Restrooms: Clean, Safe and Comfortable

Restroom technology and design in today’s K-12 school environment have several points of concern for school boards as well as those who design and build them. These include the cost of materials and insuring that the restroom is designed to conserve resources such as accessories and supplies. In addition, the restroom, however mundane it may be in discussion, is an integral part of that school’s community and total environment. Their design and construction rely on good but affordable materials, and planners and designers need to consider fixtures and products within them that will ultimately support the ever-dwindling school budget.

There are several factors that must be weighed when considering restroom technology and its use in new and renovated facilities, explains Lynn Dunn, senior project manager for the Pennsylvania architecture firm of BJAC. “As a general approach, BJAC typically interviews the facility’s maintenance staff before specifying toilet fixtures, accessories and all other building systems. Often times we find that maintenance staff want to deal with only a single type of fixture or appliance, especially when they are in charge of maintaining a series of buildings. Operational costs typically come into consideration, but initial costs and maintenance requirements usually outweigh the overall operational cost considerations.”

Cost Consideration

However, for Ralph Walker, a registered architect, and a LEED-accredited professional for JCJ Architecture, in New York, cost is always a concern for any school district. “A key component to cost in the design of restrooms within the K-12 environment is materials used in the construction process. Restroom technologies fall into two categories: low-tech materials and high-tech fixtures,” says Walker. “Low-tech items are static materials like flooring, countertops and bathroom partitions. As material science continues to develop, the products that make up these elements of a bathroom continue to become stronger, cleaner and more environmentally friendly. High-tech fixtures use a combination of technologies to create an action in the restroom, such as flushing a toilet, turning on a faucet, dispensing a paper towel or blowing air to dry hands. These technologies use electronics, motors and sensors to achieve a goal.”

Walker notes that for the low-tech materials, the solid surface industry has really advanced the integrity of solid surface products, creating a number of reasonably priced hygienic, durable products that are ideal for countertops, toilet partitions and in some cases, even wall coverings.

“There are a number of flooring manufacturers who are also producing seamless floors that are durable, withstanding the high usage of a restroom, and are also reasonably priced,” he says. “One of the key issues when selecting a surface material is to minimize the number of joints or changes in material,” says Walker. “This is because the joints between surfaces are the hardest areas to clean and are often the first area to break or become damaged. Creating a clean cove base from a single material at a floor-to-wall transition makes the restrooms cleaner and healthier.”

Walker says the wall-mounted baby changing stations, that are quickly becoming ubiquitous in public buildings around the country, are a great example of a low-tech product that makes a big difference. This simple product provides a safe, clean surface for a diaper to be changed and easily folds to minimize the amount of space it uses. “While it may not seem obvious, schools are a place where this type of fixture should be standard since parents often visit with younger siblings.”

On the high-tech end of the spectrum, Walker cites a number of excellent products that have changed the restroom environment. “Perhaps the most important is the acceleration of ‘no touch’ products and fixtures,” he says. “For products such as faucets, paper towel dispensers and hand dryers, there are a variety of options that come equipped with sensor-activated technology. These types of products reduce the direct human contact with the fixture, that both reduces the spread of germs and wear and tear on the fixture or product.”

Sustainability and Conservation

Designing and building a restroom should also consider sustainability and conservation as important parts of any restroom project. From a green and sustainability perspective, are there definite advantages, not only those that are socially responsible, but economic and cost advantages to designing restrooms environmentally and include such considerations as low water consumption, conservations of towels and tissue supply, and other similar measures. But are schools truly embracing this?

“It’s difficult to sell environmentally friendly products that may offer a cost increase up front or in maintenance costs,” says Tom Jones, senior project manager for Los Angeles, Calif.-based General Contracting and Construction Management. “Most, if not all, manufacturers are making fixtures that will save water, thus the pricing is on par with baseline fixtures. Hand dryers that eliminate paper towels and lessen maintenance are gaining in popularity again. All this being said, it boils down to the school district and how far they are willing to go with this kind of technology. Low maintenance and vandal resistance tend to be the determining factors in fixture selection with the majority of districts.”

“Some schools embrace the idea of sustainability through the specification of plumbing fixtures,” says Ralph Walker. “One client we are currently working with is adjusting to high-efficiency toilets. They have created a ‘water hammer’ noise problem in a newly constructed building, but additional pressure reducing valves are being added to help with this issue. Most clients are utilizing automatic hand dryers as the general public is becoming more accepting of this technology and its ecological benefits.”

“Clean, safe and comfortable restrooms are part of the foundation for a school community,” adds Ralph Walker. “If students are not comfortable using the facilities they will not be comfortable at school in general. The finishes and fixtures are only a part of the restroom environment — appropriate levels of privacy, good lighting and clear signage all help to make a restroom environment work.” 

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He may be contacted through his website at