Restrooms & Locker Rooms

The most roughly used areas of an educational facility are the locker rooms. Whether being used by young men or women, athletic teams, or gym classes, dressing and shower areas are subjected to all kinds of tough treatment. While restrooms don’t engender the same atmosphere of rowdy activity that locker rooms do, they are perhaps even more prone to vandalism.

These problems have been around for a long, long time, but school planners, architects, and manufacturers have been working to improve the design of these spaces and the products that go into them to make them more durable and resistant to abuse.

Here are the perspectives of three materials suppliers and one architect on this topic.

“If you use cheap material, it’s not going to last because of either wear and tear or vandalism, and you’ll have more maintenance and replacement costs,” says Gene Pane, vice president, American Specialties, Inc. (ASI), Yonkers, NY.“At the same time, better materials are being developed, and in some school districts we’re seeing the trend toward the use of better materials.”

ASI offers three categories of products, lockers, toilet partitions, and washroom accessories.

“Lockers, for instance, have always been good, better, or best,” Pane says.“For years, schools went for the cheap category.” Yet these were easily kicked in or pulled over, or had the doors pulled off. Or, if the damage wasn’t intentional, abuse could still result from students slamming them or yanking in frustration on a lock for which they forgot the combination.

“Now the trend is toward the best lockers,” says Pane. “These are made of thicker gauge steel, with full-length panel hinges, and thicker bottoms so that if a student stands on the inside of his locker he won’t destroy it.”

In terms of toilet partitions, Pane says, “For years painted metal was our number one product. In an office building they can last for 20 years. But it a school kids can vandalize them and scratch graffiti on them in just 20 minutes. New high-tech plastic doors are much more resistant to abuse. They cost twice as much, but will last much longer.”

The same dynamics are going on with washroom accessories, Pane continues. “There are good, better, and best,” he says. “The best are, of course, better made — with thicker gauges of metal — and have more capacity.”

Better, more durable materials are a part of it, but design is also an important factor. “Many of the same materials go into a Mercedes and a Ford, but the Mercedes is better designed,” Pane says. “Engineers are welding, bracing, and reinforcing more. The parts don’t show as much, which means they are less likely to be broken off. And many times, these higher-end products are not only more robust, but they are more aesthetically pleasing. Some people think that psychology also comes into play — if something looks nice, kids will respect it more than if it is already trashed.”

When asked whether he sees a trend toward higher-quality products, Pane says, “I don’t know if it’s a trend, but our higher-end products are selling more.” When asked why, Pane replies, “Architects like to specify higher-quality products for a variety of reasons. One is that they get far fewer complaints from schools that their products are breaking. Also, architects understand lifetime vs. initial costs. So they try to get districts to specify materials that will cost a few more dollars. Schools are restricted by budgets. But sometimes spending more, initially, costs you less ultimately. The few extra dollars you spend upfront will show their value over the long run.”

George Spear, senior product manager of the Cleveland, OH-based Moen, Inc., which also sells washroom accessories, says, “We offer a commercial faucet which can’t be removed. It comes with a special torque set of screws. A common screwdriver can’t remove them. You need a special tool which only the maintenance department has.” The faucets are sturdy enough so they can’t be pulled off. And that goes for the aerator at the end of the faucet, which straightens the stream of water so you don’t get a wild spray. Some teenagers like to get their hands on this special screening device. Why? Spear replies, “They use it to smoke dope.”

Heavy-duty brass is best for all of the plumbing fixtures, Spear says. “Another thing we do is slow down the water rates, he continues. The standard rate is two-gallons-per-minute. We provide a half-gallon per minute. This provides enough water to wash your hands or do cleaning. This prevents clogging up of the drains and limits the overflow of the bowl.”

Spear also says, “We always talk about lifetime costs. You need heavy-duty commercial applications or your fixtures are not going to last very long, especially in unsupervised areas.”

The trend toward higher-quality, more durable material is one that Spear also notices. But he says these improvements, along with automatic flushing in urinals and toilets and showerhead controls are related to cutting down water costs while still delivering the right experience. “The water conservation movement is growing every day. More and more we’re asked to do retrofitting that will save water, for that will save money over the long run.”

Bob Carter, product manager for Zurn, also speaks of the trend toward water conservation in terms of lower-flow devices. He also says there has been more emphasis on sturdier fixtures, such as those with metal knobs instead of plastic ones, and screws that can’t be turned with conventional tools or a coin.

“We also offer a concealed valve behind the wall, so the only thing you see is electronic eye which senses when it’s time for the automatic flush.” Carter explains that this electronic eye is a flat mounted metal surface attached to the wall, so can’t be torn away.

Turning to an architectual perspective, Michael King, an architect at Huckabee & Associates, Fort Worth, TX, says that “One thing we have been struggling with is the floor surface especially near shower areas. The problem before is that if you leave an exposed concrete sealer, the floor can be slick, which means someone coming out of a shower can easily slip and fall. Vinyl tile has been a standard for years and years, but won’t hold up under the moisture.”

The solution, King says, is putting on a durable moisture-resistant polyurethane spray, similar to what is spread on a truck bed as liner. “This has proved to be not very expensive, but is moisture resistant and not slick, so it protects against slipping.”

In the past, the tiles typically went up to the wainscotting, some three to five feet above the floor. “If you take the ceramic tile wall right up to the ceiling, it limits the amount of abuse,” King says. Also, he says the conventional back wall made of gypsum board can be kicked, banged, or smashed through. But this can be protected against with the back wall made of concrete masonry units. The ceiling is high enough away to protect from rough usage or vandalism, but it should be moisture resistant, King says, to protect against deterioration.

King also says he specifies heavy-duty synthetic toilet partitions that are a solid color throughout, so that they are difficult to draw upon, but also amenable to sanding, which can take the graffiti away. “We emphasize stainless steel hinges and other connective devices which hold up well,” King adds.

“One thing we have changed in recent years is that, instead of having a single wash basin that is wall-hung, we put in a multiple unit. It seems to work out better,” says King. “This multi-unit construction sits on the floor, is bigger, heavier, and more compact. They don’t invite kids to sit or jump on them.”

A trend that King has noticed starting in middle school boy’s locker rooms, “is individual shower stalls, similar to what they have in girls’ locker rooms. It’s always hard to get middle school boys to shower, so putting in individual stalls gives them more privacy.” He adds that high school locker rooms still have the big open showers for boys.

On one issue everyone agreed. Restrooms and locker rooms are not the first things generally considered in building or renovating a school. But these are areas subject to rough usage and vandalism so they should be given special consideration.