Friendly Amenities

Making Decisions About Restroom Structures

By Richard Zowie

The restrooms you'll find in public parks, golf courses and other sites where patrons occasionally need to take a potty break feature a wide variety of designs and functions. From the simple port-a-potties that can be trundled easily from one place to another to the more upscale, plumbed facilities, there is a range of possibilities, a range of aesthetics, a range of functions.

What you choose for your site will depend on your budget, your site, your patrons' needs and many other factors. Sometimes vault toilets are a necessity, while other sites may enjoy the convenience of plumbed flush facilities. Still others will want the environmental benefits of a compost toilet. Aesthetics can come into play as well, but function is usually considered before fashion.

Whatever your needs, you'll want to cover all your bases and be sure you know your stuff before you make a decision.

Restroom Aesthetics

When stepping into a restroom structure, you might expect to see hospital white or industrial gray. Often, the look inside and out depends on the area of the country where the restroom is located. Rural areas might feature restrooms with the simple requirements of toilet, urinal, sink and basic amenities like toilet paper, paper towels and hand soap. Other places feature restrooms with such bold, foreign layout and design it's as if you're seeing the future of sanitation technology.

While the look of restrooms may change depending on if you're in rural South Texas or if you're in California's Pebble Beach, one thing remains constant: Customers want well-stocked, clean restrooms. Fewer things in life are more unpleasant than using the restroom and discovering there's no hot water, or no soap, or no paper towels or, arguably worst of all, no toilet paper.

"A well designed bathroom can make all the difference in the world to someone who is unlikely to see their home for a while," said Amy Galvin, marketing coordinator for a Lawrence, Mass.-based manufacturer of composting toilets and greywater systems. "Many people expect a negative experience when using public restrooms, and when a good experience is made available, folks are pleasantly surprised."

According to one saying, you'll never get a second chance to make a first impression. The same goes with restrooms.

One way restrooms should designed is so they can fit in with their surroundings instead of standing out, according to Moffette Tharpe, director of a Midland, Va.-based manufacturer of precast concrete buildings.

"With restrooms—especially concrete restrooms—you want to design them to fit into the surroundings so it looks like it fits right in," Tharpe said. "It's important they fit in and not stand out. It should be a natural part of the area."

Tharpe added that concrete restrooms shouldn't look too industrial or primitive, and that even with fancy colors and materials, they should still look natural.

Robert Brubaker, program manager of the American Restroom Association, said there is not necessarily much emphasis on the look of a restroom. From the feedback gathered by the Baltimore, Md.-based organization, people tend to prefer cleanliness and practicality over aesthetic appeal.

One safety feature people tend to like, Brubaker noted, is the labyrinth-like entrance, as opposed to a more traditional door.

"This way, if anything's going wrong, you could scream and easily be heard," he explained.

But far more important than any other factor, he said, is cleanliness. "Clean is the biggest thing about restrooms," he added. "Being clean far outweighs fancy design. People also like good tile floors that give the sense of cleanliness."

Galvin agreed. "People like restrooms that function and serve their purpose," she said. "When it comes down to it, no one will sacrifice functionality and cleanliness at a public restroom for quirkiness and cuteness."

For those who like using different colors or looks in restrooms, it really does depend on the location. Tharpe said Arizona restrooms might have earth tones (such as tan, brown or reddish-brown) or even a stone look. Restrooms in the Northeast might have colors that best accommodate brick or a finished, urban look. In Florida, where many houses have cinderblock, many restrooms go with split-faced block or even stucco with lighter colors that withstand the sun and heat.

Galvin reported that orange is becoming a more popular color.

"It might be a product of the popularity of warm, wood tones," she added. "Often a white bathroom can be warmed up with wooden beams or a ceiling."

Some colors or looks are chosen not only because they match a community's preferences, but also because they're practical.

"Bright is typically a big thing," Brubaker explained. "Occasionally you get into municipalities that prefer colors that make it difficult for nefarious activities. Blue light makes it tougher for drug users to shoot up," for example.

Brubaker also noted that at the beach toilets at Kellogg Park in La Jolla, Calif. (near San Diego), the lavatory sinks are separate from the small restroom buildings. Outside the main building is a door that goes around to the unisex restroom.

"Because there's no lavatory in the restroom, they're so small it significantly cuts down on misuse," Brubaker explained.

What wins out in the end? Plain, practical restrooms or creative, practical restrooms? Some people prefer plain and others prefer something with style, but in the end everyone wants something practical. While a colorful, creative restroom might look nice, it matters little if the toilets don't work, or if it has no toilet paper or soap.

"On the Appalachian Trail in the east, they want simple functionality," Tharpe said. "You'll find restrooms with a barn board finish or a simple roof so that it fits into the nature setting and won't necessarily be trendy but instead rustic. In other extremes, such as in New York or New Jersey, restrooms might have a brick look and be functional but there will be a lot more to them."

Common Problems

As nice as restrooms are and as far as they've come, there are still complaints regarding problems or design flaws. Brubaker noted that with heavy-traffic restrooms, poorly designed entrances cause the people going out to block people who are trying to enter.

The way stalls are designed, some people might not realize they're open. As a result, big lines are created as people wait for a stall without realizing there are other open stalls in the restroom.

"This is a design problem and needs to be made where you can see stalls not being used," Brubaker said. "We need clear-cut indicators."

Another big complaint he's found are stall doors that don't close; this is often due to being poorly made which, in turn, results in doors that won't latch.

And, yes, perhaps no surprise at all, odor is another complaint. In fact, it's really not just another complaint according to Galvin: it's the most common. Insufficient cleaning can cause bacteria to collect on various surfaces. However, the restroom's design itself can result in problems that can perpetuate bad smells.

"A bad design can make even the most diligently-cleaned facility a foul-smelling place," Galvin explained. "Floor drains can often hold smells when not flushed regularly. When permanent fixtures are placed too close together they cannot be properly cleaned and will hold any smell that finds them. Most importantly, facilities that are not properly ventilated will hold any smell that enters the space or allow smells from the outside or below to enter the restroom."

In vault and composting toilets, look for facilities that include a ventilation system that helps prevent odors.

Restroom Evolution

As the years go by, the way restrooms look and function changes. What used to be outhouses exist now as portable toilets used for carnivals, fairs and other events on the go (as well as permanent facilities dealing with overflow). In the past, public restrooms were often about practical facilities with flushing toilets, running water and much-needed products like soap, paper towels and toilet paper. Now, more and more restrooms are done with flair. Even more restrooms are being reinvented themselves to maximize sanitation and be built in timely and cost-effective manners.

One trend Tharpe has increasingly seen in the past decade is preassembled restrooms as opposed to site-built facilities. This is a trend driven largely by money, but also by timeliness and the desire to simplify projects, as well as advances in manufacturing that make it possible to install a restroom structure, complete with plumbed toilets and sinks, in less than a day.

"The only thing that will change this is if the present economy changes," he said. "We're finding the recession to be deep and wide, and site-built restrooms are cheaper than they used to be. The labor market is down due to the cost."

Another change that Brubaker has seen pertains to security and convenience. It's more common now for restrooms to have stalls and no locks on the door so they can serve more people. Single restrooms with locking doors may allow the maximum level of privacy, but he said they also make "the restroom a lot more susceptible to misuse, including an employee locking the door to take a smoke break."

Brubaker noted that touchless facilities are gaining popularity with the idea of being more sanitary. And, they work if well maintained. But be careful if you go this route. Touchless facilities that aren't maintained result in mis-flushes and false alarms due to worn-out batteries.

"If well maintained, people seem to like touchless facilities better," Brubaker said.

Touchless, or hands-free, restrooms do appear to have a downside. Tharpe said they have found that the automatic on and off controls on the faucet are not very appealing, and if there's a failure, there's nothing to let you know there's a problem.

"We're not seeing a lot of automatic on-offs really popular yet in an unmaintained facility," he said.

That said, touchless is becoming an ideal solution. Many patrons are worried about what kind of germs the customer before them may have left on the faucet and door handles. Worries about SARS, H1N1 and other diseases have only increased the concern.

Part of being a touchless facility is having hand dryers and doing away with paper dispensers. While that might promote sanitation and save trees, Brubaker notes hand dryers aren't always the best option. If a restroom has a door that must be pulled and gripped, a person risks recontaminating their hands when they do that task.

"We recommend when there's a door that must be pulled and gripped, they should provide paper towels and a basket right by the door to drop the towels in," Brubaker said. The labyrinthine entrances that have been growing in popularity also help solve the problem.

Tharpe added: "There is a natural drive toward air dryers because it's a waste issue. You're not using paper. We do see an interest toward a more environmentally friendly approach. In most cases, cost is the driver, except in upscale restrooms where aesthetics is the driver."

Tharpe does see paper towels eventually becoming obsolete in restrooms, especially since they often end up on the floor, must be restocked and require more trips to empty the waste receptacles. This costs money.

It also has an environmental impact, as Galvin noted. "As facilities are watching their budgets, environmental impact items that need to be replenished and disposed of regularly, like paper towels, will not last long," she said.

The Nose Knows

There are several types of toilets that you can use in your facilities. The most commonly used include flush and vault. Vault toilets are most commonly seen in portable toilets or in facilities that do not have access to a city water supply.

While the vaults often might be associated with less-than-desirable smells, Brubaker said they do indeed have their advantages.

"They're year-round and don't require a service hookup," Brubaker said. "They're very low cost and can be used in national park services."

Furthermore, he said, some are even well designed and ventilation is not a problem. In the winter, the smells commonly associated with toilets can even be neutralized. And, some manufacturers have developed specific technology to eliminate problem odors year-round.

An environmentally friendly variant, compost toilets use very little—if any—water and treat the waste so it can be used as compost for fertilizer.

Think compost toilets will have a bad odor? Think again.

"Composting toilets overcome the odor problem with ventilation systems," Galvin explained. "They also offer extra advantages of nutrient recycling, odor management, infrequent removal events, and the option of a foam-flush toilet."

She added, "Users are given a sense of familiarity with the foam-flush toilet that looks and feels like a conventional toilet."

One site that uses foam-flush toilets is the Mountain Park Environmental Center in Pueblo, Colo. They installed the first set of restrooms two years ago and the second set last year. They have both men's and women's restrooms along with private bathrooms in the overnight rooms.

Also, seven restrooms share four unisex restrooms.

"We were told foam-flush toilets were somewhat easier to keep clean," said the center's executive director, Dave van Manen. "What's really important to us is cleanliness. We want restrooms to be clean."

Being in Colorado, foam-flush toilets carry with them a special importance: in the arid southwest, water tends to be a precious commodity. And since water could be scarcer in the future, the toilets could save the Mountain Park Environmental Center even more of its natural resources.

"[Customers] think it's so awesome that a flush uses six ounces of water and saves even more water than the water-saving toilets which use around 100 ounces," van Manen. "We have signs that explain to push a button before and after use to help keep it clean."

Show Some Strength

Galvin finds that in the past 10 years the essential features of restroom structures have remained constant: the ability for a structure to stay up and to be maintained. Buildings that are pre-fabricated along with kit buildings accomplish this, she said.

If there's an evolving trend, it's in sustainability.

"Many parts of the United States have developed a keen awareness of their water supply's limitations and have begun to develop new facilities accordingly," Galvin said. "Composting toilets have allowed places like Mountain Park Environmental Center in Pueblo, Colo., to expand their facility and program offerings without adding an extra burden to the overdrawn local water supply."

A concern for water supplies along with an overall strong trend in making environmentally-friendly restrooms has resulted in many changes.

For starters, photo cell on-off switches that help to save energy by turning off the lights when nobody is in the restroom have become more common. Tharpe reported some restrooms use solar power to generate the electricity needed to start up the fans in the restroom. Some vault restroom facilities feature an evaporator that both lengthens the time required between pumpouts and relies on solar power to keep the evaporator working properly.

"We're also beginning to see the use of technology items in restrooms that weren't considered before, such as skylights," Tharpe added.

For those concerned about water supplies, waterless urinals might be just what is needed.

"We don't receive a lot of feedback [on waterless urinals], but we do sometimes hear from environmental organizations telling us we should use them more," Brubaker said.

While for some the idea of an environmentally-friendly bathroom might still be a new concept to grasp, Galvin said restrooms can use environmental designs a lot more than people might realize.

"Every feature of the restroom can be chosen with consideration for the environment," she said. "Building materials can be sourced responsibly; lighting should be energy efficient and combined with day-lighting techniques where possible."

The most effective way to reduce environmental impact in a restroom, according to Galvin, is to stop using water to flush away excrement.

"Composting toilets reduce water use by 97 percent," she said. "Or, completely eliminate water use for flushing and allow the waste to be recycled for use as fertilizer."

She also noted that greywater systems can allow for hand-wash water to irrigate ornamental plants.

Coming Right Up

What developments will take hold as restroom structure manufacturers further enhance their offerings, and park directors find ways to improve their facilities?

Tharpe believes there will be more of a drive for modular preassembled restrooms that can be quickly assembled. The market also seems to like functional restrooms that don't require plumbing.

"[Restrooms] will be more complex oriented rather than more single restrooms, especially in parks and recreation areas, where you'll get more functionality out of that space," he explained.

The bottom line: creating things that are less expensive.

Brubaker believes there will be more family restrooms. In other words, where you would have seen one men's and one women's restroom, there will be two family restrooms instead. He also sees more labyrinth-style entrances along with more establishments putting up signs to show where their restroom is. More specifically, Brubaker thinks building codes will change where business will be required to put up signs to show customers where their restroom is.

While environmentally-friendly restrooms are a current trend, Galvin believes it's also the future as conservation will be taken to new levels.

"A well-planned restroom uses, at most, ounces of water for flushing yet supplies a level of comfort and familiarity similar to being at home," she said. Environmentally friendly facilities can "achieve this and provide an opportunity to educate the user about composting, nutrient recycling and water conservation all at once."

On School Grounds

Another trend, noted by Chuck Kaufman, of a restroom manufacturer based in Reno, Nev., is a tendency toward shared use of school playgrounds. In other words, where schools used to lock the gates when the day was done, now they're leaving their facilities open for use by the community.

"It's obviously helpful in that the park agencies do not have to buy new land," Kaufman said. "The majority of this application is taking place in major cities," where land for new parks is limited.

But, he added, the joint-use agreements can raise some issues when it comes to adding things like concession buildings or restroom structures.

Taking the state of California as an example, Kaufman said. "You can't put a building on a school ground without a lot of scrutiny, and the costs can go off the charts."

The planning involved requires a higher level of attention, with stricter fire restrictions and other rules requiring more care to be given to how the building is designed.

This is something park administrators should be aware of before they get involved in these joint-use arrangements. But that shouldn't stop you from setting up such a win-win situation.

Just be aware of code requirements, and if you want to go with a premanufactured structure, be sure you're working with a manufacturer that already offers buildings that fit the requirements, or one who can customize their structures to meet the stricter rules.

Preferred Amenities

These days, there really is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all restroom. Some restrooms have just the basic necessities while those frequented by families might require diaper-changing stations. Some restrooms are called "unisex" while others prefer the term "family restroom" to indicate it's not only for men or only for women.

Restrooms like this are becoming more and more common, and have both a financial and spatial appeal.

"Unisex means you only need half the restroom," Tharpe said. "There's no need for male and female restrooms, and you save on the cost. Technically, it's also half the maintenance."

Brubaker added a natural trend, from a business standpoint, is to place baby-changing stations in a multi-stall restroom along with family restrooms. Some building codes now even require such a station, depending on the occupancy.

Whereas the popular term has been "unisex," Brubaker believes that term scares people and that "family restroom" or "companion-care restroom" would be better.

"The word 'family' implies you're related," Brubaker explained. "'Companion-care restroom' is the preferred word, and we suggest that this might be optimal."

What are signs of a great restroom? Cleanliness, for one thing, and not just in making sure the toilets and urinals are regularly cleaned and the trash is regularly emptied, but also in the ways the walls are coated and in rounded versus square joints on the walls. These features make restrooms easier to keep clean, Tharpe said.

Coated walls are walls that are better at resisting dirt, while high-gloss walls are also easier to clean. Concrete restrooms, most of them, can be hosed down.

Tharpe also believes a great restroom is one designed to better withstand vandalism. This can still be a problem, particularly with unattended restrooms.

"This is why we see a trend towards stainless-steel fixtures since they don't shatter or break," Tharpe said. "Also heavy-duty grills."

A well-lit facility is also an excellent deterrent to vandalism, as well as a comfort to patrons worried about safety, Brubaker said. Dark restrooms give people a very negative feeling. He also likes facilities that are well ventilated.

High-window restrooms, while somewhat controversial, are also ones Brubaker finds appealing since it gives the restroom user a better sense of security by being aware of what's going on outside.

A facility should make the user feel better leaving than they did upon arrival, Galvin said.

"This obviously requires all the expected fixtures and more than a little cleanliness," she said. "Beyond that it requires something new or unexpected. If a person leaves a bathroom having been pleasantly surprised, the designer has done their job."

For example, if your facilities employ eco-friendly methods of waste disposal, you should let your patrons know. "If the restroom has appropriate signage," Galvin said, "similar to that at the Bronx Zoo, the user leaves more informed and feeling like they've done a good thing by helping to conserve water and contributing to the sustainability effort. They've had a productive trip to the restroom."

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