Adding Versatile, Durable, Beautiful Restrooms
By Sue Marquette Poremba
"Mommy! I need to use the bathroom!"
It's a phrase that every parent has heard when playing at the park or when watching their children play a game on the soccer field. And let's be honest, it isn't just kids who need the restroom out in public.
Because use of public parks and other recreational areas continues to increase, communities are making restrooms a top priority when planning new recreation facilities or renovating existing facilities.
But they can also be considered a luxury because of the costs of installation and maintenance. In fact, said Gary Burger, of a national precast concrete building company, for a long time, many parks stopped installing restroom facilities because they were too expensive to maintain. Today, park directors have options of buildings that don't require a lot of up-front construction and design costs, and better yet, don't require a lot of maintenance.
For example, some buildings can simply be hosed down. "It doesn't matter if they get wet," Burger said of his company's precast structures. "And because the roof is all concrete, you don't have to worry about replacing the roof."
Burger referred to the post-installation costs as the "lifecycle" costs of the building, and depending on the type of restroom structure chosen, those lifecycle costs can be kept low.
There is no "one size fits all" approach to restroom facilities. Even in the same community, the needs will be different from one site to the next. That's the experience of Doug Workman at the Vail Ski Resorts in Colorado.
Workman said the resort is required to have some sort of restroom facility at each ski lift. The type of restroom used in each location, he added, depends on the accessibility to running water.
"There are places where sewer lines and the ability to get to sewer lines is just not a reasonable expectation," Workman explained. In those situations, the resort has gone with a waterless system, which he said works well in the ski resort setting. "Those bathrooms can sit unused for six or seven months out of the year."
These restrooms, Workman said, are located in the most remote areas of the mountains where it is necessary to have facilities that don't require running water.
"Our driving force for the restrooms is convenience for our customers," Workman said. "And where there is no running water or sewer, we want to have facilities that are easy to maintain and keep clean. This system also works from an environmental standpoint because we don't want any problems on that end."
When Vail first became aware of the waterless system, there was immediate interest. One of the more important aspects was that this type of restroom facility meant there was no need to drive a truck to pump out the solids. "The solids break down on their own naturally, and that works well."
Vail has three of these waterless systems on its slopes, as well as a number of outhouses that use tanks.
Durability of the restrooms is important for Workman, as well, who explained that the prefabricated structures include a precast concrete foundation, adding that other materials are used to customize the structures.
As Workman pointed out, while there may be a restroom need, there may not be sewer and water to support a facility. This is where waterless systems come in.
Alex Rachak of a Fort Collins, Colo., manufacturer of prefabricated restroom buildings, frequently designs restroom facilities that don't need water hookups, as well as incorporating sustainable building practices into their plans, another way to reduce the cost of restroom structures for the long term.
"The sustainability products reduce lifecycle costs," Rachak said. "And we're a custom builder, so we can design facilities that can match historic buildings or existing facilities."
The waterless restroom facilities are holding facilities, Rachak continued. "The facilities reduce the waste, reduce the need for pumping and have a pleasant odor in the facility. They don't smell," he explained.
The technology is popular on ski slopes and with the National Park Service, and with any city that has areas where sewer hookups are not available.
The units are prefabricated before delivery, built on their own concrete slab with the plumbing and electric installed. "The buildings can be helicoptered in, like to Mount Rainier," Rachak said.
One project that stands out to Rachak is a waterless facility at Fishcreek Falls, Steamboat Springs, Colo. "This is a waterless facility, even though there is water available to the site," he said. "The maintenance is minimal, as well."
Because so many of the restrooms Rachak's company manufactures are for state or national parks or for ski resorts, the buildings are often in remote areas. That makes them prime targets for vandalism, so making the facilities vandal-proof is important.
"There have been studies that say the nicer the building, the less vandalism," Rachak said. His buildings are all custom designed and may not be as easily recognizable as a restroom as other facilities. In addition, the walls are all seamless and have a surface seal that is difficult to vandalize.
For communities interested in green buildings and lessening their carbon footprint, even in restroom facilities, Rachak said there are options. Finding a restroom structure built from materials that can last for years is important. Insulation can help keep the building warm in colder weather, eliminating the need for costly resources. Solar applications can also be added to some restroom structures.
"We may need lights, we may need ventilation, and we can get the power from the sun," Rachak said. "We're seeing more and more customers using renewable energy."
In the city of Amarillo, Texas, Parks & Recreation Director Larry Offerdahl ordered 21 new restroom facilities for the park system this past year. Some of these facilities are replacing older restrooms that are not ADA-compliant or that aren't very attractive, particularly in regional parks that get a lot of use.
"We're a large user of prefab restrooms," Offerdahl said. He said he first discovered the concrete structures at a conference. "We placed our first one on one of our 36-hole golf courses," he added. "We needed to put a new restroom there."
What Offerdahl likes about using a prefabricated structure is the minimal construction time. "Instead of having someone out there building a restroom for six weeks, we actually ran the utilities up to the pad we prepared," he explained. "The facility arrived on a big semi, we had a crane lift it from the truck to the pad, hooked up the utilities, and within three days, we had a restroom."
The reduced construction time also means lower costs overall, always an important factor for a recreation department on a budget. The prefab structure means that Offerdahl doesn't need to worry about the time and expense of designing the structure or the construction crew to build it.
"We save quite a bit of money buying a high-quality, prefabricated restroom," he said. "It is much less expensive than having a building built."
Less construction time also means less downtime for that area of the park or recreation area. Also important, parents won't have to worry about their children wanting to play around a construction site.
Another criteria for Offerdahl is the ability of the facility to easily accommodate a high volume of users. He also wants something that is durable yet high quality. "And we want something easy to clean," he added.
Many of the restrooms are placed in Amarillo's neighborhood parks, and while Offerdahl said there are a number of different options to choose from, he primarily purchases three different sizes.
The largest facilities, he said, are placed at soccer fields and community parks where there will be a higher volume of use. The larger units also have changing areas for parents with small children.
In smaller, more remote parks, the city has gone with smaller, unisex restrooms.
While the restroom structures he's already purchased are restroom only, Offerdahl said that will change with the construction of a new seniors' park.
"This park will be specifically for senior citizens," he said, "and we plan to put in a restroom with a little police substation adjacent to one of the ends." This substation will be modified to provide either private security or allow the police department to be stationed in the park.
"There is a lot of versatility we can get from these restrooms," Offerdahl said.
The restrooms also have automatic locks on them. "We close our parks down from midnight to 6 a.m.," he added, "and the doors lock up then. People can still get out if they are inside, but they can't get inside."
Another budget consideration is maintenance costs, and Offerdahl wanted facilities that are both easy to clean and vandal-resistant. "The stainless-steel fixtures are vandal-resistant," he said. "And a special coating on the walls prevents spray paint from seeping into the stone."
Overall, Offerdahl continued, the citizens' response to the new restroom facilities has been positive. "Some parks didn't have restrooms before, and they are areas that get a lot of use."
When the city of Riverbank in California decided to add new restroom facilities, Recreation Director Sue Fitzpatrick said vandalism was definitely a consideration.
"We want some as graffiti- and vandal-proof as possible," Fitzpatrick said. "Staff time is expensive. The more time our staff has to go back to repair or paint over something, that's costly. So if there is something that wipes down easily or doesn't break as often, that saves us money in the long run."
In addition, something that can be kept looking nice with little extra effort is a facility that will get used by the public, and that's the whole idea behind public restroom areas.
Riverbank has more than 50 acres of park lands, according to city project coordinator Laura Graybill. While not all the parks have a restroom, an increasing number are being added. Graybill said that part of her job is to figure out the restroom needs of a particular park: how many stalls the facility will need and that they are ADA-compliant.
"We want to make sure the restrooms fit into the design of the park," Graybill said.
While most of the facilities are basic designs that can simply be picked from the manufacturer's offerings, there have been a few custom orders, including a restroom with a shower and an eye-wash station at the public works department.
When it comes to actual placement of the restrooms, Fitzpatrick said the facilities have to be strategically placed. "You don't want them too close to the playground or too close to the road, but you don't want it too far away," she said. "You want it to be visible."
The neighborhood surrounding the park often has a say on whether or not there will be a restroom, Fitzpatrick added. "Some neighborhoods don't want restrooms there, but that, I think, comes more from the older restrooms that were way too large," she said. The larger the restroom building, she added, the easier it is for mischief to happen inside.
Riverbank found a company that offers smaller-sized facilities. "They are easily put into a park and look nice," Fitzpatrick said.
Residents have been known to change their minds when it comes to putting in restrooms. "We had one park we redesigned. We were going to put a restroom in during Phase I, but the neighbors said no, they didn't want one," Fitzpatrick said. The city decided to keep the restroom in the plans for Phase II of the park redesign. "And now the residents are asking us when the restroom is coming. It's a nice playground, a nice park, but when they need to use the bathroom, there isn't one. So now when we do go to Phase II, there isn't going to be an argument."
Fitzpatrick thinks the attitude of the residents might be changing because they are seeing the newer restroom facilities being added in other areas of the city, and the misconceptions about a public restroom are dispelled. "They've seen it in one park, and now they are thinking it would be a good idea to put it in their park, as well," Fitzpatrick said.
Riverbank's perspective is that, while neighborhoods might get a say when it comes to existing parks, any new parks automatically have a restroom installed.
"It's a lot easier to put a restroom in a new park than in an existing one, anyway," Fitzpatrick said. That includes plans for a new dog park and a baseball complex that will each have new restroom facilities.
At its new 10-acre sports complex, Riverbank took a slightly different approach and installed a combination concession stand/restroom. "That was the first one we purchased of that type," Fitzpatrick said. It was also more complicated than the standard restroom installation and has been a learning experience for the city.
"The health department has a lot of requirements in the way the building is to be designed," Fitzpatrick said, "and when we designed this one, there were certain things we had to add in."
There was also no heater or air conditioning, so that had to be included after the installation.
"We've also learned that the community groups who use a building and the designers have two different ideas," Fitzpatrick added.
And perhaps most importantly, they found that the restrooms are not an adequate size, especially when the complex hosts football games. "We thought it would be large enough, but the number of people coming to our events is a lot larger than we expected," she said. "But you learn from these experiences."
Even so, the facility gets heavy use, and the community is grateful for it.
Fitzpatrick added that the city uses two different types of restroom facilities. "We have the regular sewer system restrooms, and then we have the vaulted, which we have along our trail," Fitzpatrick said. "The vaulted facilities can be put into more wooded areas, and that's worked pretty well."
Budget considerations are very important, especially in today's economy, so many communities are beginning to look at facilities that have multiple purposes, such as the concession stand/restroom combo used in Riverbank. Companies are also offering buildings that can provide storage, which is especially popular at playing fields that need a place to keep equipment like soccer nets or that require special landscaping equipment.
"A lot of parks will lease that extra space to groups to raise money through concessions," said Ryan Smith, of a Roseburg, Ore., prefabricated building company. "Roof extensions are also getting more popular. Communities want a pavilion, but it is too expensive to build two structures, so they incorporate it into one structure, like a concession and restroom on one end and a roof extension with picnic tables. It's a more efficient way to do things."
Another trend in restrooms Smith is seeing is the push-pull between safety and aesthetics.
"We have a lot of customers looking for specifics on a building to keep their park patrons safe," he explained, "like a wing wall. If there is an entry door with a privacy wall, they ask if we could lift up that last course of blocks to see if someone is standing behind that wall. There is also a move from multi-user facilities, where everyone is in the same room, to a single-user facility. That way, if there is a parent in the park, and they have a child of the opposite sex, the parent knows the child can go into the facility and lock the door."
In fact, the trend for adding or improving restroom facilities in community parks seems to be driven by kids and their parents. "It seems like every kid in America plays some kind of sports these days," Matthew Smith said. "Any park you go by is filled with kids and cars and parents, and it seems like communities are trying to upgrade their parks with better facilities."
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