Bathroom Design: The Differentiating Factor

How to help (or harm) your building’s reputation with bathroom design
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Sponsored by ASI Group
By Amanda C Voss, MPP

Learning Objectives:

  1. Explain and quantify how the experience and functionality of restrooms affects not only perceptions of a whole structure but also the productivity and performance of its occupants.
  2. Identify the elements of great bathroom design and how this design supports the safety and welfare of occupants and the sustainability of the building.
  3. Describe how partitions and accessories support bathroom design and discuss the tradeoffs in durability, aesthetics, maintenance, user safety, and total life-cycle cost.
  4. Examine the importance of collaboration on bathroom design with the building owner, manager, and manufacturer.
  5. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, scrutinize the critical role public bathrooms play in hygiene, and how bathroom design can alter to better support hygiene goals.


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Thoughtful preservation of historic stonework. A sleek new glass facade married with modern steel elements. Your firm’s latest project for one of the city’s hottest restaurants is ready for its opening night. As a thank you, the design team is invited. Inside, the building glitters and the ambiance is perfect. You are commended by other guests on how well you captured the intent of the restaurateur. Your team feels proud of what it accomplished- until you overhear a few people commenting on how underwhelmed they were with the design and appointments in the washroom. The bathroom’s aesthetic fails to match the rest of the building’s design; materials feel cheap, and some of the layout is inconvenient.

Port House.

All photos courtesy of ASI Group

Project: Port House
Location: Antwerp, Belgium
Architect: Zaha Hadid

A well-designed bathroom can be the deciding factor in elevating a building from good to great. Bathrooms, if given the requisite attention to detail, can make a much greater positive impact on the user’s experience within a building, thereby influencing their opinion of the business, the building owner, and the architects who designed the building. Inherent in every project is the human experience, both aesthetic and functional, that occupants have within the building. Attention frequently focuses on those elements involved in first impressions: facades, lobbies, and entryways. While storefronts can create a sense of awe and anticipation, the real working spaces that will generate lasting impressions are in the interior.

“It’s all about the restrooms!” proclaims Tom Peters in “The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence” (Harper Business, 2012). Why? Peters writes, “A sparkling restroom with family photos in a small restaurant in Gill, Massachusetts, shouts, ‘We care.’” Therefore, “the devil—and a culture that demands excellence—really is in the details!” He continues, “To me, a clean and attractive and even imaginative loo is the best...”

The same deliberate design that goes into the other parts of the building needs to carry through to the bathrooms: bathrooms are critical to the human experience. We inherently are asking people to do something very private in a public space, and almost all of our senses are engaged fully when we are in the bathroom even for such a short period of time. For occupants that interact with a building on a daily basis, the restroom performs a crucial function and is also a lynchpin for perception, one which also translates into their performance and productivity. For-first time patrons or visitors of a commercial space, the ‘bathroom experience’ can be the difference in whether they return or take their business elsewhere.

However, commercial restrooms are often relegated to an afterthought, a space designed and installed without a great deal of consideration for its impact on occupants and their experience. Bathrooms unfortunately become the weak link of the overall architectural experience of the building. Poor restroom design sets a very negative tone and interferes with the occupants’ perception of the entire building and business, regardless of how beautiful and functional the building may be in every other aspect. As many business owners know, the way their employees perceive the space in which they work is reflected in how they feel and perform.

Leon Shakeshaft, architect and partner, Arthur Gibney & Partners, Dublin, Ireland, notes, “Last year, I had the pleasure of having a private tour of one of New York’s landmark office buildings. As I appreciated the architecture and the thought that went into the details of the building, I found a lack of harmony between the design choices in the bathrooms when compared to the rest of the building. At our firm, we recognize that all things being equal, the quality of bathrooms can be the differentiating factor when our clients seek to attract tenants. Good bathroom design does not have to cost more, but it pays great dividends.”

“It’s all about the restrooms!” proclaims Tom Peters in “The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence” (Harper Business, 2012). Why? Peters writes, “A sparkling restroom with family photos in a small restaurant in Gill, Massachusetts, shouts, ‘We care.’” Therefore, “the devil—and a culture that demands excellence—really is in the details!” He continues, “To me, a clean and attractive and even imaginative loo is the best...”

Quantifying the Bathroom Experience: What Do Occupants Say?

People have very visceral responses to design decisions in commercial bathrooms. All five senses are engaged. Sounds in the bathroom play a very important role in how we feel. The way the bathroom looks aesthetically drives our perception of the space: Does the bathroom look clean and hygienic? Does it look like it is part of a cohesive design? Occupants expect that our bathrooms make them feel comfortable, safe, and private. Ensuring fundamental accessibility is crucial.

Restrooms impact building users in two primary ways: first, by their initial design, and second, by how they are maintained.

iconic washrooms.

Iconic buildings deserve iconic washrooms.

Design can either support or get in the way of proper maintenance. “Restroom cleanliness is always one of the top five drivers of customer satisfaction,” reports Lysa Scully, Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. According to a survey by Zogby International, more than 80 percent of consumers would avoid a restaurant with a dirty restroom—not just avoid the restroom, but avoid the restaurant altogether.

An overwhelming majority—86 percent of U.S. adults—equate the cleanliness of a restaurant’s restroom with the cleanliness of its kitchen, according to a Harris Interactive poll. The survey also revealed that 75 percent of U.S. adults would not return to a restaurant with dirty restrooms. Regardless of industry, clean restrooms directly impact a business’s ability to attract and retain customers.

The poll drives home the importance of building user experience in the digital age. The survey found that 50 percent of people who encounter a dirty restroom would discuss it with friends and family. In today’s highly visible and ever-prevalent social media platforms, patrons “discuss” this with a much wider audience than in yester year. These types of reviews can cost a business potential customers, before many of them even set foot in the door.

Given the powerful impressions washrooms leave on consumers, businesses and building owners need to ensure that their facilities deliver.

A vast array of things—from bad lighting to too few toilets—may contribute to a user’s negative experience in a bathroom. Empty or jammed toilet paper dispensers, poor sanitation, smells, lack of privacy, trash on the floor, and empty soap and paper towel dispensers are among top occupant complaints.

While poorly maintained and designed bathrooms have an outsized negative effect on a building, clean bathrooms can suggest many positive things to customers: a clean washroom is an indication that the establishment itself is clean; that the owner and manager pay attention to details; that the building’s designer takes customers and their experience seriously; and ultimately, that customers can trust the business to take care of its customers.

red door restrooms.

The design and upkeep of a restroom plays a crucial role in shaping the kind of relationship formed between building designer, owner, and occupants.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in December 2017