Designed For Use-and Abuse

Selecting Restroom Structures to Suit Your Site

By Emily Tipping

Does your site include restrooms? Are they clean? Are they accessible? Or are they poorly maintained because you've had to cut staff? Or closed because you don't have the budget to maintain them?

According to the American Restroom Association, there is some evidence to suggest that some people are less willing to get involved in fitness activities that put them out of range of toilet facilities.

Restrooms in public parks are one of the top requests among citizens. A 2002 Arlington (Va.) County Parks & Recreation Survey suggested that year-round restrooms are second only to drinking fountains when residents were asked about potential improvements to parks and facilities.

The concern about clean and usable restrooms was considered so important in the City of San Francisco, that in 2007 the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond allocated $11.4 million just for restroom improvements and the construction of new restrooms. A survey by the city comptroller's office had found that the top two "Park Elements in Need of Improvement" in the city were restroom availability and restroom location.

A Restroom Task Force was created and its final report was issued in early August, prioritizing a list of restrooms in city parks in need of renovations and repairs, as well as some parks that need new restrooms altogether. (Learn more about the task force's method for determining how to prioritize improvements in the sidebar, "First Things First" on page 26.) If all of the new restrooms and renovations take place, it will mean a total additional projected weekly availability of 765 hours citywide, and possibly a need for just over four additional full-time-equivalent workers to help keep the restrooms clean and in working order.

All of this serves to highlight a top concern among citizens using parks: Restrooms are a necessity. And to ensure people leave your site feeling positive about their experience, a clean, well-maintained restroom is a necessity.

Do It Yourself or Let Someone Do It for You?

In 2001, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in Illinois undertook a large capital development project that involved site improvements throughout the county. One part of that campaign involved creating a prototypical design for flush washroom structures to be added throughout the county's forest preserves. The design will also be a standard for future projects.

Ultimately, forest preserve staff worked for six months with Patrick Engineering of Lisle, Ill., to develop a low-maintenance structure that combines modern materials with a rustic look. The design was inspired by the prairie style with horizontal lines, extended overhangs and other elements in earth-tone colors. The first structures are already in place at several preserves around the county.

For an agency the size of the Forest Preserve District, with many locations to place restrooms, designing a structure from scratch is one way to meet all of the needs of the various sites. But if time is of the essence, if your budget cannot accommodate such intricate plans, and if you want a simple solution that will be easy to maintain, a prefabricated restroom facility might just fit the bill.

Another benefit of going with a prefabricated structure, according to Gary Burger, national sales manager of a manufacturer of concrete restroom structures, is quality control. "You have the ability in a plant to control the quality with inspections, whereas at a site, you don't know what kind of quality you'll get—it depends on the contractor and how things are going that day."

With a prefabricated structure, standardized manufacturing processes help ensure that it's done the same way every time, so even when you add a customized look and feel to your facility, the manufacturer is applying the same processes, and the same checks on quality, that ensure the end result adheres to standards.

Cost is another major consideration when installing restroom structures, and in the current economic climate, when budget shortfalls have been forcing some municipalities and other organizations to close down their restrooms entirely, this is not an element to overlook.

Eric Aller, parks manager for the City of Clovis, said the city recently switched from building its own structures to purchasing precast concrete structures, and a large part of what drove that decision was cost. "We were building our restrooms out of cinder block from the ground up, and they were costing over $300,000," he said. "And we weren't getting any additional features for that money that these new restrooms do offer. So we saw these … and thought we would check them out."

Overall, he said they've been very pleased with the purchase. "The rooms are big. The plumbing is adequate. They look good," Aller said. "We're happy with them."

And in addition to saving money, prefabricated structures will save a lot of time. Burger said a factory-built restroom structure can be delivered to your site and erected the same day. "A site-built structure, on the other hand, can take several weeks or even months," he added.

Aller agreed with this assessment, adding that the restroom structures in Clovis were put in in about a day and were up and running within about a week. "The truck delivers it, and it has a big crane to put it in," he said. "You have to create a pad for it and pull the plumbing up based on their (the manufacturer's) blueprint. It takes a few days to hook it all up and make sure it's working."

Alex Rachak, former president of a Colorado-based manufacturer of prefabricated public restrooms, agreed that going with prefabricated restrooms can save a lot of time. "We can build it and ship it to the site and install it in a few days or a week or two, depending on the size of the project," he said. "Building it on site may take three months or more."

So once you've made the decision to save time and money by going with a prefabricated structure, what are some of the things you should consider? The top considerations these days include durability and ease of maintenance, in addition to considerations about going green and finding exactly the right solution for your site, whether that means customizing the restrooms' look to fit in or finding the right waste-disposal system for a site that's far off the grid.

Clean-Up Time

The number-one fear in public restrooms is touching the door to exit. According to Kimberly-Clark, over 55 percent of people surveyed feared door handles in public restrooms. Fortunately, manufacturers of prefab restrooms have heard this clarion call, and have developed restroom materials that can help reduce germs.

Premanufactured restrooms rely on hard materials like precast concrete. This ensures durability and resistance to vandalism—key criteria that must be considered when constructing restrooms for public use.

Many of these materials, though, are absorbent, which means the organic solids and liquids that soil them stick around, making the facility a less-than-pleasant experience. Smelly facilities give the impression that they are unclean, and in fact, contaminants left behind can have an impact on public health.

One manufacturer treats these hardened materials with anti-microbial chemicals. From the toilet seat to the stainless-steel flush valves, door handles, sink faucets and so on, these facilities feature surfaces that are safe to touch, as the chemicals will last for 50 years and kill bacteria on contact.

In addition, chemicals are added to concrete in these facilities to make them completely non-absorbent for life. Interpretation: no absorption means no odors. And a healthier environment for your patrons.

And getting back to those door handles? According to Chuck Kaufman, of a restroom manufacturer based in Reno, Nev., automatic doors may be the next step forward to preventing this concern. "We put in antimicrobial door handles, flush valves, faucets and grab bars already," he said, "but the public doesn't know it. We know it's there. Parks knows it's there. But the public doesn't so they still take out the tissue to open the door."

So in the future, look for doors that patrons won't even have to touch.


"Durability is the number-one consideration," Burger said. And a big part of durability, he added, is the facility's ability to stand up to vandalism.

"For some reason, the focus of most vandals in the park is the restroom," he added. "Look for vandal-resistant features like siding and interior finishes that resist graffiti, that resist any kind of vandalism." You don't want materials that can be carved up or burnt down, and that likely means you're going to end up with precast concrete, or some other sturdy material.

Durability was an important consideration in Alaska's Mat-Su area, where old worn-out restrooms in the area's state parks are being replaced with new prefabricated restrooms that are tough enough to take just about any kind of abuse.

As Mat-Su area State Parks Superintendent Wayne Biessel said in a story in the Anchorage Daily News ("State parks install sturdy restrooms," by Rindi White), the new structures will be "essentially bombproof; they are fireproof, bulletproof, all the things we typically have to deal with in parks for maintenance costs."

As part of the project, about 20 restrooms have been or will be replaced. A crane sets the toilet buildings in place, and they're already getting positive reviews from employees who have to clean the facilities as well as park users.

Fixtures, too, should be considered for their ability to withstand abuse. "Look for things like the quality of the fixtures and the quality of the overall design to make sure the fixtures and features are designed to withstand heavy abuse and vandalism," Burger said.

"The public is pretty hard on restrooms," Aller explained. The good news is that his city's structures are holding up well. "We've had some issues with sand in the lines that was not the fault of the restrooms, but we're working that out. It's kind of a work in progress, too."

For example, the city has chosen a different type of lock so people wouldn't lock the deadbolt from the inside and then try to smash off the locking mechanism.

"We ordered the next set with just the key on the outside, but flat on the inside, so you just use the dormitory lock on the handle to lock the door," Aller said. In addition to working out the vandalism problem, this solution also meets ADA requirements.

The restroom's graffiti coating also works well, he added.


Another benefit of these durable structures is their ability to reduce maintenance, and in these times of cost-cutting and budget-crunching, you're surely looking to save any dollar you can. Reducing the need for maintenance will go a long way toward saving your long-term budget and reducing the life-cycle cost of your restrooms.

For example, painted floors rather than raw concrete will be much easier to clean, a benefit Aller cited about the city of Clovis' new restroom structures. With raw concrete, he said, "things soak in and you have to use an enzyme to get that out. It helps to have a good painted surface."

Ultimately, maintenance should be one of your top considerations up front. If you install restroom facilities in your park without also considering the need for maintenance up front, you could end up with filthy, broken-down facilities that will leave a very bad impression on your users.

In San Francisco, the Restroom Task Force looked at design standards to help ease maintenance, and came up with a list that also includes suggested maintenance resources up front.

For example, in terms of cleanliness and a pleasant appearance, the task force recommended using smooth, durable, nonslip surfaces that are easily sanitized and graffiti-resistant. When it comes to functionality, the task force recommended water-conserving toilets and urinals and vandal-resistant fixtures. To ensure things stay clean, attractive and functional, the task force further recommended having the proper supplies in place, as well as a regular schedule for custodial service based on site usage, demand and abuse, with a minimum of twice-daily cleaning suggested.

Odor and waste management were also key considerations for the task force, which suggested ensuring proper ventilation as well as non-porous surfaces to reduce the ability of odor to "sink in" and waste collection areas large enough to meet the site's needs.

Another solution that's becoming popular to help save staff time—and agency dollars—is automatic mechanisms to lock and unlock the doors. In San Francisco, the taskforce recommended adding these mechanisms where they're appropriate.

"Due to security concerns, it is possible that some restrooms cannot be opened unsupervised," the report states. "Operations staff would like to inspect certain restrooms before opening to ensure that nothing occurred overnight to impact their use the following day. However, sites which could be opened automatically would provide more efficient use of custodial time."

In the city of Clovis, automatic locking mechanisms help ensure vandalism does not occur in the dark of night when the parks are closed. "They lock them at 10 p.m. at night and open at 7 a.m.," Aller said. "That way we don't have to worry about vandalism taking place in there in the middle of the night."

What happens if a citizen goes in to use the park's restroom at 9:59 p.m.?

"If someone's in there and the doors lock, it has a button to release that lock," Aller added. "And if the power goes out, it has a battery backup to open the doors on schedule."

Go Anywhere

Of course, the type of restroom structure you choose will depend a great deal on your site. You have the option of going with a flush facility when you've got plumbing hookups nearby, but if that's not an option, that doesn't mean you're limited to a smelly solution. Manufacturers have come up with vault restrooms and even composting solutions that are odor-free and can be shipped just about anywhere.

Your site and the type of use your facility will get will help determine "…the size of the facility, the number of people it can handle per hour and per day," said Alex Rachak. "You want to go with something that's not overkill, but at the same time it can't be too small."

Again, it comes back to thinking about maintenance. If you're going with a vault facility, you'll want to consider how often it will need to be pumped out. Luckily, manufacturers have developed technology that allows for less frequent pumping—even when the facility is seeing plenty of use.

"We have a couple of large facilities for the Forest Service that are getting hundreds of uses a day, but they don't require frequent pumping," said Rachak. "At Berthoud Pass in North Central Colorado there's a facility that's been in for a year, and it's their building, but it has our patented WRS technology. It has not had to be pumped yet. We were just up there to look at it, and determined that maybe it would need to be pumped next year. We have other structures located on golf courses that have been going for six years now."

Glen Rachak, current president of the same Colorado-based manufacturer, agreed that the right technology can drastically reduce pumpouts. One facility he said, saw 50,000 users a year, but didn't need to be pumped for a full four years. "If the vault is big enough, it reduces the number of pumpouts required while still providing an odor-free restroom," he said.

Take the Vail Ski Area's Bells Camp location—11,000 feet above sea level—for example. "They have holding tanks up there at Vail because they get so many uses at the top of that mountain," said Glen Rachak. "But they can't run a sewer to the top of the mountain. With those holding tanks, they can get up there after the snow thaws and pump it out."

When it comes to restrooms without water, preventing odors from building up—or sinking in—is another reason to consider prefabricated structures.

"Odorous restrooms are just the pits," said Chuck Kaufman, president of a restroom building manufacturer based in Nevada. "People just won't use them. They'll just find another place. Parks are really clamoring for these restrooms that don't smell." (See "Clean Up Time" on page 24 to learn more about how manufacturers are preventing odors and bacteria in bathrooms.)

"What we're achieving with these prefab buildings for odor control with chemicals and technology can't be done in the field," Kaufman added. As an example, he cited a 22-year-old waterless facility in Truckee, Calif., where he recently sent some new employees.

"In a waterless facility, this technology is even more important because there's no water there to hose it out," he said. His new employees were surprised at the lack of odor in the facility. "In canyons, on top of mountains—I don't care where we put it, this technology of making the slabs nonabsorbent works."

When you're looking at whether or not you can hook up water, you also might consider your ability to power your facility. There are many solar options available these days, so if you're off the grid—even way off the grid—you shouldn't be too concerned.

When you need to get really remote, check out the efforts of the National Park Service. It's relying on facilities that can be brought in by helicopter, by ATV—even by boat, according to Alex Rachak.

"We have developed a unit that the National Park is putting in remote places—up in the mountains, down in the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. They're designed to be helicoptered in."

From the tops of mountains to the bottoms of canyons, restrooms really can go anywhere—even in the middle of a marina.

The Hammond Marina on Lake Michigan near Chicago recently installed two floating bathhouses. Each features six bathrooms and a laundry room. The ADA-compliant 15-by-42-foot facilities are prefabricated. The Hammond Port Authority ended up going with a macerating toilet system, which reduces the potential for clogging and other plumbing problems.

The Hammond Marina features more than 1,100 slips accommodating watercraft as large as 80 feet, within view of the Chicago skyline. It's the second largest publicly owned marina on Lake Michigan, and according to the harbor master, an average weekend will see the marina serve 800 to 1,000 people daily.

"When you have a boating community with lots of people, you don't want plumbing problems," said Deborah Nattrass, co-owner of two companies that specialize in marina products. "A regular toilet wouldn't be sufficient in that type of application."

So what is a macerating system? It uses a rotating cutting blade to liquefy human waste and toilet paper. When mixed with flushing water, the waste is then pumped into a sanitary sewer as a fine slurry. In the case of the Hammond Marina, each toilet connects to a floating tank. When the tank is filled, the contents are pumped to a larger lift station, which then pumps it to the sewer.

"The plumbing is kind of a complicated, two-stage setup," said Hammond Harbormaster Keith Carey. "I'm not sure a conventional toilet would have worked. If not for the macerating pumps, I would foresee a lot of problems. The grinders seem to do a very good job of breaking down the paper and other solids to allow them to pass easily through the pumps."

The new floating facilities were customized to look like the other structures in the marina. They were fully constructed and shipped to the site with the exception of some exterior finish work done after they were placed by crane onto their floats. Ultimately, the entire construction project took less than three weeks.

First Things First...

San Francisco's Restroom Taskforce needed to determine a way to prioritize restroom improvements in the city's parks. They developed a set of criteria and questions to assist in this process. Criteria included usage, the presence of multiple nearby park facilities, and the lack of other nearby public restrooms. The taskforce also considered security or safety issues related to existing locations of some restrooms and community requests.

Three priority lists were eventually developed. Top priority was given to repairs, renovation and replacement of 18 currently open restrooms and three currently closed restrooms. The second and third level priority was given to new freestanding restrooms at eight additional locations.

Green Thoughts

A major consideration for facilities of all types these days is the relative sustainability of their projects. More and more facilities these days are going green, and restrooms are no exception.

"We've had facilities in parks where we've put in solar systems for the lighting, ventilation, magna-locks for the doors," said Alex Rachak. "A lot of people are looking at it."

Some of the elements you can look for to ensure your restrooms are a little greener include efficient or waterless plumbing fixtures, highly efficient electrical fixtures and water-heating solutions, energy-efficient construction methods, sustainable materials and manufacturing methods, solar water heating and solar systems for powering ventilation and lights at your facility. Paying close attention to these types of factors might even help you work your way toward LEED certification.

"When you look at it, the big thing these days is LEED projects, and when they go to do it, when you do a restroom, you should look at the ability of the manufacturer to do LEED facilities," Burger said. "Look for things like low wattage of lighting that still meets the lumens requirements for ADA, things that reduce waste, recycled products that go into the building and low-flow toilets and things that reduce the amount of water used."

At the Bronx Zoo, in early 2004, the management chose to replace restrooms by the Bronxdale entrance. The former restroom's septic system was failing and needed to be replaced, but installing a new septic system was not an option due to concern over the pollution such a system might dump into the Bronx River nearby. The planners also rejected the idea of establishing a sewer connection at the site. Instead, the zoo chose to turn the restroom into an opportunity to educate the public about conservation. They installed a composting toilet system to capture and recycle the nutrients in human waste, while using mimimal water for flushing. The new Eco-Restroom, designed by Edelman Sultan Knox Wood of New York City, opened in November 2006 and can accommodate more than a half-million visitors per year with its 18 fixtures—14 foam-flush toilets and 4 waterless urinals. The system can save over a million gallons of water a year, and the greywater irrigation system allows the building to manage all of its wastewater sustainably. The project was named New York Construction's 2007 Eco Project of the Year. In addition to its impressive water-saving capabilities, it also features a rainwater harvesting system, maximized natural daylighting, high-efficiency lighting and efficient radiant floor heating.

Customization Options

So what if you're looking to ensure your new park restrooms fit in with the look of your historic downtown area, the natural look and feel of your desert site, or some other customized look? You might think that you're stuck with the longer-term, more costly option of having something designed from scratch and constructed on site, but you'd be wrong.

"We encourage our customers to let us be the engineers, and they can actually be the designers," said Alex Rachak. "Tell us what you want, what you're looking for, and we can design it for you. So if we need to, we can match historic buildings, and so on."

In East Bay, Calif., the customized restroom buildings blend in with the natural surroundings. "In some of our remote parks, the only structure a person sees that is not a part of the natural background is the restroom," said Dennis Waespi, sanitation supervisor for the East Bay Regional Park District.

When you work with the right vendor, you can customize anything from the floor plan to the siding and roofs, as well as interior fixtures. Sometimes you can also extend the customization to include more than restrooms. You need a shower facility near a beach? No problem. How about a concession stand and storage room next to the ballfield? Not an issue.

When the Turtle Back Zoo in Essex County, N.J., opened a new area patterned after the old-time "Jersey Shore," they made the centerpiece a custom-built carousel populated by a menagerie of endangered animals. They also wanted the nearby comfort station, with its restroom facilities and concession area, to fit right in. Landscape architect Mike Piga of French & Parrello Associates in Wall, N.J., designed a classic 12-sided carousel building, but designing the comfort station to match was tricky.

The restroom structure—an octagonal-shaped comfort station with five unisex, single-user restrooms—does share features with the carousel building, including copper gutters, sky-blue stainless-steel standing-seam roofs, cultured stone and plaster exteriors, and antique-style lighting fixtures. Photometric lighting control and radiant floor heating makes the facility a little greener.

Summing It Up

So whether you're going with a customized flush facility for your urban park or a vault that can handle users at a very remote site, you have plenty of options. With the current concerns about cost, prefab is a great option, and addresses long-term costs as well.

"Again I think the biggest thing right now is nobody has any money," Burger said. "So you need to get back to looking for features that reduce your maintenance cost, reduce your overall life-cycle cost and look for a very cost-effective solution up front. People still want a restroom in the park—it's part of the park experience, but you can do it cost-effectively and inexpensively by increasing the life cycle of your facilities."

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.