Last Things First

Trends in Restroom Structures

By Rick Dandes

In park or athletic field design, restrooms can be a divisive issue. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, restrooms are often the last thing architects and facility owners think about when designing a facility, according to Mary Coakley, board member, the American Restroom Association.

"It's often an afterthought," she said, "given as an assignment to the most junior architect in the firm."

It shouldn't be.

In a practical sense, people using public parks and recreation facilities need access to a restroom. People have high expectations and expect that a restroom should be available in public places as a natural public service.

But, restrooms can also be a public liability and keep people away from a recreation facility if the restrooms are dirty, or if they smell, are dark inside and feel unsafe. Those kinds of facilities attract people that you would rather not socialize with. Restrooms that are not properly cared for, then, can be a nuisance, attracting vandals, and becoming a management and maintenance issue for public agencies.

"This is why," Coakley said, "you want to make sure the restroom design provides maximum function in minimal space, with a focus on safety, accessibility, availability, low maintenance, attention to vandalism and vagrancy, and aesthetics."

Safety Conscious

Safety is a key factor designers must keep in mind.

For this reason there is a trend toward having unisex bathrooms. This addresses certain safety issues because when you have a half-men's, half-women's concrete structure, the entrances are always on the sides of the building.

"Ask yourself, would you let your child go in there alone? Or would you go into the restroom with your child?" said William E. Fee, principal, Carducci Landscape Architects, San Francisco.

"Do you tell your child to not touch anything before he or she enters the room?" he continued.

Parents today are very careful to protect their children from child abduction and abuse. In most parks the parents keep their children within arm's reach. Parents are not about to let their child "go to the bathroom" alone. If the child is a different gender from the parent, then a unisex family restroom with a safe place to change a diaper serves the family the best.

All states have different building codes, Fee said. The current California Building Code, depending on occupancy type may require more fixtures for women than are provided for men.

All of these issues, from safety to cost and aesthetics, came into play recently in El Dorado Hills, Calif.

"When we installed three new permanent restrooms at three parks in The El Dorado Hills Community Services District (EDHCSD), said Darrah Ramsbotham, construction director, "our goal was to have permanent restrooms that would function well, architecturally blend with the surroundings, and be durable, such that vandalism and maintenance expenses could be kept to a minimum."

The first two restrooms installed were purchased prefabricated buildings. The third was purchased from a company as a "kit," then constructed by a contractor hired to complete assembly of the restroom.

Initially the "kit" type building appeared to be more cost-effective, but many factors needed to be included to determine true cost. "The cost of staff time to coordinate the "kit" type building is something that needed to be considered," Ramsbotham said.

Here is what happened during installation: "The first restroom (Stephen Harris Park) was part of a construction contract that included various improvements to our park," she said. This project required the contractor to install all of the utilities, the pad, and purchase and install the restroom. The prefabricated restroom was chosen for this project due to the duration being very short, and the desire to keep the project simple with fewer types of workers needed. The prefabricated option greatly reduced staff time for construction oversight along with permitting and inspections fees that are required for the "kit" restrooms.

"The park's second restroom installed was also a prefabricated building," she said. "This restroom was a standalone project, to be installed at an existing park (Promontory Phase II). No other park improvements were included in this project. We hired a contractor to install the utility and access features, and assist with the delivery and installation of the restroom only. This approach allowed the cost of the site work to remain separate from the cost of the building. The site work was less than $25,000, so we were not required to publically advertise. This saved us hours of staff time and administration costs. This approach saved money from the start."

The third restroom installed was built from a "kit," Ramsbotham said. This restroom was included in a large park construction project.

"The project had many features, so the trades needed to build the restroom were already involved in other components in the project," she noted. The kit option for this project made economic sense due to the project already requiring public advertisement, and staff time was also budgeted for the project.

"This park site," Ramsbotham continued, "is more remote from our main office, so our desire to have a larger storage area greatly influenced the need to use a "kit" approach.

There were problems with the kit installation. "Several construction details were overlooked by the contactor, and our staff failed to recognize them until too late (i.e., electrical conduits not coordinated in the walls, so all conduits are surface-mounted)," she said. "We had defective products delivered. These were replaced by the supplier, but staff time was needed to coordinate this and schedule of completion was slightly delayed. The overall building is not as durable and vandal-resistant as our prefabricated restrooms. The first weekend the restrooms were opened, both doors were damaged due to lack of latches on the doors. Strong winds caused the doors to blow open and swing 180 degrees. Our prefabricated restroom doors all have latches."


Fee, Ramsbotham and Coakley all mentioned that aesthetics is a big trend in the business of park restrooms—and no doubt it is.

"Restrooms used to be called comfort stations," Fee said. "Fresh flowers in a simple vase would be a nice touch. I think park restrooms should feel as nice as a restroom in a well-maintained shopping mall. It should be clean, well lighted, absent of graffiti and not feel creepy. But in a park you are building a 30-year civic structure. It should look nice, be maintainable and age well. It needs to not smell distasteful, resist graffiti, resist vandalism, and feel safe and comfortable. In a park, it needs to be observable at night from a police car."

Tile, Fee said, can upgrade the aesthetic experience. It looks more finished than concrete block or fiberglass panels. It can also be customized to give a sense of place. However, dirty tile grout and chipped or scratched tile can look shoddy.

The current movement toward prefabricated park restrooms instead of site-built construction is a very hot trend, said Chuck Kaufman, the president of a restroom manufacturing company based in Reno, Nev.

Municipal agencies have proof now that these facilities cost up to 30 percent less than site-built and perform equally as well or better depending on the brand and options. Other advantages are reduced design costs (repetition of models reduce costs), specialization provides advantages in cost reduction as any manufacturing manager knows, and greatly reduced site disruption is advantageous. Most prefab manufacturers provide no cost design services and their experience greatly exceeds designers who only infrequently design pubic restroom buildings.

Going Green

Flush toilets have been the norm in public restrooms for years. And yet in public park areas without water or sewer utilities, they are not feasible.

A functioning restroom with flush toilets requires a drain field, septic tank and water system. This can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many state parks, golf courses, beaches or other recreation areas these days simply can't afford that, and have had to resort to porta-potties or vault latrines.

Along came the inventors of totally self-contained and solar-powered restrooms that can operate without any utility connections.

Think of the cost savings on this kid of unit. How does it work? In many ways it is similar to restrooms on trains, RVs or airplanes. They have their own plumbing, tanks and pumps. The big difference is that these restrooms recycle hand-washing water, collect rainwater and use low-flush toilets, which greatly reduce the restroom's dependence on potable water (i.e., tap water). What's more, the average restroom "visit," which includes the toilet/urinal and sink, only produces approximately a quart of effluent. The effluent is later pumped and treated at a facility where it can then be safely reintroduced to the environment.

Even the installation is low impact. All that is needed is a shallow hole big enough to fit the base of the restroom, which contains the water and sewage tanks. After water is added to the tank the restroom is ready for eager visitors.

The inventors of this solution call it a hybrid that can significantly improve people's outdoor experiences in ways that protect and enhance the environment without the exorbitant cost of installing utilities.

All of this is part of the go-green movement, so prevalent in many parts of the country.

"Water conservation is an important national issue," explained Fee, of Carducci Landscape Architects. "Building codes require low-flow toilets. We have included signs at the lavatories to inform people where the water came from and where the wastewater goes to."

Fee's firm's restrooms use the wastewater from the lavatories and drinking fountains to water trees. Gray water can also be used to flush toilets, though it may stain the toilet.

The rainwater from the roof can be used in a rain garden.

A "green" roof can add to the lifespan of the roof and the R-value of the roof insulation so the interior will not be uncomfortably hot in the summer.

Governing bodies, such as city councils, often support meeting the criteria for LEED certification (such as using local materials, conserving energy and water, and reducing waste), which can support the goals to make the building sustainable.

Green restrooms are billed as being clean and odor-free, and an improvement over portable potties or outhouses found in parks without easy access to water and sewer lines.

Meanwhile, green restrooms have been installed in places ranging from California's Mount Shasta to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the Grand Canyon. New York's Bronx Zoo has "Eco-Restrooms" with toilet fixtures that can accommodate a half-million visitors a year. The toilets use three ounces of water per flush, but rely on composting rather than sewage disposal.

Don't Overlook This

Certainly, cost is a factor that any jurisdictional manager or government official shouldn't overlook—and they generally don't, given their budgetary restraints.

But there are other factors that are quite commonly overlooked, such as: Will the restroom create a public safety issue? How many fixtures are needed? What is the maintenance and life cycle likely to be? How can we make sure these restrooms don't smell bad? Are there adequate sewer, water and electrical utilities to service the restroom? Is there adequate truck and crane access to the restroom site? How much time is needed for the workflow process? Has the design accounted for the need for family restrooms and places to change diapers?

Then, some basic environmental factors such as ventilation, lighting, rainwater catching should be researched.

And don't forget maintenance issues such as scheduling annual painting, annual repairs, replacing fixtures every five to seven years and replacing the building every 20 to 30 years.

Benefits and Costs

Many park agencies, Kaufman said, have banked some of the developer fees and other revenue they collected during the boom years and they are spending those funds building new parks at 50 percent of what those same parks cost in 2008. Federal funds issued for "shovel ready projects" are also being used in current development. Still other park projects are being constructed with corporate donations, lottery funds, special bond funds or donor funds with emphasis on meeting political demands for services.

During the boom years, Kaufman continued, many park agencies did not pay attention to the quality of construction of restroom materials, and they often focused on either low-cost construction or low-cost design. The premise that a restroom is just a restroom was the characterization of the times, so many poorer quality park restroom buildings were constructed that are now causing a maintenance nightmare for underfunded park maintenance budgets. The crises is yet to come as the backlog of existing maintenance bandaids increase and new construction projects come on line to further stretch park maintenance staffs and available budgets.

A restroom is complicated and expensive. It usually includes all the building trades: site work, utilities, plumbing, electrical, concrete, masonry, doors, windows, hardware, metals, painting, roofing, signs, fire protection, accessories and specialties, plus building permits and building inspections. So it's imperative that you carefully plan the design to address all the issues.

When calculating the total cost of a restroom, think of it as like owning a car, William Fee suggested. "Capital cost, plus maintenance cost, plus cost of utilities, plus replacement cost equals total cost."

There are ways to reduce cost, Fee added. "You can buy a pre-fabricated design and save on the cost of hiring a designer. You can build a smaller structure. Or have people pay to use them."

A pre-engineered building, for example, can actually be moved. It can be moved on site or reused at another site. Its transportability could help with the phased development of a project. And save on costs.

Doing it Right in San Diego

Coakley, president of the American Restroom Association and Friends of La Jolla Shores explained how a project in La Jolla Shores, Calif., resulted in an award-winning restroom at City of San Diego Parks and Beaches. And it has set an example for restrooms nationwide.

La Jolla Shores is an ocean paradise attracting 2 to 3 million visitors a year. It is one of the city's most popular swimming and surfing beaches, as well as the premier dive site in San Diego, famous for its 900-foot-deep Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve. "The 1960s-era, gender-specific, public restroom serving the park users and beach goers," Coakley explained, "had far exceeded its carrying capacity and fallen into serious disrepair."

During the peak summer season females were forced to stand in seemingly endless lines for the women's restroom; a situation worsened by the fact that the majority preferred the privacy of the toilet stalls to change their clothes, rather than the large common area intended for that purpose. On the other hand, there was absolutely no wait for the men's restroom at anytime.

"One would have thought that replacing the restroom would have been a simple process," Coakley said. "Instead, it was extremely difficult, costly and took over eight years (March 1997 to July 2005) and three sets of approved plans."

The first Kellogg Park plan called for a 1,936-square-foot gender-specific restroom that was more than double the size of the existing 900-square-foot facility, increased the height from 8.5 feet to 14 feet, width from 36 feet to 44 feet, and length from 25 feet to 54 feet in a location where ocean views and parkland are extremely precious commodities. To make matters worse, the plans failed to adequately address the need for increased availability of stalls.

Coakley, and others in the community who were concerned with the shortcomings of the project, spearheaded what turned out to be a five-year effort to convince city officials to redesign the building.

It took years of research, but Coakley and her committee finally presented a floor plan to the city's Park and Recreation Department planning staff—a plan that incorporated unisex stalls accessed from the outside with sinks and showers on the exterior of the building, providing safe and easily accessible facilities that could be built for close to the $316,000 the city had left for the project.

The architect converted Coakley's design into architectural drawings and donated the plans. He felt that it was extremely important to design a building that would blend well with its surroundings. The result was a low-profile unisex facility, approximately one-third the size of the previously permitted plans that met and exceeded all the stipulations presented to him.

The design included two ADA/Family restrooms with diaper changing stations and 10 unisex toilet stalls all directly accessible from the outdoors, four outdoor sinks in alcoves and six (two ADA) outdoor showers (upper and foot) located on the beachside wall of the building along with a 112-square-foot storage area—all in approximately 650 square feet at 9 feet tall.

"In the end," Coakley said, "more than 45 businesses and professionals donated their expertise and/or services, building materials and supplies for free or at greatly discounted prices, and more than 50 community members and organizations, as well as beach lovers from all over San Diego, made generous donations to make the project a 'break even' for the contractor who built the restroom for no profit."

The new restroom opened ceremoniously with a "Royal Flush" in July 2005. Lines move quickly, families and people with disabilities are well served.

Features that qualify the Kellogg Park unisex restroom as a prototype for parks and beaches nationwide include architectural plans and design elements that provide:

  • Maximum function in minimum space resulting in preservation of precious park space, significantly smaller building providing increased availability and more function per square foot with an overall reduction in cost.
  • Ease of maintenance resulting from minimal size of the building, a plumbing chase providing easy access for plumbing and electrical repairs, commercial hardware and penal ware fixtures improving durability and longevity, fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) doors that don't rust or warp, anti-graffiti coating on the interior and exterior of the building, lighting fixtures inside the plumbing chase that cannot be accessed or damaged from inside the stalls, well designed and adequate number of toilet paper holders, and hooks so purses, towels and clothes don't end up on the floor.
  • Ease of accessibility to the restrooms, sinks and showers for persons with disabilities.
  • Improved safety—access to each lighted stall is from the outside, allowing the user to check occupancy of the stall before entering. It also allows a parent to ensure the safety of their child while using the restroom.
  • Unisex/ADA/Family restrooms facilitate the needs of parents with infants, fathers with daughters, mothers with sons and disabled persons with or without caregivers of same or opposite sex.
  • Sinks on the exterior of the building minimize the amount of time spent in each stall, eliminate concerns about germs on door handles contacted after washing hands, limit vagrancy and other illicit behaviors that tend to occur in stalls that contain sinks.
  • Showers, upper and foot, located on the exterior ocean-side wall of the building allow easy access and maximum availability.
  • Aesthetic value blends the restroom with its surroundings, expressing sensitivity to views of homeowners and hotel guests.
  • Hand dryers, plumbing fixtures, doors and anti-graffiti coatings discourage vandalism.
  • Improved traffic flow.
  • Increased availability.
  • Unisex stalls that improve traffic flow especially for women as all stalls are available for both sexes. Also note that this design allows Parks & Recreation to close individual stalls in need of repairs and half the stalls during the winter season for a significant cost savings without inconveniencing the users.

The La Jolla Shores project, Coakley pointed out, "also illustrates that although designing restrooms may not be a high status commission for an architect, if well conceived, the final product can not only serve its users well, but it can become a site-specific work of art."

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