Partitioned Off

When it comes to restrooms and locker rooms, how you divide people makes a big impact on multiple levels.

For starters, the maintenance crew’s efficiency hangs on how you position the partitions between stalls. And users’ comfort hinges on everything from the materials you choose to the installation methods.

No wonder consultants like Kimberly Phipps Nichol, IIDA, president and designer of Blue Water Studio in Reno, NV, are busy fielding requests from higher institutions. Two-year community colleges planning to apply for four-year accreditation in particular turn to her for advice as they renovate aging facilities and opt for an upgraded look in their athletic facilities.

Claire Oviatt, associate and senior designer with Lord Aeck Sergeant in Atlanta, is currently working with leaders at Clemson University to spiff up these areas. Male or female facility designations don’t matter, she said — it’s all about material and installation for both sexes.

Material Matters
As a specifier, the material content is Nichol’s natural starting point. After all, inborn characteristics for off gassing could prove to be a huge problem down the road. “Typically, restroom facilities have higher ventilation and exhaust rates than other spaces, so the air doesn’t sit in there quite as long,” she noted. On the other hand, “In a restroom situation, you are most exposed, so if you have a lot of off-gassing chemicals, it can have consequences. Youthful bodies have higher respiratory rates than older ones, so they absorb the chemicals in their surroundings at a quicker rate.”

That’s just one reason why unfinished, heavy-gauge stainless steel partitions remain among the most popular choices. It’s Oviatt’s first choice, thanks to stainless steel’s durability. “You can clean almost anything off of it,” she points out — a useful trait during those times when college students are feeling rowdy or rebellious and have a permanent marker close at hand.

Nichol likes it because it’s a stand-alone product. “These kids really abuse these spaces,” she said. “There is so much scratching and writing and things hitting these. The raw stainless material looks like it can take a beating, and it does.” There’s a reason prisons go with this option, too, she added.

While Oviatt considers stainless steel’s appearance “a classic,” she assures administrators she can counterbalance the sterile image by bringing colors to the walls and tile flooring instead. “The partitions become a simple, clean element within the restroom,” she said.

Unfortunately, stainless steel can cost as much as 40 percent more than the enamel paint version, these experts say. So when budget rears its head, Oviatt suggests a compromise with phenolic resin dividers — a laminate-based product with a heavy resin built up to a half-inch thickness around it. Nichol lauds phenolic’s cleanability and scratch resistance.

“I haven’t done my own long-term tests on impact, but facilities managers say they do hold up better than they might have imagined,” said Nichol. Since she specifies products for at least a 25-year lifespan, this meets her criteria far better than other plastics, which she claims last but still don’t age well aesthetically. Not to mention the compound that reinforces the rigidity of some vinyl components used in other plastics have recently been shown to off gas a toxin that interferes with reproductive and endocrine functions. Again, this health risk probably wouldn’t play out in the average lavatory environment, but for residence hall restrooms or locker rooms surrounded by hot, steamy showers, it is an issue.

Finally, at least four major phenolic resin panel manufacturers have successfully submitted their products for precertification with GREENGUARD, so they carry an earth-friendlier stamp of approval.

Installation Report
Faculty and students won’t have much comment on material choices, but when it comes to installation, they do have a preference. Stall doors that leave gaps for passersby to peek through violate many Americans’ sense of privacy. Administrators can solve that problem with their material choice, too. “Prefabricated stainless steel restroom partitions have hardware set at certain tolerances and dimensions, so the swing side where the gap often occurs is the result,” said Nichol. “The phenolic resin panels are heavier, and because of that weight, they tend to install doors with piano hinges, which eliminates that space.”

On the other hand, when it comes to vertical measurements, it’s vital to leave a 12-in. gap between the bottom of the panels and the floor for safety reasons. “Unfortunately, we do have drug overdoses and other things that happen on campuses, so you need to know if someone is sick in a unit,” she added. In fact, in a perfect world, the doors stop a foot from the floor, but the side partitions leave at least an 18-in. space, should someone need to crawl to enter or exit a particular stall.

The maintenance crews in particular are grateful for the extra space, as this gives them room to soap and mop a floor far more efficiently than working around three baseboards in individual stalls. This is why Oviatt recommends ceiling-hung or overhead-braced partitions, despite the fact this route could mean a few extra dollars upfront for the appropriate attachment infrastructure. On the plus side, none of the available materials have proven to be too heavy for ceiling attachments.

Finally, small touches go a long way. While campuses rarely choose to emulate the hospitality industry’s polished wooden louver doors, a pull-down purse shelf impresses users without weighing down the budget.

“I’m not asking people to be a Berkeley tree hugger and go green on everything,” Nichol assured. “But when working with partitions, the question that should be first and foremost on facility managers’ minds is ‘Do the products hinder the health and welfare of the occupants?’” If the answer is no, chances are it will work well on your campus and your bottom line.