also require space underground for the vault, which can store roughly 1,000 gallons of waste or 15,000 uses. Vault toilets are generally thought of as pretty aromatic, though many utilize a similar ventilation system that pulls the air down the toilet for natural ventilation.

As many parks are interested in preserving green space and limiting the impact users have on the natural environment, restroom facilities have the ability to also contribute on several levels by utilizing solar energy, water savings through various methods, and lower-impact materials.

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