School restrooms and locker room areas all look the sameā€¦ well, maybe in the movies and on TV but not in reality. Let’s look at these two areas, one at a time. They are much more complicated than you may think.


Sometimes, something that would appear to be a simple, common-sense decision turns out to not be that after all. Alan Kuniholm, principal, PTD Architects, Portland, ME, says,“Very early on, when we first started designing restrooms for young children, it seemed a good idea to have the toilet fixtures of a size appropriate for the age. But, as we found out, most kids are used to the residential size in their homes. So, even though the smaller toilets would be more appropriate in terms of scale, we’ve gone back to the standard fixtures.” Kuniholm adds that many faculty members don’t want urinals for younger children. Again, they don’t have urinals at home, and there is the privacy issue.

There is also a trend in the younger grades, Kuniholm continues, kindergarten — but sometimes up to the first and second grades — to have bathrooms in the classroom. This helps children who may not be sufficiently potty trained and saves them from the possible embarrassment of having to ask permission to go to the bathroom or wandering through the halls and getting lost. Placing the bathroom in the classroom allows teachers to come to the aid of children who might need it. There are different ways to allow for both teacher oversight and privacy — for instance, dutch doors. The bottom can stay closed, but the upper one can be open if the teacher needs to check with the child.

“Even when you get to middle school, more teachers and administrators are reluctant to have kids gather together in the large-group restrooms, so there is a tendency to have individual restrooms.” This also enhances privacy and helps the transition toward compliance with Americans With Disabilities (ADA) requirements. These bathrooms are larger, to handle access for wheelchair and other disabled students. But an added ADA stipulation is that the doors have to be able to swing outward if someone needs to get to the student to help him or her.

The other option for this is to make the stall large enough so that the door can swing inwards without hitting the student. This makes for an even larger space.“In some of the schools where we’re doing an ADA upgrade, the administrators are not worried about the larger size required, for they’re favoring single rooms,” Kuniholm says. A number of these single rooms still take up less space than the larger communal rooms. Another ADA addendum to restrooms are strobe lights that flash on in an emergency to warn those children who are deaf and can’t hear the alarm.

Energy savings with automated controls are becoming an increasing factor in restroom design, Kuniholm says. These include low-flow fixtures. “Getting the right low flow is critical,” he says. “If you have to flush two or three times, it’s not saving water.” Sometimes two flush options are used, “number one” and “number two.” There is some trend toward waterless urinals for older students, but there is some debate as to how sanitary this option is. Automated flushing is also being used more often, as are lighting sensors and touchless hand dryers.

Cleanability and durability are issues, says Kuniholm. Concrete block walls with a concrete base is one option. Ingrid Mouton, principal of Banwell Architects in Lebanon, NH, says high-density, solid plastic partitions are a viable option. “If you can afford it, ceramic tile floors and walls are a very good option, or ceramic tile at wet walls (areas where there is a potential for water) only, for a more inexpensive choice.

Toilet fixtures built into the wall or hung from above allow for durability and the floor to be easily cleaned, Mouton adds. “We try to stick to neutral colors — white and grey and tan — which don’t go out of fashion. Lighting is also important. You want the room evenly lit but not too bright. And you want the light vandal proof.”

Because a restroom has a lot of hard surfaces, you can easily have harsh, loud noises bouncing back and forth as if in a box. You need to balance the cost of acoustical treated drywall and ceilings with cleanability and expense. Sometimes you can have ceramic walls up to six ft., with acoustical-treated surfaces above that.” To prevent toilet flushing and other sounds from reaching outside, Moulton says it’s best to create a natural buffer, such as storage rooms.

While it is necessary to make everything as vandal-proof as possible, Moulton says, it’s important not to look defensive. For instance, instead of having an imposing hollow steel door, you can design the entrance so there is no door, but the sight-lines are such that you cannot see within.”

Locker Rooms

“For locker rooms, it’s best to have concrete masonry unit walls, for they take a lot of abuse,” Moulton says. “For floors, we used exposed concrete, rubber and ceramic tile. But for doors leading to the locker rooms, we like to use wood doors with a hollow metal frame. It creates a little warmer feel to what is often, otherwise, a cold looking space. We also put windows high up, with opaque glass, to make use of natural lighting.”

The trend in locker rooms is also toward individual show stalls. “Some schools don’t even want to provide showers in their locker rooms,” Moulton says. “We go into some schools where the pole mounted showers were once used, and they are now being used as storage spaces.

Manning Morrill, an associate architect at PTD, adds that, while schools are tending not to have showers for their physical education classes, they are more apt to have them for their athletic teams. But here, again, the individual stalls run into ADA regulations. Even a locker room used by a football team needs to have grab bars, special controls, a threshold of no more than one-half-inch variance that a wheelchair can navigate and so on. However, typically, if there are six shower stalls, only one needs to be ADA compliant.

“Moisture control is a big issue,” Morrill says. “If you don’t plan carefully, you can have a very moist atmosphere throughout the room. You want to use mechanical ventilation to limit the moisture to the shower area and have a suitable dry-off area. And you want to have a special area for cleats to be put on and taken off without their being worn throughout the room. And you don’t want a suspended ceiling. It has to be high, otherwise it will not stand up to being hit by helmets and sticks. Also, make sure there is proper drainage.”

Since lockers take up much of the space of the locker room, they must be given special consideration, Morrill says. “Lockers are available in a variety of heighth, width and depth variations,” says Morrill. “You need to get the coaches for the different sports to agree. Some sports require larger lockers than others. And, the larger the lockers, the more space they take.

Morrill says it’s important to look at durability — how the lockers are bolted, how they’re attached to the floor. He doesn’t believe that flat-top lockers are a good idea, for they tend to get rusted with wet goods or dented. So, he advocates a curved top.

Locker rooms should be safe from a number of different points of view, says Morrill. They should be set up so there are good sight lines and have exits on two sides. Lockers should have rounded rather than sharp corners, and floors should be protected against slips.

Moulton adds that many schools may require separate lockers, toilets and showers for the coach, athletic director and visiting officials. “Also, some schools have separate fitness and weight rooms that they allow the communities to use, so you have to plan for parking and an exterior door that can be used when the rest of the school is locked,” she says.

“In working with schools, we found it important to speak with facility managers,” Morrill says. “Find out what their hot buttons are. Schools will vary and how they use their facilities may differ, but the facility managers are the experts. Architects should make sure they get their opinion.”