Down & Dirty

Dress Up Your Locker Rooms & Restrooms

By Richard Zowie


hether your facility caters to hard-core athletes working out on the court or ballfield, or you provide fitness and recreation to more casually active patrons, your locker rooms are an integral part of those patrons' experience of your facility.

They're a place of at least two settings: Before a game or workout, your patrons go there to get changed and prepare to work up a good sweat. After the game or workout, locker rooms are a place to take a shower, change back into street clothes, and relax and unwind.

Over the years, locker rooms have progressed far beyond the wooden bench and nail in the wall to hang clothes from. Today's locker rooms are becoming more and more advanced as they focus on comfort and meeting people's ever-evolving needs. Whether they're bare-bones locker rooms and restrooms in park district recreation centers or polished locker rooms with spa-like amenities at high-end fitness clubs, the best ones all do the same thing: provide a comfortable, practical place to gear up before and cool down after activity. And, of course, brag about who's the best.

The Humanizing Touch

When we think of lockers, what often comes to mind? The loud, metallic clanging of a locker being opened or shut, perhaps. Some lockers even become a billboard of sorts as vandals use magic markers to write not-so-flattering messages on them. As far as security goes, lockers in the past ranged from built-in combination locks to vertical slots where the owner inserted their combination lock, and most locker rooms still feature this type of mechanism.

Today's locker room designers are more cognizant of the time spent there and endeavor to humanize the space, said Stephen Springs, AIA, principal with Dallas-based Brinkley Sargent Architects.

"Twenty years ago, they were designed mostly around their function and ease of maintenance," he explained. "High-end health clubs were the only exception. Now the quality of light and air and the attention to detail, fit and finish are just as important to most new projects. …Family changing rooms, once seen as a luxury if seen at all, are now givens when designing a new public facility."

Springs added that accessibility for the disabled is another aspect of design that has changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

Some modern locker rooms even incorporate small lounge spaces and comfortable furniture and televisions to give them a more home-like appearance.

"Locker rooms have always been social spaces," Springs said. "Look at the Roman baths as a precursor. It is just in the last couple of decades that I believe public facilities have approached them as such from a design standpoint. Public facilities are becoming more health-club-like."

Mike Tierney, the senior director of arena operations at the Pepsi Center in Denver (home of the NBA's Denver Nuggets and the NHL's Colorado Avalanche), has been in charge of upgrades at the facility's locker rooms and restrooms. The center has one locker room for both the Nuggets and Avalanche along with visiting locker rooms for both hoops and hockey. The arena also has other locker rooms for multi-team tournament events and concerts.

"Additionally, we have two male and two female locker rooms for event staff to change into their uniforms prior to their shifts," Tierney said.

Over the years, Tierney has seen locker rooms evolve to be larger and feature higher-end amenities. The lockers at the Pepsi Center are what you'd imagine a professional sports franchise to have: open stalls with lockable bench compartments as the base.

But if you think these lockers have room for just a change of clothes and a few personal items, you might be surprised. At the Pepsi Center, they also have sports-specific or venue-specific framed pictures, reach-in refrigerators and ice makers. The area also features cable and satellite television, pool tables and ping pong tables.

"Locker rooms have evolved into a 'home away from home' for players," Tierney said.

The growth in demand for fitness by baby boomers has changed the locker market, said Marty Lee, director of regional sales for a locker manufacturer in La Junta, Colo.

"The clientele has become more affluent and has higher expectations than people used to have," he explained. "New locker rooms are more upscale than they used to be, and these facilities are being used as showcases and enticements to draw new membership."

Among the advances in locker rooms are the locks themselves, Lee said, noting that today's locking mechanisms offer the highest security ever. Some still feature the padlocks of the past, while others can be activated by coin, keys or even card readers. And newer security innovations are still being developed, such as biometrics.

"Biometrics will certainly become more popular as the overall cost of implementation continues to come down," Lee said.

Locker and locker room designers also pay more attention to aesthetics and the value of good interior design than they used to, another element that serves to humanize the space. Some choose to customize their lockers with colors that reflect the facility's purpose. Lee pointed out that some color schemes can heighten energy levels while others may promote relaxation. "The brighter a space is, the more vibrant the room becomes," he noted. "As you lighten the color scheme, the more it promotes relaxation."

The type of facility often influences how a locker room is used by patrons. Health club locker areas are primarily used as changing areas, Lee said. Golf clubs and college and pro sports locker rooms, on the other hand, tend to be more social as users chat about how they did on the back nine or how they performed on the court.

When it comes to the layout of a locker room, Lee added that it's gravitating more toward open and airy facility layouts that look "more inviting and less like a dungeon," along with putting in comfortable furniture like arm chairs as opposed to the hard wooden or plastic benches of old times. And lockers are now available in plastic and wood instead of just metal.

Security, cleanliness, functionality and an inviting appearance are probably the most important things looked for in a locker room, Lee said.

"I have seen everything from showers, saunas and steam rooms to television and videogames in locker rooms," he said. "Depending on how you want your facility to be viewed and how much money you have to spend, the sky is the limit. You can be as creative or frugal as you want. Remember that your facility will never be able to be all things to all people, so as a facility manager you need to know your target audience and let their likes and dislikes guide you in your design."

Alternatives to Metal

In the humid environment typical of most locker rooms—and especially those near a pool or in an aquatics facility—the typical metal lockers of the past tended to rust. Because of this, locker manufacturers have turned to new materials—plastics and coated metals—that can withstand some humidity.

Two recently built facilities were looking to solve just this problem—the humid environment—while also making sure that ease of maintenance didn't come at the expense of functionality. At the Tom Muehlenbeck Center, a recreation center in Plano, Texas, and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the idea was to find secure and vandal-proof lockers that could withstand some humidity. Heavy-duty plastic lockers were the answer.

The lockers chosen for the Tom Muehlenbeck Center have an aesthetic appeal that complements the center's design while featuring a sloped top that keeps people from stacking things up.

After trying out various samples, the facility went with lockers made out of a solid, high-density polyethylene. They found these solid-plastic lockers were a better alternative to metal lockers since they were unaffected by the chlorine, humidity or moisture commonly found in aquatic facilities. Metal lockers, for example, might be more prone to rust. Also, the plastic lockers are corrosion-proof and can be easily cleaned with soap and water.

Amy Fortenberry, recreational services manager for the facility, said in a report that they were confident the lockers "would perform well in securing items, they look good and they're easy to clean." She added, "The only challenge our maintenance staff has is water inside the lockers when they're cleaned with a pressure washer…we can handle that."

Moisture and humidity can certainly be a big issue at the Georgia Aquarium, a facility that holds more than 8 million gallons of water. Though not a fitness center, the aquarium has a need for lockers for those who work at the aquarium: employees at their break room, veterinary services, animal husbandry and dive operations.

Georgia Aquarium engineering and plant operations director Mike Hurst said that metal lockers weren't even considered due to the facility's humid environment.

"We have a corrosive environment," he explained. "I've seen metal lockers used in similar facilities—they don't hold up. We knew we didn't want to go that route."

Besides the normal aquatic conditions, plastic lockers work at the aquarium because they also can withstand salt water. Furthermore, with virtually no absorption rate, there's no concern of unpleasant odors penetrating the solid plastic surface of the locker.

Among the things aquarium officials liked about the lockers are their durability, as well as savings in terms of cost and, interestingly enough, the environment. The lockers withstand dents that can easily damage metal lockers. According to the manufacturer, ready-to-install plastic lockers can reduce installation costs by up to 50 percent. And if you think a plastic locker sounds environmentally-unfriendly, you might be very surprised indeed. The plastic lockers at the aquarium contain post-industrial recycled plastic. Manufacturers now offer lockers that are 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. In that case, each locker is estimated to prevent more than 500 gallon-size milk containers from going to a final resting place in a landfill and into a dreadfully-slow biodegradation process.

"The lockers have been fantastic," Hurst said. "We've had no issues and they're holding up well to a lot of use. In the diver's locker room, the lockers hold wet gear everyday and they're performing very well." He added that other than general housekeeping, the lockers have required no maintenance.

In addition to metal and plastic, wood is also a popular choice when installing lockers. Some like wood because, simply put, it's a more natural material. It also provides a warm, aesthetically pleasing appearance.

According to a Hillsboro, Ore.-based designer of wood and laminate lockers, the best way to determine the number of lockers for a facility is to estimate the largest number of members who will use the facility at any given time and then double that number to figure in the "swing factor" of those who come and go before and after peak usage. Other important factors include proper sizing of the locker room, adequate air exchange rates, traffic flow patterns, proper lighting and the types of materials used on the surfaces.

The Little Extras

What's inside the locker will also have an impact on your patrons' comfort and consequential perception of your facility. One Hillsboro, Oregon-based designer of wood and plastic laminate locker rooms features these extras in its lockers:

  • Mirrors that can be attached to the back of the locker door.
  • Drawers.
  • Protective rubber mats that protect the locker's floor from damage due to things like golf cleats.
  • Caddy with towel bar attached to the back of the locker door to provide a place for small items like keys, watch, deodorant, etc.
  • Chrome closet pole so suits and other garments can be hung up.
  • Removable shelf and adjustable shelves.
  • Hooks for coats, hats and more.
  • Security lock-box to protect valuables.

And, of course, what locker is complete without a name plate? The company also features solid brass nameplates with copper-toned holder. The holder is attached to locker door with two screws, and the nameplate slides in.

Locker Room Use & Abuse

When locker rooms are for public use, it's standard for the lockers to be securable. Springs of Brinkley Sargent said that open niches are more common outside the locker room where the user can observe them, such as a shoe cubbie in a group exercise room.

Often facilities take their commitment to their patrons' comfort a step further by including the "ownership" of a locker as part of membership. This is very convenient, Springs said, since those using the lockers can store regularly used items like toiletries in them rather than bringing them back and forth for every visit. Some lockers have mirrors installed in them for grooming purposes, while some staff lockers even have power connections used for charging walkie-talkies.

One-size-fits-all is not an approach one finds these days in lockers as they come with various hooks and shelves and customized installation depending on the specific purpose. Locker rooms for ski lodges and hockey rinks might differ significantly from those for aquatic facilities, fitness centers and golf clubs. Some lockers have simple padlock hasps, built-in combination locks and even electric locks.

"Each carries with it pros and cons that need to be well understood by the operator before specifying," Springs said.

Colors play a role in locker facilities, but one immutable factor is cleanliness. A regular maintenance schedule is critical to ensure your facilities remain clean. Periodic staff sweeps will also help prevent vandalism or graffiti.

"There is no such thing as a locker room or restroom that is too clean," Springs explained. "This applies to all five senses."

Green & Clean Restrooms

When it comes to modern restrooms in recreation, sports and fitness facilities, besides the continued emphasis on cleanliness, they also are gravitating toward environmentally friendly features where water is conserved.

"Green is a buzzword nowadays," Springs said. "Everybody's putting a green spin on their gadgets. When it comes to some of the combos of lavatory units, companies tout them as green if they use recycled material or solid surface material."

Dual-flush systems, which use different amounts of water depending on how the "facilities" have been used, are also growing in popularity, as are low-flow showerheads and faucets for sinks, in addition to urinals that use no water at all.

The soaps and cleaners used in restrooms and locker rooms—both for patrons washing their hands and by staff cleaning the facility—are also getting greener, with more options coming to the market all the time as companies jump on the trend.

The desire for cleanliness is also impacting the fixtures and other amenities found in locker rooms and restrooms, with anti-microbial finishes and touch-free devices becoming more and more popular.

It's not just the hot-air dryers that are becoming hands-free, but also faucets, soap dispensers and even towel dispensers. This is done through motion activation.

One area where trends are to be avoided is the use of color in restrooms. Springs said it's better to avoid what's trendy in the interest of long-term acceptability. Colors like avocado, brown and orange were popular in the '70s, while neons and pastels were the "new wave" colors of the '80s, and both styles now look dated.

"I try to be as timeless as I can rather than being trendy," Springs explained. "I avoid 'hot' colors. My fear is someone will walk in 10 years later and say, 'Oh wow, it was built in 2008.'"

When using natural materials and palettes, it's hard to go wrong, Springs said. Granite is becoming an extremely popular building material. "It's very durable and will last a long time," he said.

Besides color, today's restrooms include baby-changing stations in not only the women's restrooms but the men's as well, added the Pepsi Center's Tierney. They also have coat and bag hangers in toilet stalls (no doubt a handy implement in the northern states where heavy jackets are standard for the winter). Urinals and toilets also have motion sensing auto flushers, reducing the likelihood of getting germs by touching a lever that countless dirty hands have also touched.

"In our public restrooms, functionality is desirable to minimize the time spent in the restrooms," Tierney said. "In the locker rooms, aesthetics and functionality are equally important."

Tierney also sees a growing trend toward hands-free restrooms: motion-sensing auto-flushers, soap dispensers, water faucets, high-speed warm air hand dryers and no exterior doors.

Material Matters

Besides using plastic lockers, the Tom Muehlenbeck Center also has implemented plastic in their restrooms. Restrooms at the center incorporate multi-height, solid-surface lavatory units.

Springs described the wave design of the lavatories as a unique look that lends itself to an aquatic facility. "We saw this outdoor area as being more playful, and the multiple counter heights also work well for the younger people that will use these sinks," he said.

This design meets Americans with Disabilities Act height requirements by merging a lower ADA-compliant sink with a standard height sink. This, no doubt, is a favorite among younger children since they don't have to stand on their tiptoes or be hoisted up to wash their hands. Also, the three-station models are flexible and can create a "wall of waves."

Besides being "groovy sinks," Fortenberry said the sinks have a very practical design. "We thought the design was very cool and modern, and the seamless design will be easier to keep clean."

The center also uses toilet partitions of solid plastic, which can easily be repaired if scratched. Graffiti can also be easily removed.

Plastic restroom fixtures are also prevalent in Dick's Sporting Goods Park, an 18,000-seat stadium that's home to Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids.

General manager of arena operations Mike Rock said the decision to use solid plastic partitions stemmed from both cost and practical concerns. Solid plastic partitions, unlike metal, resist denting and never have to be repainted. He added, "Cost was a factor in selecting the partitions, but the overall look and delivery time was also important."

All four of the men's and women's public restrooms at the stadium have plastic partitions, as do the visiting team locker rooms. Rock joked that opposing teams tend to "take out their anger on the locker room facilities. Metal partitions can be easily dented."

At the park, they use a one-inch thick, high-density polyethylene plastic that doesn't rust, delaminate or mildew. Also, it doesn't absorb odors. The material may be more expensive than many other types of partitions, but because long-term maintenance and repair costs are lower, they provide a quick return on the investment. And, yes, if an overzealous soccer fan draws graffiti on the plastic partitions, rest assured that they wipe off easily, and scratches can be easily repaired.

Rock likes the partitions because they look "less industrial" than metal. "We liked the colors available…and the dark gray speckled texture matches the facility's décor of black, gray and silver."

Even if you're not a Colorado Rapids fan and prefer soccer teams like the orange-clad Houston Dynamo or the black-clad D.C. United, rest assured there are plenty of colors to choose from in these plastic partitions. They are also made from 30 percent post-industrial HDPE in various colors.

Once again, the key to ensuring your patrons are as pleased with your restrooms as they are with the rest of your facility is to implement a good maintenance routine, encouraging staff to do regular sweeps to check the toilet-paper and soap dispensers and ensure any problems are cleared up quickly.

It's the attention to detail—in locker rooms, restrooms and throughout your facility—that can make all the difference in the public's perception.

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