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Customers today are hyper-aware of the importance of hygiene. Public expectations around cleanliness have skyrocketed in all sectors, from transportation to schools to movie theaters. Nowhere is this heightened attention toward sanitation more prominent than in the public restroom. The design industry is adapting quickly to respond to these demands by prioritizing the use of touchless technologies and antimicrobial surfaces. While the pandemic has been its primary driver, the advancement of public restroom design extends beyond cleanliness to address concerns over safety, conservation, maintenance, privacy and inclusion, all without sacrificing aesthetics.

Hygiene and Safety

If not designed thoughtfully, restrooms can become a hotbed of bacterial growth. In light of the global health crisis, restroom operators around the world are increasingly applying antimicrobial coatings to high-touch surfaces, or selecting materials that naturally combat germ spread. Touchless technology, which first came into prominence with sensor-activated faucets in the early 1980s, has proven to be one of the most lasting innovations in restroom design. Eliminating the need for users to touch faucets, soap dispensers or toilet flushers greatly reduces opportunities for bacterial spread. Motion sensor technology can also be implemented to combat toilet plumes, the airborne dispersal of germs created via flushing, by activating toilet lid closure prior to automatic flushing.

Beyond hygiene, personal safety is also a concern for restroom operators. In recent years, brands such as Bradley, Dyson and Excel have popularized trough-style sinks with touchless faucets, soap dispensers and dryers all in one place. Encouraging users to wash and dry their hands in the same space limits water spillage onto the floor, which in turn mitigates slip hazards and creates a more inclusive environment for vulnerable populations.

Conservation and Maintenance

Resource conservation is another important consideration in the design and construction of public restrooms. Motion activated hand dryers are not only beneficial in terms of reducing germ spread but help to conserve the planet’s natural resources by preventing paper towel waste. Increased awareness of conservation efforts led to the development of waterless urinals in the 1990s. Today, waterless or composting toilets are primarily used in rural residential areas, where water and sewer hook-ups are more expensive, but there is tremendous potential for this technology to be incorporated into higher-capacity public restrooms. While still outliers in mainstream use, waterless toilets will become more widely adopted as water prices spike and water continues to be a scarce resource in many regions—so much so that water futures are being traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Maintenance and appearance retention are factors that go hand in hand. Particularly in light of growing demands for wage parity in our current socio-political environment, maintenance labor costs are a hefty concern for restroom owners. Along with aesthetic priorities, this will continue to drive the need for durable and easily cleanable fixtures and materials. Over the last ten years, gauged porcelain tile panels and slabs have become thinner, lighter and stronger. These panels can be used for floors, walls and vanities, and typically echo marble and limestone slab patterns, producing a highly desirable level of visual quality without the cost and difficulty of marble slab installation. Panels can reach up to 12 feet, which translates into fewer grout joints and larger surface areas that are easier to clean. Installation remains a challenge that the industry is addressing, but the compelling beauty and durability of large format porcelains is seductive and a first choice for many designers and architects.

Privacy and Inclusion

Guests today also desire a more private restroom experience, which will ultimately lead to a rise in single-user restrooms. Single-user facilities not only create a more personal experience, but also reduce toilet plumes, noise and increase ventilation. Hybrid restroom designs have seen success in the aviation marketplace, such as at MSP Airport, where larger stalls and floor-to-ceiling dividers have been implemented within the framework of a conventional restroom. Single-user restrooms that are gender-neutral, family-oriented and ADA-compliant create a more inclusive environment for a wide range of guests. Inclusivity and accessibility should be fundamental considerations for designers, operators and owners of public restrooms.

The future public restroom will undoubtedly provide guests with a more hygienic, environmentally responsible and inclusive experience. The route to achieving this future is incremental and requires actionable steps that allow managers to budget for these new technologies and layouts. For designers, the public restroom encompasses the fundamental challenge of design—that is, to create highly functional spaces that are also beautiful. In the coming years, we will see new public restrooms continue to display sleek, contemporary aesthetics that elegantly marry style with safety.

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