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

Quantifying the Bathroom Experience: Just Why Are Bathrooms Important?

Modern design seeks to be self-aware and occupant centric. Given these values, modern offices eschew cubicles and instead create flex space to encourage visual, verbal, and nonverbal social interactions between coworkers. The merits of this move to open plans and the resulting lack of privacy is debatable. For many, the lack of a private space is very detrimental, and it can be argued that open offices take away from the collective productivity of an organization. Regardless of the merit of lack of privacy in an office setting, as we continue using the theme of occupant-centric building design, it is even more critical that we pay added attention to the single most private spaces in any building. Whereas some people are just mildly uncomfortable in a public washroom, some suffer so extremely that they physically can’t go in the presence of others. The public bathroom is a space that has deep-rooted behaviors and social rituals that we’ve all experienced, if not at the office, then out at restaurants, the mall, and airports.

Going to the restroom is a necessary element of everyone’s life and work dynamic. With this in mind, Work Design Magazine (March 8, 2016) writes, “It will come as little surprise that thoughtful attention to the design and management of restrooms is more significant than often recognized. It offers the ultimate opportunity for employers and office managers to ‘walk the talk’ of a high-performance work environment.”

Investment in spaces that are crucial to the occupant experience are seen as more transparent reflections of building owners’ values. The design and upkeep of a restroom plays a crucial role in shaping the kind of relationship formed between building designer, owner, and occupants.

A 2011 study by John Goins, Center for the Built Environment, University of California, Berkeley, and Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University, shows that the organization that provides a bathroom that is thoughtfully designed and features materials that wear well will be more positively evaluated than those that don’t. Poorly designed and managed spaces reflect poorly on the individuals and larger organization that provide them.

A University of Alberta study supports that “restroom cleanliness has a significant effect on people’s perceptions of a building’s overall cleanliness.”

Washroom experiences are so important to occupants, there are even websites dedicated to restroom discussion. “The Happiest Potties on Earth” is an entire discussion board devoted to rating restroom experiences at Disneyland and California Adventure.

One-hundred percent of the opinion of the building can be affected by less than 1 pecent of the cost of the building. This is a profound statement. Proper design in the restroom can impact the overall experience and opinion of the building.

Changing stations at the Citifield Mets Stadium .

Changing stations at the Citifield Mets Stadium
One-hundred percent of the opinion of the building can be affected by less than 1 percent of the cost of the building. Proper design in the restroom—including the details, like accessories—can impact the overall experience and opinion of the building.

The Elements of Great Bathroom Design

Bathrooms designed for the optimal user experience can be the difference maker to the building owner who wants to rent space, or for the renter who wants customers to return and employees to perform at their best.

Practical considerations in bathrooms are crucial. Is the layout comfortable and accessible to a variety users? Does it accommodate higher traffic efficiently without sacrificing comfort? Does it accommodate strollers, wheelchairs, walkers, or luggage? Are the sightlines between partition walls and stall doors minimized? Does it have a cohesive style? Does is it look clean and hygienic? Will it be easy to maintain?

Today, most people living in developed countries expect privacy in the bathroom. Paradoxically, most bathrooms outside of private homes are designed for multiple, simultaneous occupants, writes Julie Beck in The Atlantic. Privacy and safety concerns are vital to a bathroom experience and must be addressed appropriately by the design team.

Touch and smell are critical to our peace of mind and play powerful roles in the perception of hygiene, cleanliness, and comfort. Particularly in public restrooms, occupants are hyper-aware of germs. The best design will carefully consider the surfaces an occupant has to touch and minimize contact with dirty surfaces. Are the fixtures touch free? Do the installed materials and fixtures promote ease of maintenance and inhibit the spread of germs and bacteria?

Because every project is unique, recycling specifications is the greatest cause of poor restroom design. Convincing building owners and managers to invest care and protect the budget for restrooms is vital to preserving the occupant experience.

Every building has a unique use type, and even different sections within the same building should be viewed through a different lens as it relates to the types of products and materials in bathrooms. When shopping for washroom accessories, toilet partitions, or even lockers, choice matters. A top criteria when choosing a manufacturer to partner with should be determining whether or not they have every type of material and product in their category, allowing a full suite of options with which create your vision.

Making Your Selections

The first step is identifying the restroom’s use based on building type and occupants. There are many different types of buildings and use cases. Each building needs to be viewed through a different lens to ensure that the right type of material and product are selected to optimize life cycle, create ease of maintenance, and ultimately provide the best customer experience. The types of products and materials used in bathroom furnishings for a university would vary greatly from that of a Class A office building, an aquatic facility, a restaurant restroom, or a high-frequency setting like that of a stadium or airport. Proper design reduces queuing, misuse, vandalism, initial costs, and maintenance costs.

High-demand facilities, like stadiums, that experience heavy volumes of users, must be designed to handle an extremely high volume of occupants. In this scenario, ensuring that the flow of the bathroom is seamless, allowing people to come and go while eliminating long lines, is crucial. There needs to be sufficient accessories, partitions, and flow to ensure that the bathroom functions appropriately. If restroom facilities are poorly designed, sports fans may stand in line and miss part of the ballgame and have a negative experience with the stadium, team, and sporting event. Long lines can also have a negative financial impact on the stadium owners, private or municipal, as patrons waste time waiting in line for the bathroom, rather than waiting in line at a concession stand.

Shortfall in design often occurs when designers operate from a series of specifications that are either adopted from previous projects or are a part of an outdated master specification. ADA and building codes change, necessitating specification evolution to account for both changes in code and design requirements and the introduction of innovative products.

The design landscape is ever evolving and relying on the past is not necessarily the optimal solution for a building owner. Even in a “budget bathroom” scenario, architects can use standard and basic materials in the right way to achieve great design on a low budget.

In addition to supporting overall building aesthetic and use, intelligent restroom design can also improve the performance of facility management in other meaningful ways, including through sustainability, cleanliness, and customer and employee safety.

Militiari Shopping Center.

Project: Militiari Shopping Center
Loaction: Romania
Client: No Touch
Great bathrooms ask practical questions about user needs as well as aesthetics.

Universal Principles: Bathroom Design Checklist

Across the spectrum of bathroom design, there are universal principles we care about when it comes to restrooms, with each element interrelated and dependent on the others.

  • Privacy: Privacy is vital in public restrooms and includes minimized sightlines in partitions, from doorways, and from mirrors. This is not an optional attribute. Fortunately, privacy can be ensured with good design and proper installation.
  • Sustainability: Material specification plays a big in durability and longevity, as well as cleanliness and occupant experience. By creating facilities that are accessible, can be readily cleaned, and can withstand predicted use, a designer will not only facilitate required maintenance but also ensure that the project elements work together to maximize the serviceable life of the design. A well-designed bathroom with materials that last the intended life of the bathroom will avoid an early demise in a landfill. The right products for the right application mean maximal life.
  • ADA code: When designing a public restroom facility, designers must be aware of elements required by code, such as ADA standards and comprehensive universal design principles. Attention should be given to:
    • Circulation paths and maneuverability: As you move through the designed areas, carefully consider entrance to and travel about the restroom. Obstacles may need to be removed in order to create an acceptable passage width and circulation path. Partition layout and location of accessible toilet stalls become important here.
    • Reach ranges: Consider users of all heights as well as wheelchair users. Mounting heights for sinks, hand dryers, grab bars, and other fixtures should be reachable and unobstructed for all users.
    • Mirrors: Mirrors located above lavatories or countertops shall be installed with the bottom edge of the reflecting surface 40 inches maximum above the finish floor or ground.
    • Door swings: Maneuvering clearances shall extend the full width of the doorway and the required latch-side or hinge-side clearance.
    • Clear floor space: Lavatories should allow for open, easy approach.
  • Interior finishes and materials fire standards: There are two standard test methods used to measure the fire performance of interior finishes. The first, ASTM E-84, tests the surface burning characteristics of building materials using a tunnel test method. The other standard is a room corner test, performed in accordance with NFPA 286, which measures the contribution of interior finish materials to room fire growth during specified fire exposure conditions.
  • Maintenance: Making sure a space can be easily accessed and cleaned is a pivotal checkpoint for washroom design. Materials and systems must be maintained to be sustainable. Paying attention to material specification is vital because it will impact the durability, performance, and longevity of your restroom and also determine the maintenance schedule during operation.
  • Hygiene: Does the overall design promote cleanliness? Are there antimicrobial materials incorporated in the design? Touch-free fixtures? Is it easy to maintain and keep clean?
  • Lighting: Offer a combination of general lighting and task lighting that is flattering and complements the design and use of the space.
  • Safety: Mitigate safety risks from hazards, such as wet floors. Wet floors are often a function of the location and number of drying stations in respect to sinks since water will drip from wet hands on the way to get them dry. Compounding this issue, some automatic hand dryers push water to the floor or have areas in the dryer where water can collect. Without a proper moisture management or drainage system, that water will overflow onto the floor or be a breeding ground for bacteria if it stays stagnant.
  • Allowing for diversity: Understand that many buildings may require restrooms that need to cater to the special needs of people from different cultures or walks of life.
    • Accommodate people with children of all ages, including those who need to have their diaper changed. This allows stadiums to be family friendly, particularly when enough changing stations are provided in both the men’s and women’s restrooms.
ETU Auto Grill restroom with purple doors.

Project: ETU Auto Grill
Client: No Touch
Practical concerns, like safety, privacy, and accessibility, do not have to negate aesthetic goals.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in December 2017