A Necessary Service

Restroom Structures Take On Different Situations

By Deborah L. Vence

Whether they're prefabricated or built on site, restroom structures are a necessity for the public, offering easy accessibility for anyone taking a leisurely stroll through a quiet park or for large groups of people at a crowded sports complex or high-traffic city park.

The fact is that restroom structures are important and essential for just about any situation—from the busiest of areas to the most remote places.

Unique Situations

Addressing the ways restroom structures can handle unique situations, Kyle Earlywine, co-owner of a Vancouver, Wash.-based company that specializes in restroom buildings, prefab and vault toilets, said there are many—ranging from urban streets that are plagued with vandals to ski resort mountaintops with thousands of visitors a day.

For example, he noted a Portland, Ore.-fabricated restroom as "still the most intriguing" restroom, stating that it's specially designed for areas at risk, such as drug use, vandalism and even homeless people locking themselves in the restroom to sleep.

As indicated on the company's website, the restrooms are "simple, sturdy, flush toilet kiosks located on sidewalks in public areas," and are "free and accessible around the clock every day of the year. [They] give the community environmentally-friendly, clean and safe restroom facilities. [It] comes fully tested and assembled from the factory."

Earlywine also noted that "The important thing is to do lots of research. There is a best option for every situation, but unfortunately, there are not a lot of restroom experts to point people in the right direction," adding that searching the Internet is a good place to start researching and a good place to find an expert who can provide valuable information.

Whether they're prefabricated or built on site, restroom structures are a necessity for the public, offering easy accessibility for anyone taking a leisurely stroll through a quiet park or for large groups of people at a crowded sports complex or high-traffic city park.

"Restroom manufacturers can be a great source of information. There are also a few public restroom advocacy groups that can provide independent opinions," he said.

Equally important is finding out the needs associated with a restroom structure.

"We need to answer, 'Is this in a flood zone? What do the structures need to be? Precast concrete?' And, does it need to be heated in some way? Add that to the consideration," he said. "We have to go through this list of questions in order to figure out what restroom someone is going to get."

Dave Worthington, manager of a company in Easton, Pa., that specializes in precast concrete buildings, said precast concrete buildings are abuse-resistant, and can withstand vandalism. "They are also fire-resistant from vandals, who may attempt to start waste fires," he said.

Both interior and exterior wall surfaces could be treated with an anti-graffiti coating making cleanup easy, and remote locking and unlocking of buildings through cellular devices makes management simple.

"This is a benefit to municipal-owned buildings where multiple organizations need access at different days and times," he said.

What's more, Gregg Zentarsky, Northeast U.S. sales manager for a company that manufactures prefabricated concrete restrooms, showers, concessions and storage buildings, said to look for "all-concrete design that is vandal-resistant and easy to maintain and clean; remote access for building functionality controls; and ease of customer use (the idea is for the user to get in and out as fast as possible)."

Another important question is how restroom design in large urban parks differs in terms of the type, size and location, suggested Chuck Kaufman, president of a Minden, Nev.-based company that specializes in prefabricated public restrooms and buildings.

"Large inner-city park designers face different design standards for the mix of use for the park," he said.

For example, with picnic pavilions, "Attendees at picnic venues are consuming food and drink, thus requiring restrooms within about an hour after consumption," Kaufman said. "Park planners calculate the number of attendees at the venue, and restroom design firms respond by sizing the fixture count for the building. The restroom should be close to the venue location."

Another example is tot lots.

"When kids are heavy into playing, they usually give little time to parents to respond to the 'need.' Thus, small single-user family style restrooms are usually the park planner's choice and right next to the tot lot location," Kaufman said.

With an athletic field complex, "Often the need for these facilities includes concession rooms and restrooms, in between field venues for soccer, baseball, etc.," he said.

And, "Again, with the food element, usually planners reduce the estimated number of restroom fixtures to mainly the visitors watching as the players are exercising and in need of hydration, and less often a restroom," he added. "Restroom design firms evaluate the food menu and number of seating spots to determine sizing of the restrooms."

A Variety of Designs

There are different types of restroom structures, with park restroom designs centering on both function and materials, Kaufman said.

For example, "waterless restrooms (prefab and site built) use holding tanks and offsite disposal of waste for trail sites and remote to septic or sewer availability. When final location of the building is accessible to delivery trucks and cranes, prefab is normal," he said. "When the site is remote and difficult for access, site-built becomes advantageous."

Another example is prefabricated waterborne fully assembled park restrooms that connect to septic or site sewers. In this case, Kaufman said, the manufacturer provides all the design and engineering to provide a building that is fully assembled. Installation is generally part of the offering as well.

Also, site-constructed restrooms that used to dominate the market now are trending toward prefab. "Today," he said, "very large restrooms or combination buildings that do not lend themselves to prefabrication for architectural reasons are some of those that remain site-built."

Other types include erector set packages of partial building materials and building plans for site contractors to erect on site. "There are times prefabricated buildings cannot reach site destinations due to access issues. For these applications, the erector set packages can make sense," Kaufman said.

Another consideration is volunteer labor and material construction. "There are still some smaller communities with lower tax bases [that] still turn to local materials vendors, local engineers and architects, and local labor to volunteer for park building construction," he said.

The various types of restrooms Worthington mentioned include restroom buildings with showers for campgrounds; those with concessions and storage rooms for athletic complexes; with picnic pavilion overhangs; with emergency generators; with large community rooms and storage areas for multiple sports organizations; with solar power arrays on the roof; and dry-composting restroom buildings, which do not require pump-outs of vault tanks.

Zentarsky added a few more:

  • Retractable bathroom pods for nighttime use.
  • All-concrete designed buildings for longevity and ease of maintenance.
  • Buildings that are functional yet pieces of artwork.
  • Urinals attached to hay bales.

From a global perspective, Earlywine said that in many parts of the world people do not sit down on toilets, but instead, prefer to squat over a hole in the ground where the toilet would go.

"This is nothing new," he said, "but what is relatively new is that a greater number of tourists from these areas are coming to the United States and standing on top of the toilet then squatting over it.

"If your park gets a lot of international tourists and you are finding a lot more human waste on the toilet seat, then you may want to consider adding a sign asking people to sit, not stand, on the toilet seat. Using a picture is best," he said.

In Europe, there are sit, don't squat pictures. "And, I would say they don't use different toilets, different sinks, but they do use restrooms differently," he said. "One thing is that they are simply more abundant in Europe.

And, "The demand is much higher. [Some places] charge for restrooms, and [you have to] pay a euro to get into the restroom. It works out really well. Most people have money on them. The ones we saw were in train stations, and other public areas. [But], most were not pay," he said.

What's more, he noted the efforts being made in the developing world for better sanitation, such as by the Gates Foundation, an organization committed to establishing cheap and sustainable sanitation. (The foundation's effort focuses on "developing innovative approaches and technologies that can lead to radical and sustainable improvements in sanitation in the developing world," according to information from www.gatesfoundation.org.)

Trends in Restrooms

Looking at trends, overall, "Construction costs have been going up faster than inflation for many years now," Earlywine said.

"While modular construction costs have increased steadily, on-site construction costs have seen a wide range of increases from region to region or even city to city in the same state," he said. "Shopping around for a restroom provider is more necessary than ever to keep the project within a reasonable budget."

In addition, "The market has been behaving different in a sense that municipalities have more money than they used to. We've always had the mindset that we can provide value through low-cost restrooms," he added.

Kaufman said current trends include all-gender restrooms.

"California began the legal change requiring 'all gender restrooms' to replace separate sexed (male/female restrooms). Other states are following, but cautiously," he said. "In California at least 50 percent of single-user restrooms (with single patron user lockable rooms) must be 'all gender and accessible.'"

Another trend is associted with sourcing. "Communities are moving more and more to brand-specific sole-source acquisition for their park restrooms to reduce maintenance and standardize on maintenance parts needed to maintain operations with their maintenance staffs," Kaufman said. "Once a community has a good experience with a brand, they make that brand their standard to the exclusion of all others."

He also noted architectural theme standardization for community park buildings: "Nationwide, communities are searching for park thematic buildings that blend with the existing architecture in their communities to make the structures look like they belong," he said. "If the building now is in New England, it will have an old New England architectural theme," he said.

Also trending are budget increases to make it possible to purchase restroom buildings that last without high maintenance costs. "Public agencies are tending to increase capital budgets to buy into stronger life-cycle construction instead of seeing high maintenance costs eat up lower first cost design standards that have proven ineffective," Kaufman said.

Meanwhile, Worthington noted that incorporating a concession stand is another trend he sees. "Either a concession room where youth sports organizations sells pre-packaged goods and drinks that are brought daily to the complex, or concession operations where food is prepared requiring exhaust hoods and triple bowl wash sinks, along with refrigeration equipment," he said.

Other trends, he said, include:

  • Restroom buildings that have "family" rooms. (A restroom in which a parent can bring toddlers and infants together in the same space in private. The rooms also are ADA compliant for handicap and elderly use.)
  • Restrooms that are insulated for year-round use.

Zentarsky said non-gender-specific rooms are a trend, as well as:

  • Family assist rooms that fit multiple people at once.
  • Buildings that are made from recycled products.
  • Smart buildings that can be controlled from remote locations.
  • Vandal-resistant features (building construction/fixtures).
  • Self-cleaning buildings.

Do's and Dont's

When choosing restroom structures, keeping in mind some do's and don'ts is important.

"My big do is to look at the fixtures you are using," Earlywine said. "If you are in an area that's water stressed, you can save a ton of water."

Earlywine also included the following do's and don'ts:

  • Do spend at least a little bit of time and/or money on making the interior look nice. A fresh coat of paint, something other than white, can liven up the space and make it more pleasant for the visitors who will be literally staring at the walls for extended periods of time.
  • Do position the restroom in a place where it is easily accessible and in an area in which utilities are close by as that can significantly reduce the cost of the project. Having the restroom in the ideal location may not be ideal if it doubles the cost of the restroom project.
  • Do research the options. There are many different solutions for providing restrooms to the public. Making a decision simply because it is easy to procure could be a bad decision negatively affecting the area for decades.
  • Do not assume that the utilities have to be present in order to provide a restroom.
  • Do not automatically assume that public restrooms need to have stainless steel fixtures. If the area has a history of heavy vandalism, then vandal-resistant fixtures are likely needed. If not, porcelain fixtures will save a lot on cost.
  • Do not skimp on cleaning the restroom. Most people do not like cleaning restrooms, but it is a vital service and will be very appreciated by the public. A restroom is kind of like a car. Cleaning and maintaining it may be a chore and cost money, but it is a valuable asset that provides a great benefit.

Meanwhile, Kaufman added his take on a few critical do's as well. He noted the following:

  • Locate the restroom near vehicle access for security vehicles to pass by.
  • Size the restroom fixture count to add more fixtures for female use due to usage time.
  • Use architectural design materials that can stand the test of vandals and abuse.
  • Use proven components that last 50 years to minimize maintenance by paying more for them up front.
  • Select anti-microbial components to reduce health issues.
  • Design the restroom with non-absorbent finishes to eliminate odor.


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