Give It a Rest

The Right Restroom Design for Your Recreational Needs

By Kelli Ra Anderson

After almost 90 years, America's love affair with the 800-plus national and state parks constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is still alive and well. However, many public toilets built as part of the CCC program are nearing the end of their functional lives and are being replaced in large numbers across the country. "We're to the point where our parks are 50-plus years old, so original stick-built construction bathrooms or block bathrooms need to be replaced," said Heath Delzell, facilities engineer and design engineer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in Des Moines, Iowa.

Thankfully, these replacement projects are often an improvement over their predecessors. With newer technology, better planning and more design options, patrons are getting more comfort, the environment is getting some relief, and managers can get the durability, affordability and maintainability their tightened budgets and reduced staffing demand.

But whether a facility or park replaces a historic structure or simply expands restroom access for patrons in a new area, it is wise to give these structures the attention they deserve. "Restrooms don't sell a park," said William Spencer, civil engineer with MHS Planning & Design out of Tyler, Texas. "You don't hear people saying, 'That's the most beautiful restroom I've ever seen!' But they want it to be functional."

Truth be told, restrooms are often given the last and least thought in a project's planning process, and the leftover crumbs of a project's budget. And it's understandable. Restrooms do not, in fact, sell a park. But they can ruin a park experience if they aren't given due diligence. Chuck Stephenson, director of the Monroe County Parks Department in Bloomington, Ind., admitted that his park district learned that lesson the hard way.

"We received a Kellogg's grant four years ago and constructed an all-inclusive splashpad and playground. Near the end of the project, the Health Department notified us that a restroom was required. Since we did not plan for a restroom and with no infrastructure in place, we opted for a mobile restroom. This was a tragic mistake."

Thankfully, the tragedy was short-lived. Just this year, a new restroom was constructed on the site, an affordable and durable, quickly installed pre-wired, pre-plumbed structure that took only two hours to assemble. Due diligence paid off.

Give Restrooms Their Due

Today's options for restroom construction are greater than ever before. There are the well-known traditional pit and vault toilets, flush toilets and newer-kid-on-the-block, composting toilets, that can all be housed in custom-designed or prefab structures.

Prefab designs these days are also more complex, trending toward larger structures housing not just restrooms, but concessions, showers, storage units and more. In Bergen County Parks in Hackensack, N.J., for example, a new project consisting of a two-story building will be a combination family restroom/concession/press box structure near one of their baseball fields.

No longer just prefab restrooms, even the structure materials we thought we knew—concrete, for example—are offering more finishes and aesthetic options than in years past.

What design combination best suits the needs of the park and patron, however, will depend on budget, availability or access of utilities, environmental constraints and the practical needs of the users. So, where to start?

The Lay of the Land

As with any building project, location is everything, and knowing where a restroom needs to be placed is either a no-brainer (if replacing a previously successful restroom), or may take some time and effort to discover. In newer recreation areas, choosing where to place the structure depends on several factors, one being the most convenient location for users. Just because you build it, doesn't necessarily mean they'll come.

"There was a study at a college campus where they didn't know where to put sidewalks," Delzell said. "So they let people walk and make their own trails to know how to lay out the pathways. That's a good way to do these facilities."

Delzell advises that staff or volunteers go on a weekend to see where people are congregating. If there's a good relationship between people and park staff, people are usually more than happy to talk about what they like and what they think to help determine the best location and needs for a public restroom.

However, Delzell is quick to add that terrain also plays an important role in the selection of a restroom structure. "We've had some trouble with park roads not having the same load rating as a highway, so we were able to get some prefab structures to the park, but not into it. And getting utilities to these structures can be tricky. Your restroom needs to be based on what is available and how much you are willing to spend on getting utilities and facilities out there."

Stephenson agreed, suggesting that restrooms need to be located as close to existing underground utilities as possible and if at all possible, on the same side of a road, parking lot, athletic field, playground, etc., as the utilities to minimize the costs associated with extending utilities to the restroom site.

In some cases, however, areas are so remote (i.e., not a utility in sight) and transporting building material and the difficulty of maintaining or monitoring the structure is so great, that the only option is a stick-built pit or vault toilet with maybe a solar panel for lighting at night (if the builders are feeling really extravagant).

Getting the Green Light

But as Joe Richardson, owner of the Bar-T Mountainside Challenge and Retreat Center in Urbana, Md., explained, even if utilities can be made available, they are not always the best option.

"The state of Maryland has introduced new and very stringent regulations on septic systems and stormwater runoff in an effort to save a very unhealthy Chesapeake Bay. Composting toilets may be the very best system to reverse the trend," Richardson explained about one of the composting toilet system's strong points. "Our water consumption is so negligible, our impact on the aquifer for 300-plus campers is the equivalent to two or three households."

Composting toilets (not to be confused with pit toilets), are actually so environmentally friendly, cost-effective and agreeable to use that they are used in homes and offices even where utilities are readily available. "The system is foolproof as long as you monitor the composting tanks and have them serviced regularly," Richardson said of those used in their offices and swimming pool bathhouse, as well as the camp's remote locations, with great (read: odorless) success.

Had they used a water-based system, they would have also had to contend with tens of thousands of grey water and its associated costs. "We had estimated that during summer camp season, we would produce over 150,000 gallons of grey water for a conventional septic system. Instead, we produce roughly 1,000 gallons of compost tea which is a harmless fertilizer."

Of course, looking out for the environment may be second nature to some (like the Audubon, who make it a central part of all they do), but in some situations, such as those experienced by the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, Texas, choosing an environmentally-friendly restroom structure is a necessity when faced with the demands of the law and the constraints of Mother Nature.

"We're restricted six months out of the year from construction because of the Houston Toad's breeding season," said Laura David, project manager with the Lower Colorado River Authority and 40-year veteran in park management. "When you have habitat limitations (between birds and frogs and such), construction can become a huge problem. In some cases, you can't disturb or destroy the vegetation."

With only a short, two-month window to construct restrooms in their park, David said that a prefabricated, concrete system was best suited to their needs. They prepared the pad themselves, connected the utilities, ordered the restroom design they wanted, and then simply threaded the utilities through the structure's predrilled holes in the floor to secure the whole unit in place—all without disturbing the ground. Mission accomplished.


Of course, quick turnaround time isn't just good for tight schedules to accommodate the breeding season of an endangered species. Time is money, and when a restroom structure can arrive ready-made, it greatly reduces the costs associated with construction, design and planning. "You don't have a construction crew out there for months," Spencer said of a selling point for his city. "They want to know where the money is going, and if you can save $10,000 on the design side to put into a play structure, a city's in favor of that."

It also doesn't hurt that many concrete prefab structures are built like WWII bunkers.

"There are a couple of big items we look for, and one is that a restroom is bulletproof. Literally." Delzell said of their recent restroom purchase. "Some restrooms go out into our hunting areas and shooting ranges in places where they don't have a lot of supervision. They are also in low-lying areas prone to floods but with concrete, you don't have to worry about rotting. People are just hard on them in general, so heavy duty is what we look for."

Another advantage of buying ready-made structures is that the continuity of a standard structure makes ordering easier, contributes to the brand of the park (keeping colors and building materials uniform) and makes maintenance, repairs and upgrades easier for staff to deal with.

Creature Comforts

But whether your structure is prefab or a stick-built/ground-up, a flush toilet or composting toilet or a vault toilet, there are certain characteristics they should all possess whenever possible.

The bottom line for every user is comfort. No one wants to have an unpleasant experience in a public restroom, but how many of us have unfortunately experienced the stuff of nightmares—a dark restroom filled with insects and in desperate need of good air freshener. Although comfort and cost are, thankfully, not mutually exclusive, comfortable functionality does require some thought.

In the best of all worlds, good insulation, heating and cooling to keep restroom temperatures temperate, is something every user appreciates. However, even if a restroom doesn't have A/C, for example, a shady location can keep inside temperatures a little more tolerable, and providing a shaded area for women and children to wait outside when it's busy will make the wait a little more bearable.

Little details, like having plenty of hooks and benches inside bathroom and shower stalls, can also make a big difference. These details not only improve the patron's experience, but some amenities can even improve program participation like adding a bulletin board to inform patrons about what is going on—hikes, talks or other programs—as people wait their turns outside the restroom.

Even if a structure is ready-made but lacks some of these amenities, it's not too hard to add them, and definitely a good idea. "Sometimes we go in and add hardware like metal shelving or hooks to make them work better. When you have no place to set your dry things, it's a problem," said David, who is a big believer in making sure patrons have a place to put bags and dry clothes to help make showering easier, and who is mindful of the challenges faced by a parent with young children who may need a helping hand when theirs are often full.

David even pays attention to the kind of faucets they install, preferring mixed faucet valves, so that children are less likely to be scalded when washing their hands.

Some elements, however, are big enough that no one should overlook them. "We take a look into how a restroom is going to be used and get feedback from park users on what designs keep their clothes dry or if it's really working or if floors drain properly," Delzell said. "That's a big thing. In actual practice, it's hard to get the floor to drain, but not so steep that it's not ADA accessible."

Venting Your Troubles

According to David, it has been her experience that there is one advantage that custom-built structures can have over prefabricated ones. "In terms of amenities for visitors, I think site-built ones have more to offer with ventilation," she said, citing windows that have been too small in some of their purchased structures.

For vault toilets in particular, ventilation can be a challenge, but thanks to suggestions put out by the USDA's Forest Service's Sweet Smelling Technology installation guide, there are some tried and true tips that can keep even a vault toilet in a user's good graces.

The installation guide suggests, for example, that vents should be at least 20 feet away from trees and at least 3 feet above the roof line to avoid the building's own air turbulence. Vents should also be located on the south side of a building for solar heating. And the building itself, if at all possible, should be placed in mind of prevailing wind directions and downwind attractions.

Of course, composting toilets that use fans to expel air while simultaneously evaporating and concentrating waste material, keep the air fresh thanks to their mechanical systems, which can be powered by electricity or from solar power.

Keeping It Light

As in any structure, good lighting is an important component of good design and LED lights are among the most popular these days for durability, longevity and cost-effectiveness. Of course, to save even more money, a restroom that has motion sensors and photo cells can reduce its expenses significantly by only being used when someone is in the building. This is also a good way for rangers (often too few to make regular rounds into restrooms at night) to at least be able to see at a glance if a restroom is being occupied at night.

But for restrooms in remote areas far from utilities, solar panels can at least provide light when it is needed most.

Whether light is solar-powered or on the grid, however, putting lighting fixtures in the right place matters. "We put lighting in places people can't kick them off the wall," Richie explained about one of their anti-vandalism tactics. "And fixtures need to be stainless steel or pretty much vandal-resistant because people will kick them and try to rip them off the wall. Just the amount of use day after day is wearing, and you need durability. After 100,000 uses, you don't want a remote restroom to leak water because a ranger may not be in there for days and then thousands of gallons of water can be wasted."

No stranger to vandalism, those in the recreation industry know that restroom materials need to hold up to all kinds of rough treatment. For Stephenson, durability was a must. "Stainless steel structures can't be cracked or broken like china fixtures and concrete floors, walls and ceilings are durable and easy to clean," he said. "They won't necessarily win an award for outward beauty, but they are sturdy and rated for 130 mph wind."

Beauty tips

Beauty contests aside, however, aesthetics do play a role in the humble restroom structure. "I think site-built structures have the look you need in an historic park," David said about one advantage of stick built versus prefabricated structures. "Our customers like the ones that fit the look of the parks, especially historic parks like Brownwood. A lot of what it has to do with are finishes—color and entrances."

Delzell agreed, saying that for parks in his state, they use their in-house architects and landscape architects to custom-design restrooms to match the former structures constructed by the CCC if they can't find something to buy off the shelf.

In order to streamline that process, the architects created a design guide two years ago that Delzell said is intended to take the best from the past and present to create the future. Heavy stone structures, for example, a common look from the '40s, can be remade using stone veneer for much less cost than using stone that was originally 12 to 18 inches thick.

But, of course, many manufacturers of concrete restroom structures have come up with myriad ways to customize their structures' look to match a park's aesthetic.

In addition to veneers, concrete is also getting in on the look-alike game, with concrete finishes offering more that just aggregate, but also the look of clapboard or brick and a whole host of color options.

"Colors? People show up to our meetings and say that this city always has a brand color so people know it's Tyler City or McKinney," Spencer explained about his community's interest in previous projects' aesthetics. "That's a big selling point."

Keeping Up Appearances

Another big selling point for both users and buyers is ease of maintenance. For composting toilets, for example, maintaining the composting mixture (knowing how much and when to add wood chips to transform waste materials into compost), can either be done by the facility or by the manufacturer. In either case, it is an infrequent and relatively easy process but just a necessary one to make sure odor is never a problem and that waste is being properly reduced.

Being easy to clean, too, is another big factor in maintenance. Wall mounting as many interior elements as possible (stall dividers, sinks) is certainly one way to make mopping or hosing down a much easier process. Wall finishes, too, for easy cleaning are an important consideration. "You want it to be aesthetically pleasing, but ease of maintenance and durability are the leading factors," Richie said. "Put stucco on block and it creates a smooth surface that's easy to spray down. That's a huge advantage."

Similarly, a design with floor to wall joints that are smooth and rounded, will make hosing out a restroom that much easier.

Another advantage is that the lower the maintenance, typically the lower the cost. Certainly cost is a big driver but the cost isn't just the initial cost, but also the cost to maintain it—the cost over time. With tighter budgets and fewer staff these days to monitor and maintain our parks, it has become increasingly necessary to ensure that one person can do more things in less time.


One area where some communities are doing more with less is in the area of security. "The biggest innovation we've seen is in electronic magnetic locks," Spencer said. "With everything going to smart phones—with lighting systems operated through the phone—it's now the same with public buildings. Rather than go lock and unlock a restroom on Sunday when you are trying to play at the park, you can set locks on a schedule or personally control it to open it from wherever you are at. It's becoming a big trend because of the functionality of it all."

Delzell agreed that security is another very important consideration in restroom design and recommends that restrooms be located in a place that is hard to hide in or hard to sneak into so parents can watch children go in and leave. He also cautions about doorknobs and deadbolts. "You don't want deadbolts to lock from inside because someone could be lurking in there and hold someone hostage, or a child couldn't get out without a key. We need to be secure, but we need to be able to open it in an emergency."

For the restrooms Richie has designed, multiuse restrooms don't have locks at all. "You run the risk of people who might lock someone up in there," he explained. "Besides, we don't have enough staff; we have one staff member per park so it would take a lot to lock and unlock them every day." Thankfully, with some of today's newest features, savvy designers and with some thoughtful planning, building a restroom and maintaining it have become a whole lot easier.

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