Commercial restrooms that work right

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November 03, 2008 |

Commercial restrooms that work right (Continued from p. 70 of the November 2008 issue of BD+C)

Once you've read this special report, take the AIA Exam to earn 1 AIA HSW learning unit. (one-time registration required)


Reed Business Information is a Registered Provider with the American Institute of Architects Continuing Education Systems. Credit earned on completion of this program will be reported to CES Records for AIA members. Certificates of Completion for non-AIA members are available on request.

       This program is registered with the AIA/CES for continuing professional education. As such, it does not include content that may be deemed or construed to be an approval or endorsement by the AIA of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product. Questions related to specific materials, methods, and services will be addressed at the conclusion of this presentation. 

Product and Material Selection

Beyond the plumbing fixtures themselves, Building Teams must consider many other components of restroom design and operations, such as the specifications for floors, walls, ceilings, and toilet partitions. SSR’s Seimens advises that, while material choices and construction will vary depending upon the end use, the following common approaches are important to consider:

• Floors – Non-slip ceramic tile, natural stone, homogeneous tiles, or terrazzo.

• Walls – Ceramic tile, natural stone, homogeneous tiles, stainless steel, glass block, and mirrored glass.

• Partitions – Enameled steel panels, aluminum panels, phenolic cladding, solid reinforced composites, and marble slabs.

• Ceilings – Mineral fiber board for ceiling tile, fibrous plaster board, and aluminum panels or strips.

Selection and detailing of each material should take into consideration all aspects of facility operations, from the user population to anticipated maintenance practices. Focusing in on flooring specs, Kahn’s Cicchella explains: “Porcelain tile holds up very nicely on the restroom floors with a medium-grey grout joints. The lighter grout joints show more dirt over time. If a light grout joint is desired, an epoxy- or urethane-based grout would be the preference.”

However, maintenance experts caution that tile and grout take more time and effort to clean. “Special grout-cleaning chemicals are needed periodically, their standing time is longer to penetrate the dirt embedded in the grout, and cleanup to remove excess liquid takes longer,” says Westerkamp. As an alternative, he suggests substituting this flooring choice with seamless, one-piece epoxy flooring or a similar membrane, which requires less maintenance labor while maintaining “a bright, pleasant appearance that is free from dingy, gray grout lines.”

Also keeping maintenance in mind with regards to toilet partitions, Westerkamp observes, “Plastic stalls are tougher than metal and anchored to walls instead of floors, so they reduce cleaning time and resist graffiti and vandalism.”

At the same time, Cicchella points out, “Stainless-steel toilet partitions with a surface texture are very durable, cleanable, and show fewer fingerprints with the surface texture.”

In the interest of efficiency of use, the ARA recommends partition doors that remain slightly ajar when not in use, as a means of signaling occupancy. Other means are available, such as partitions with mechanical vacancy signs integrated into the locking hardware, offer ways to help users quickly navigate to open stalls. “The doors of stalls often lose alignment over time,” the ARA points out. In the event the stall frame becomes misaligned, the ARA advises that doors should have sufficient clearance and the latch length of the locks should be long enough to still function properly.

Similarly, with other aspects of the design, the team needs to consider what’s involved in maintaining a clean, sharp look. For example, water stains will be better camouflaged on light-colored countertops, whereas splashes of water will be much more visible on darker-colored countertops, thus requiring more cleaning. Likewise, high-polish surfaces will need to be wiped down more frequently.

Any discussion of public restroom design needs to address the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and pertinent accessibility requirements, which during the 1980s and early 1990s revolutionized the design of public restrooms. Armed with the knowledge that about 54 million Americans live with a disability, coupled with the fact that, due to the aging national populace, proper accessibility is more and more in the public spotlight today, Building Teams must work together to give due attention to this aspect of the design.

At first glance, the unseasoned designer may be overwhelmed by a long list of requirements and recommendations for universal design. However, the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents museums and science centers globally, points out that the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) for Buildings and Facilities, [] address “bathroom basics” that make restrooms better for all users. Among the keys to good design, says ASTC, are “readable signage; easy-to-open doors; floor surfaces that are clear, level, and barrier-free; enough space to get to things and turn around; doors that are easy to lock and unlock; and faucets, sinks, coat hooks, trash receptacles, and soap, paper towel, and toilet paper dispensers within easy reach.”

While this overview is helpful, the devil is in the details. For example, in terms of providing ADA-compliant toilet stalls, the basic requirement is to provide at least one per toilet room, as required by the ADAAG section 4.17.3. However, if a public restroom has six or more stalls, then at least one stall must provide for all of the features and accessories laid out in section 4.23.4, including a 36-inch-wide “ambulatory” toilet stall with an outward swinging, self-closing door, and parallel grab bars.

Clearly, the ADAAG is an exhaustive document, and Building Teams must be familiar with its provisions. But as with any aspect of public restroom design, the key is in anticipating usage levels and the vagaries of the user population.

Because accessibility regulations do vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, “The designer must be knowledgeable not only with the requirements, but what amenities and planning techniques will best serve the need,” says the IPS’s Colucci. “A common mistake is to assume that a product, its placement, plan arrangement, etc., fulfills only a single, specific need. Designers need to participate and collaborate with a group of handicapped persons when planning a facility to better understand the realm of disabilities and how to overcome the barriers to everyday life that these individuals were previously asked to endure.”

Though awareness among design and construction professionals is improving, facilities are sometimes negligent in failing to provide the extra-wide stall or a sufficient number of accessible stalls. In some instances, for example, public restrooms simply lack the space and amenities required for the growing number of users on battery-powered wheelchairs. More commonly, soap dispensers are often placed above the sink, making it difficult for those in wheelchairs to reach.

As a starting point, Building Teams members should be conversant in basic ADAAG guidelines, including the following recommendations and requirements:

• Specify door hardware and faucet controls operable with one hand.

• Locate one grab bar behind the toilet and one on the side wall nearest to the toilet.

• Specify toilet seats that stand between 17 inches and 19 inches above the floor.

• Mount the toilet paper dispenser below the side grab bar, at least 19 inches above the finished floor.

• Place and design sinks to take into account proper height, space for knees, and reach by all users.


As with most types of construction projects, the development of facilities with successful restrooms demands close coordination among the various consultants and trades. “The overall project budget can be reduced and the construction schedule shortened when all design trades are fully integrated and coordinated during the design phase of the project,” says the IPS’s Conti.

In fact, the restroom project is a microcosm of any building development, because essentially all engineered systems come into play in one concentrated space. Knowing one’s responsibilities helps keep the work on schedule and under budget. Winston Huff, CPD, LEED AP, project manager and plumbing designer with SSR’s Nashville office, offers this useful rundown of the role each building professional plays in the design and construction of a public restroom:

• Architect and Interior Designer – In most cases, the architect or interior designer will take the lead. Essentially, he or she will determine the basic number of fixtures, the layout of the room, the finishes, ADA clearances, and aesthetics of the room.

• Building Operations and Maintenance Executive – Most building managers have standard requirements for plumbing fixtures, accessories, and material finishes that they prefer for their buildings. The owner generally decides the quality of fixtures and such things as whether electrified components should be battery-operated or hard-wired.

• Plumbing Engineer – The lead plumbing designer usually specifies the fixtures and monitors their installation. This engineer also advises the client on the type of fixture that is appropriate for each installation and is responsible for the design of the water and waste system that serves the restroom fixtures.

• Mechanical Engineer – Working with the team and key regulatory agencies, the mechanical engineer ensures that proper supply air and exhaust air will be delivered to the toilet room.

• Electrical Engineer – With input on the type and specs of lighting fixtures, the electrical engineer works with the architect, owner, or interior designer on the location of those fixtures. In addition, this professional lays out the power system that feeds the lighting, plumbing fixtures, and accessories in the room.  

Restroom product selection demands input from every team member. SSR’s Rowan points out that lead times for plumbing fixtures, special colors, and valve finishes are generally not a major issue. However, some colors and premium metal coatings will cost more and may take longer to reach the jobsite, depending on type and availability. How to deal with this? “The key to any successful restroom is to closely coordinate fixture selection and finishes with the architect and owner to achieve the desired result,” Rowan says.

But beyond just coordinating fixtures, the IPS’s Kraenbring describes a successfully coordinated project as articulating the architectural design to incorporate the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing amenities in a manner that enhances the architecture of the space without unduly calling attention to its functional components.

To achieve this goal, consider the following notes on specific mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems:

Mechanical systems. One of the biggest issues for restrooms and their HVAC system designs is ensuring good indoor air quality (IAQ) with sufficient exhaust-air changes. In fact, designers routinely recommend exceeding code requirements to achieve this, especially for facilities with periods of heavy use, such as assembly occupancies.

For example, Rowan points out that the code minimum exhaust quantity for public restrooms is 2 cubic feet per minute (cfm) per square foot, but one good strategy for exceeding this in public areas, such as arenas, is by pulling conditioned air from the concourses to serve the restroom space. In other facilities with predictable and moderate use of the restrooms, the code-minimum ventilation rate of 75 cfm per water closet or urinal may adequately meet odor control needs, says Kahn’s Leader.

Other important mechanical design considerations, according to Leader, include:

• Whether toilet should be mounted on the wall or floor in bariatric water closets.

• Housekeeping concerns with floor outlet fixtures.

• Coordination of floor outlet water closets with structural beams below the floor.

• Radiant-floor heating and towel warmers, seen in some high-end applications.

• Minimizing floor drains to avoid costly trap primers.

Lighting systems. Building Teams should be aware of regular and emergency code requirements for lighting in restrooms, says Krieger. For example, energy codes are now requiring that restroom lighting be controlled automatically, most commonly via occupancy sensors.

As for emergency egress to comply with NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, “Normal lighting providing a minimum of 1 foot-candle to illuminate the means of egress must be provided when the building is occupied,”  says Krieger. “During a power outage the path of egress must be illuminated using an emergency source of illumination providing an average of one foot-candle, with no point along the path of egress being less than 0.1 foot-candles.” In addition, the emergency lighting must remain on for at least 90 minutes.

In order to meet these requirements, Krieger offers one strategy: placing some of the lighting fixtures in the toilet rooms on an emergency source. “Also, by providing an emergency bypass relay, all the lights in the toilet room can be shut off to comply with the energy codes, with only the emergency lighting coming on during the power outage. Emergency power can be from batteries or a standby generator,” he says.

Rowan notes one challenge unique to restroom lighting: the shadows cast by toilet partitions. “The wall-hung partitions tend to block light from lay-in fluorescent fixtures and cove lighting when spaced in a traditional grid,” he explains. “Many times it is necessary to place light fixtures directly above each stall to achieve desired lighting levels. This, of course, applies to emergency lighting too.” On the other hand, Rowan adds, cove lighting solutions are very effective for open areas, such as those around sinks and urinals,

Plumbing systems. R.G. Vanderweil’s Posson points out that the codes and standards have not kept up with the new, lower-water-consumption fixtures. Consequently, most water piping designs are slightly oversized. “A good plumbing engineer can save the owner money by studying the real water usage numbers and sizing the water mains in the building based on those,” he advises.

Also on the topic of piping, Leader points to the use of nonmetallic materials, such as chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC). “Some of the newer plastic piping manifold-type systems warrant consideration due to the cost of copper and better corrosion resistance [of CPVC] in appropriate markets, where the code issues with plastics in return-air plenums don’t create conflicts,” he says.

Posson offers the following advice on plumbing systems:

• System noise: Water hammer arrestors are still important with all the automatic flush valves and automatic faucets that are being used.

• Interstitial space: Building Team members should know what will be behind the walls in restrooms, to ensure access adequate to maintain carrier assemblies, operators, and remote transformers for automatic valves.

• Generic specs: Designers should be wary of proprietary systems that are difficult to integrate or maintain. They can drive costs up—and drive maintenance-and-operations teams up the wall.

When it comes to the design and construction of public restrooms, the full list of critical project factors and product specifications is long. Yet the outcome can make a big difference in terms of resource efficiency, occupant comfort, and public image.

Consequently, it takes a group of experienced, practical, and savvy building professionals to pull it together. Kahn’s Cicchella concludes, “Balancing the selection of products and finishes with the budget to create a design with a ‘wow factor’ is an enjoyable and welcoming challenge for us.”

About the authors
C.C. Sullivan is a communications consultant and author specializing in architecture and construction. Barbara Horwitz-Bennett is a writer and contributor to construction industry publications.

Take the AIA Exam  (one-time registration required)

This BD+C continuing education program qualifies for 1 AIA HSW learning unit.

Reed Business Information is a Registered Provider with the American Institute of Architects Continuing Education Systems. Credit earned on completion of this program will be reported to CES Records for AIA members. Certificates of Completion for non-AIA members are available on request.

       This program is registered with the AIA/CES for continuing professional education. As such, it does not include content that may be deemed or construed to be an approval or endorsement by the AIA of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product. Questions related to specific materials, methods, and services will be addressed at the conclusion of this presentation.

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