Peeling Back The Paint

Designing park restrooms for safety and maintenance

By Christine Schaffran 

When it comes to park restrooms, two things are certain–they should be clean and safe. Although this may seem obvious, achieving that goal may not be easy. Start at the one place that can make a difference before the concrete slab is even poured–restroom design.

Bill Woolpert, architect and owner of Green Building Architects in Petaluma, Calif., recommends kicking off the design phase by talking with the maintenance personnel who will be tasked with keeping the restrooms clean. He explains that sometimes the method in which a facility is cleaned impacts the materials that are used in construction. For example, he learned in one project that the crew liked to steam-clean the restroom once a week, which made the grout between tiles deteriorate rapidly. For this reason, he opted to use an epoxy-grout combination during renovations to ensure the aesthetic quality remained. 

Photos courtesy of Justin Maconochie

Woolpert adds it is important to look beyond construction costs and specify durable materials–especially mechanical components and plumbing fixtures–instead of opting for cheaper versions. 

“Design for a new building to last 50 years and, over the life of the building, you will see lower maintenance costs,” he says. 

Randolph J. Pease, senior designer at Integrated Architecture inGrand Rapids,Mich., says it’s important to evaluate materials not only for wear posed by users, but also environmental conditions, such as freezing and thawing cycles, blowing sand, etc.   

From an operations-cost standpoint, water usage can be a big expense. Pease recommends low-flow fixtures with timed showers to reduce usage, as well as to diminish the environmental impact. 

When it comes to designing to minimize vandalism, Woolpert says a good rule of thumb is to make the interior irresistibly comfortable.  

“Every restroom needs an abundance of fresh air and natural light. It is amazing what a difference those elements make,” he affirms. “It seems that the nicer interiors get less abuse.” 

A Landmark Study

In 2005, the city of Denver’s Parks and Recreation Department commissioned a restroom master plan to evaluate its 46 restrooms throughout the system. Mark Upshaw, architect/planner for the city, says the study–the first of its kind–took nearly three years to complete. In a 67-page document, findings confirmed that “safety is one of the biggest concerns for users of … parks, especially when using the restrooms.” 

Further, the study affirms, one of the biggest problem areas is proper lighting. 

“Adequate lighting is one of the biggest problems in large part because the restrooms are rarely seen at night by park’s staff, and therefore burned-out light bulbs or malfunctioning light fixtures go un-replaced. These practices expose restrooms to unnecessary abuse.” 

Natural light, Upshaw relates, also seems to play a role. 

“Existing restrooms with natural light just seemed safer and felt better,” he says. 

For this reason, both men’s and women’s restrooms were retrofitted with skylights. 

However, not every remedy proved successful in deterring vandalism. For instance, Upshaw says, computer-programmed locks did not seem to work because they, too, were subject to vandalism.

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