Facilities (Campus Spaces)

21st-Century Residence Hall Restrooms

residence hall restrooms


While the basics of sustainability, aesthetics, and functionality remain the hallmarks of any good design, more universities today are requesting bathroom designs that reflect student social trends related to personal safety, privacy, and preserving the environment.

Privacy and Gender Neutrality

Bathrooms have become a 21st-century civil rights issue as more universities are specifying gender-neutral bathrooms in residence halls to accommodate student identity and privacy. While it may be a hotly debated national topic, more universities are requesting restroom designs that are void of any gender categorization and provide complete privacy to the student, no matter which gender they choose to identify with.

KWK Architects recently designed gender-neutral restrooms for the new Williams Village East residence hall currently under construction at the University of Colorado Boulder. Rather than having traditional “men’s” and “women’s” restrooms, each floor in the residence hall has a cluster of private restrooms that can be used by anyone. Each private restroom has a lockable door, floor-to-ceiling partitions, and enough space for changing clothes, plus a private toilet, urinal, shower, and sink.

At North Residence Hall at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), KWK also created a cluster of private and community bathrooms with card readers on the doors that allow for the bathrooms to be assigned to specific people and changed every year depending on building demographics.

This design trend can be costlier because it requires more square footage and materials than traditional-style residence hall bathrooms. KWK has conducted focus groups nationwide to gauge student attitudes toward gender-neutral restrooms. The most well-received designs include a mix of single, private bathrooms and a cluster of private toilets and showers.

One way that universities are accommodating students who may feel uncomfortable with gender-neutral restrooms is designating floors within a residence hall as either a men’s or a women’s floor, which increases the likelihood of only men or women using the restrooms on their assigned floors.

New, More Durable Materials

With the increased privacy of today’s bathrooms comes another consideration—higher durability. The less supervision students have in a space, the more destruction the space must be able to withstand. Residence hall bathroom designers seek to find the right balance between materials, fixtures, and infrastructure, while considering long-term maintenance and performance of spaces that experience heavy traffic and high levels of moisture.

Reducing moisture content in the space quickly is critical for the long-term life expectancy of the residence hall bathroom. Long-term exposure to moisture can affect the ceiling and structure of the floors above and below. A good waterproofing system, proper flooring installation, and exhaust are all critical to minimizing moisture damage.

Many new, sustainable materials and products have been developed for restroom use that can better withstand daily use and require less maintenance, including:

  • HDPE partitions made of high-density polyethylene resin and pigments are a highly durable option for privacy partitions. They are graffiti-, dent-, and impact-resistant, and because they are a homogenous material their nonporous surface is humidity- and moisture-resistant and doesn’t allow for the growth of microbials. Certain manufacturers also offer options that allow for full privacy or designs that eliminate the partition gap issue around doors.
  • Solid surfaces made with acrylic polymer, filler, and pigments comprise a highly durable option for countertops and splashes. Their nonporous homogenous structure means they are impermeable to moisture and are more sanitary by allowing integral fixtures; their homogenous color allows for easy repair if scratched.
  • Touch-free fixtures have grown to include toilet flush valves, soap dispensers, faucets, paper towel dispensers, and hand dryers, which help combat poor hygiene and cut down on cross-contamination from touching multiple fixtures.

An added bonus is that many manufacturers have updated their standards to LEED v4. As a result, these fixtures can help the project earn LEED points.

New Trends in Sustainability

Material trends for today’s residence hall restrooms have also evolved. The new LEED v4 sustainable criteria is pushing the construction finishing materials industry to step up its game to produce more sustainable and healthy materials, while designers are being challenged to find new, creative ways of utilizing these new materials. Together, the goal to create living, breathing restrooms that are safe for occupants and the environment is being achieved.

When it comes to bathroom sustainability, the design trends are shifting away from merely specifying energy-efficient products and materials to actually influencing student behaviors to be more energy-aware throughout their daily lives. Examples include metering shower water usage with timers so students get used to taking quicker showers, task and tier lighting with sensors that turn lighting on and off based on activity in the room, LED lighting in all areas, and faucet fixtures with sensors that shut water off when not in use.

residence hall restrooms

Material Transparency and Accountability

Just like a consumer wanting to know where their food is sourced and prepared, LEED v4 is encouraging the use of products that have environmentally, economically, and socially preferable life-cycle impacts. More material manufacturers are providing Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) that outline the life-cycle environmental impact of their products, and Health Product Declarations (HPDs) which disclose all known hazards within a product and any health risks associated with those ingredients. Simply because a product includes a hazardous ingredient in its fabrication does not mean the product is unsafe. Often when that hazardous ingredient is combined with other materials during production, its harmful effect is mitigated.

Some material manufacturers are also working to divert waste from landfills by setting up take-back programs where end-of-life materials are recycled into new materials, or modifying their processes to create zero waste by collecting their scraps and recycling them back into new products. LEED v4 is also encouraging the reduction of construction waste by requiring manufacturers to ship their products in recyclable packaging.

Indoor Environmental Quality, Low-Emitting Materials

Similar to that “new-car smell,” that “new-building smell” is the result of off-gassing from materials used in a building’s interior, many of which can be harmful to occupant health. Under the LEED v4 standards, the focus has shifted to occupant health and the reduction of chemical contaminants that may be harmful to the environment, human health, and air quality. Designers are encouraged to use materials with low or zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—organic chemicals that evaporate off materials and enter the surrounding air—which can have long-lasting, slow-to-develop health effects on occupants. LEED v4 also encourages a period of time to allow the building to off-gas and flush out before occupancy, with points awarded for achieving allowable testing levels.

Designing for the 21st-century residence hall restroom has become more complex than ever. It’s not just about having enough sinks, toilets, and showers to accommodate the right number of students; it’s also about creating a welcoming space where students feel as comfortable and safe as they do in their bathrooms back home. Today, gender-neutral, accessible restrooms that incorporate new, more sustainable materials are what students want and universities are delivering.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management June 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.