Behind the Scenes

Recreational Locker Rooms, Restrooms More Refined

By Kellye Whitney

orget those old grungy, basic locker rooms with rows of dented metal lockers and grotty, dank-smelling gang showers. A trend toward privacy and customer appeal is making today's recreational facilities look more like private clubs.

That is, sustainability has taken a firm hold on restrooms and locker rooms in public recreation facilities. Everything from the layout and planning of these areas to the design and appearance of the lights, sinks and floors, is increasingly built not only to promote durability, but to ensure patrons' satisfaction as they move from one corner of a building to another.

Design for Privacy and Beauty

Before, it was all about function and practicality. There was a men's and a women's locker room, with a central shower that everyone shared, and a row of utilitarian metal lockers that could be heard clanging raucously throughout the space. But a desire for peace and privacy has engendered a new construct. Called a cabana or transgender or family-style changing room, this larger, more spacious locker area typically has a toilet, sink, shower and a small area with a bench to facilitate changing clothes. The locker area is still housed in a common area, but is centrally located in between cabanas or adjacent to them.

"We're definitely getting away from the old gang showers where you've got a row of shower heads on the wall and no partitions. Central poles with four or five shower heads on them were pretty typical in men's locker rooms until about four or five years ago," said Robert McDonald, senior principal at Denver-based Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, a company that designs public and private facilities.

"Women's locker rooms were ahead of the game by starting to install partitions in the shower, but now both genders design them with privacy stalls," he said. "They can be thin partitions, but a trend is moving toward doing actual thick walls that are tiled and provide a nice finished solid surface. The partitions can be somewhat flimsy and a maintenance item over the life of the building."

Colleen McKenna, associate principal at architecture, engineering and interior design firm Cannon Design, said that in the past her firm only installed shower partitions in the women's area, but now they are a standard for men, too, as privacy is a big issue when facilities are trying to appeal to a diverse client base.

Being culturally sensitive often goes hand in hand with design considerations, as McDonald said more clients are gravitating toward the high-end fit and interior design finish of a private club as users request and become accustomed to a jazzier look than a typical recreation center might have provided in the past.

As far as the finishes and the quality of the space goes, colorful or patterned ceramic or porcelain tiles are more common, as are solid surface countertops.

"Some locker rooms will have really nice vanity counters and places to put the towels," McKenna said. "Occasionally, you'll see carpet in the locker room area, but that really depends on whether you have aquatics or not. You may see some of the amenities include hair dryers, and not the big clunky ones that are attached to the wall that you stick your head underneath, but actual physical hand dryers that you'd see in a hotel that are basically attached to the wall. It reminds me more almost of a hotel experience to some degree."

The use of uplighting also is more popular where inexpensive fixtures are installed on top of lockers to illuminate the ceiling and provide a more airy feeling without the direct glare of overhead fixtures.

"There used to be fluorescent lights that were very yellow, very utilitarian and gave this kind of orangey cast," McKenna said. "Now, you have better quality fixtures, better quality lighting in the actual toilet rooms, and interesting lighting is more common as products have improved. For example, around each mirror you might have five uplights instead of the single fluorescent down light."

In addition to lighting and plumbing fixtures, lockers are more attractive. McDonald said that everyone likes the look of natural wood, but they're very expensive and only the highest end clubs can afford to put them in. The next alternative—which he said 75 percent of his clients use—is called a phenolic panel, which has the appearance of wood, is durable and affordable. Phenolic panels, which come in a range of colors, have a plastic laminate face that is bonded to a solid plastic resin core.

The type of locks used on lockers also is a huge decision for a facility owner, McDonald said. Patrons can bring their own locks, but if they leave them behind maintenance will have to cut the locks off every night. Coin-operated locks can be a source of revenue, but they're not very user-friendly, and they're also a maintenance item when locking mechanisms need replacing, keys are lost and staff need to provide change. Token-operated locks have similar issues. Electronic locks, though expensive, are easy to use and low maintenance, despite their batteries, which need to be changed every few months.

Cost isn't the only concern when building or renovating a locker room. Convenience is also important. For patrons who come dressed to work out and bypass the locker room altogether, the use of express lockers—lockers placed outside the locker room to store coats, purses and other belongings—is increasingly common.

"It's also important to provide some convenience toilets on the fitness floor so people don't have to go all the way to the main locker room to use the bathroom," McDonald said. "And if you've got multiple levels or floors you need convenience toilets on each level. If you've got any kind of public space, say a community meeting room, a teen center or a game room, you need to provide toilet facilities that are beyond your control point."

McDonald said his firm is actually seeing an overall trend of downsizing the number of lockers because more people coming to facilities are already dressed to work out.

"If you provide a warm, inviting and comfortable [locker area] experience, you will have lots of people use it and that will be a major selling point to marketing your facility," McDonald said.

Sustainability and Expanded Facility Use

Eco-savvy automatic censors on flush valves, faucets, soap dispensers and even low-flow shower heads are practically standard these days, but other areas of sustainability, beyond saving on water usage, are becoming more popular.

"The sustainable concept has to do with all sorts of things like commitment to operation expenses, overall customer satisfaction, keeping businesses in the community for a long period of time, in addition to saving energy," said Craig Bouck, president and CEO of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, a Denver-based firm that specializes in green architecture and design for recreation centers and schools. "People are still really committed, at least on the public level, to making sure the cores of their building are solid. They know there are additions and alternations they're going to need to make as their demographics change, but the core, the locker rooms and the bathrooms, become a part of that."

The cabanas or family-style changing rooms are a critical facet of the locker room. Bouck said this area, along with restrooms, is one of the most time- and resource-intensive in any discussion of renovations. Facilities may end up with 15 to 20 rooms as opposed to four to six, which, he said, would be a typical standard, and that transition can be a tough one for some community members. Luckily, he said it usually doesn't take long for patrons to adapt once they get past that initial and perfectly natural opposition to change.

Furthermore, the cabana style changing rooms provide recreation facilities with new opportunities to attract clients to centers who might have felt uncomfortable attending and using locker rooms before. These patrons might include the elderly, people who need special assistance, those who are overweight and transgender individuals.

"We've found the cabanas aid in marketing these facilities in a really significant way," Bouck said. "Before, they were just for the family; typical use would be when parents have children who are in between ages of being able to use the locker room facility by themselves or needing supervision. It allowed them to go in whether they were boys or girls, or men and women, but we found that turned out to be only a minor user."

Aside from parents, the elderly and the shy or sensitive, he said those who are in sports therapy also enjoy the cabanas for physical training or rehabilitation program use.

"The combination of all of those really has opened up a lot more program opportunity, and also a better feeling of accessibility to more members of the community," Bouck explained. "And, it's really changed the way the natatorium, in particular, is being utilized and being looked at from a revenue-generating and a community-service point of view."

Bouck said that having more options for facility use and broader patron appeal also brings greater opportunities for education. Certainly, designers are more focused on the finishes patrons see. He said they likely know not to put plastic laminate on the countertops and to put the sinks in an undermount position, in order to eliminate the constant maintenance of cut joints and to make them easier to clean.

Still, mistakes can and do happen.

"There's still this belief that if you can't see it then it's probably fine. People focus on the kind of tile, the color of the paint and the countertop surfaces, but one of the most significant areas where we see degradation pretty quickly is in the construction of the shower rooms," he said. "Unfortunately, there's still people building with metal studs and putting in drop ceilings in moist environments and things like that."

He said that if facility owners and managers really are interested in doing something sustainable, they must think through how all the surfaces work together. For instance, they should imagine how ceramic tiles will be sprayed down by maintenance staff with varying levels of sensitivity. How durable will they be under the rigors of daily cleaning? That level of attention and detail should extend all the way down to the type of soap offered.

"You have to sort of make them bomb proof," Bouck explained. "Think of not only the finished surface material, but the structure behind them, and don't forget that kids still love to throw gobs of soap on the ceiling and wet paper towels everywhere. It's just a part of what these buildings are about, but they can definitely be done in an attractive way that doesn't have to feel institutional. It's just a matter of attitude and creativity when using more industrial materials."

McKenna agrees. "Sustainable materials aren't really a trend anymore," she said. "Size, shape, durability and comfort level is starting to drive the majority of the changes that I see on the functional side of it."

However, the patrons must remain at the center of the conversation, as their experience while using a facility is the most important factor.

Plan Well for the Optimal Experience

Because patrons are included at the beginning and at the end of discussions around design and sustainability, they should also be included in the planning stages.

Unfortunately, Bouck said that the way people experience a facility, its locker rooms and support facilities often are second thoughts behind the design and external appearance of a building.

"That's not how people experience buildings," he explained. "I guarantee you, if you interview community folks about their experiences using these buildings, they very rarely will be able to tell you the color of the titanium spire on the outside of the building, but they can tell you if there was enough light in the bathroom, if it was easy to find, and if it was easy to manage their kids in and out of there. They're going to notice when there's not enough light, when they don't have enough elbow room, when there aren't enough family locker rooms for them, and most importantly, when you walk into the family locker room [if] it's dry and clean and the surfaces—the choices that were made around those—are appropriate and lead the operator to success."

Bouck said that involving the maintenance staff and those who are responsible for customer care issues early in the planning process can help as they have the inside track on customer preferences and common concerns. But often these people aren't consulted; other priorities get in the way.

"It's kind of the backwards way of doing it," Bouck said. "Get buy-in by asking those folks, 'How can you be successful, and how can you create the kind of customer experience that we want?' The customer experience in a public facility needs to be prevalent. A lot of people say, 'It's a public facility. You get what you get.' But it doesn't have to be that way. We can learn a lot from what's going on in the retail world and the private sector, but we can also just listen to our customers, and if we can give them what they want it's not going to cost any more. If we plan well, we can do a great job with it."

It won't all be hearts and flowers, however. Planning improvements and making changes can present some new challenges and risks for facilities management. For instance, cabanas are larger than typical locker rooms, so planners must know how many to build to avoid slow-down as people move through them. Also, these individual rooms may need some monitoring to avoid inappropriate behavior. Facilities likely should develop policies and procedures to help minimize these kinds of risks.

"The upside is because everyone's going through the common space, these are a lot safer than before when you had alcoves with lockers and dead ends and things," Bouck said. "Sometimes it was easy for thieves to break into lockers. In this more open situation that's very difficult because everyone's walking through, so you have policing by the participants."

Further, space planning, humidity controls and other more tactical concerns are critical, especially when the locker room is attached to a pool.

"The mechanical system needs to be designed so that the natatorium or the pool area is the most negative space in the building," McDonald said. "The next negative pressure would be the locker rooms. The fitness and dry use areas of the building should be under a slightly positive pressure. That way you're constantly drawing a little bit of dry air into your locker room and out into the pool, which is then dehumidifying or exhausting that air. If the opposite happens where moist, humid warm air from the pool comes into the locker room, you experience the chlorine smell, and the humidity can damage fixtures and surfaces and things like that."

McDonald said clients increasingly ask for more elbow room in a locker room, which might mean maintaining ample clearance between the front of the vanity counter and wall or the nearest obstruction behind so that people can stand comfortably at the vanity and have people circulate easily behind them.

"Also, typically, men require a few more lavatories because they're shaving and need more sink space, whereas the women are prepping in front of the mirrors so they need more vanity and counter space, and then don't forget the full-length mirror in both locker rooms," he said.

Today, many clients don't want doors on restrooms, which means that air ventilation systems have to be up to snuff to ensure no sounds or smells make their way into the facility.

"The other issue is [that] people are more phobic about touching handles and things like that. It's harder to do in a locker room situation because the amount of air and mechanical issues around showers and humidity and those sorts of things, but we definitely can do it in restroom facilities, and we're trending to do that," Bouck said. "That's more common in big-box stores as people respond to those kinds of requests and have to handle smell, sounds and, in some cases, light. Say you've got a lobby ambiance that you're trying to maintain, and then you've got this bright light in the bathroom. It's like sitting next to the kitchen in a restaurant. If you can maintain those three things you'll be good."

Because of H1N1 McKenna said more clients request that doors swing out of restrooms instead of in, so that after patrons wash their hands they don't have to pull a door handle to get out of the space.

"Instead, you can push the door with your elbow," she said. "Little things like that. The other thing is having enough space to move around in. Bathrooms are a little bit wider—the actual [bathroom] stall itself—and a little bit longer. It's easier for that door to move in and out, and to get in and out of the toilet stall.

"It used to be in larger venues [that] the women's restrooms were never large enough, and they never had enough facilities," McKenna said. "A lot of states have adapted codes that start to deal with that gender equity issue. Some states call them 'potty parity' laws. So, if you go into a brand-new professional baseball stadium, there will be a heck of a lot more women's toilets than men's because women just take longer and need the toilets."

Some of the trends McKenna, McDonald and Bouck said they observed in locker rooms and restrooms are code-driven, like the potty parity laws. But, many of them are wrought from more thoughtful, sustainable design and planning considerations for assembly or recreation facilities with the patron experience top of mind.

"Locker rooms were functional. You'd go in there, change, leave," McKenna said. "Now, the locker rooms and restrooms are as nice and getting the same level of attention as all the other spaces that they didn't get years ago."

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