September 20, 2018
by Rob Donlon
It is not a typical topic of conversation or even something most people want to think about, but the history of restrooms is a compelling story, driven by thousands of years of evolution and an ongoing merger of engineering practices and changing cultural norms.
The Romans were the first to develop indoor plumbing, 3000 years ago. The earliest squat toilets date back to 1500 BC in Asia. The restroom’s predecessor, the outhouse, became a fixture of early American expansion, settlement, and colonialization. Although the flush toilet was invented in 1596, it only became widely used in North America in the late 19th century.
As for governance, the laws relating to restrooms evolved alongside modern society. In 1887, Massachusetts passed the first law in America requiring separate sex restrooms in public places and workplaces. Similar regulations were passed by nearly every state over the next three decades. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, businesses have had to update their buildings and restrooms to accommodate the needs of the disabled. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandated “prompt access” to “sanitary and available toilet facilities” in 1998.
Depending on the state, laws are now circulating that either allow the use of bathrooms according to gender identity or require transgender individuals to use restrooms matching their birth gender. Making restrooms more private with no sightlines and floor-to-ceiling coverage by the doors and panels may help facilities convert existing restrooms to gender-neutral rooms.
But, the truth is, no matter the race, gender, or culture of the user, most people want and expect three things from their bathroom experience—comfort, privacy, and safety. This is especially true in a public setting, where nearly everyone feels vulnerable and exposed. Examples of privacy needs exist throughout history. Even in ancient Rome, well-known for its public bath houses and multi-seat bathrooms, remnants of relatively private single-seaters have been found among the ruins of the homes of the city’s elite.
Cleanliness and privacy are non-negotiable
In today’s business world, most successful facilities and organizations understand the role of restroom cleanliness and hospitality in keeping repeat customers. Most people use a bathroom facility six times per day. According to a recent retail consumer study performed by M/A/R/C Research and National In-Store, 14 percent of consumers polled said they would stop visiting a store or business that was not as clean as they would like. Moreover, 29 percent said they would continue visiting an unclean store only if it was absolutely necessary. This sentiment is repeated often in regard to food establishments, especially those trying to cultivate a sophisticated clientele. In fact, many people have been known to equate kitchen hygiene with restroom cleanliness. Cintas cites a survey revealing 95 percent of people would avoid an establishment if they found the restroom to be dirty, and 50 percent of building complaints concern a restroom’s condition.
In addition, many people are just anxious in a public restroom. The American Psychiatric Association has classified paruresis or “pee-shyness” as a legitimate social anxiety disorder. This problem affects about 20 million people in the United States, says the International Paruresis Association. Still others are challenged by parcopresis or the fear of having a public bowel movement.
The move toward high-privacy partitions
As a result, the quest for safe and accessible restroom facilities is unending among conscientious business owners and facility managers. This prompts constant reevaluation of commercial bathrooms and the continual redesign of these areas to ensure privacy without sacrificing aesthetics. In some cases, this has included building individual washrooms, which are not only prohibitively expensive for most companies and consumer operations, but also decidedly inefficient for handling the needs of multiple visitors or customers at one time.
The American standard for most public restrooms has been the implementation of multiple stalls aligned in a row, each featuring a 9.5-mm (3/8-in.) gap between the door and pilaster, a 356-mm (14-in.) space between the stall door and floor, and 356 mm of space between the headrail and door. The traditional door height for such stalls is 1524 mm (60 in.).
The industry has evolved in recent years with the introduction of high-privacy toilet partitions combining innovative design, aesthetics, and long-term durability. These partitions typically include a choice of hinges, ranging from 1372 to 1803 mm (54 to 71 in.), in either continuous aluminum, steel helix, or stainless steel spring-loaded hinges, or single- or double-ear brackets. The benefit is not only blocked sightlines, but also hidden hinges with better aesthetics.
In recent years, the industry has moved away from wood, plastic laminate, and powder-coated steel (metal) materials due to their low resistance to graffiti, corrosion, scuffs, stains, mold, and mildew. Subsequently, materials such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) have become increasingly popular due to their ability to withstand the rigors of everyday use, while providing surfaces that are both easy and cost-effective to clean. Stainless steel, phenolic, and solid surface materials are also options for partitions.
As a solid plastic material, HDPE is impermeable to water and moisture, making these partitions resistant to rust and suitable for power-washing and hose-down cleaning. They offer superior resistance to dents, scratches, and corrosion, and can blend into new, modern designs.
Another advantage of HDPE components is the potential for improved air quality; this material does not release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and does not require painting. Some manufacturers offer a variety of fire rating options to meet state codes.
If cleaned and maintained properly, HDPE partitions may reduce maintenance costs in the long run because they do not rust like metal or chip and peel like layered materials. Mild stains and general soiling are often removed with a mild cleaner and water. Tougher stains are normally counteracted with solutions consisting of trisodium phosphate, household detergent, and water. If those solutions are not effective, a non-abrasive industrial-strength cleaner will do the job without damaging the surface of the bathroom partition. Partitions may also be texturized to resist graffiti.
Total privacy and superior aesthetics
A variety of available partitions can be installed to provide total privacy without having to build separate, individual rooms. The latest products come in 2184-mm (86-in.) and 2845-mm (112-in.) heights to enable fully closed, floor-to-ceiling compartments with no possibility of someone peeking under or over the door to see whether a stall is occupied or for other unscrupulous reasons. High levels of privacy are achieved through the use of overlapping ship lap edges, floor-mounted side panels, and a transom panel serving as a solid section across the top of the door. An indicator latch is also common, to reduce awkward vacancy queries.
By removing all of the gaps and sightlines, the newest floor-to-ceiling partitions are designed to enhance the user’s level of comfort and privacy. They can also add elegance, warmth, and charm to virtually any enclosed space or private room. For the facility owner, however, they do offer less visibility to the stall for security purposes.
Bathroom stall systems are available with numerous door and panel designs, plus rich colors and textures, to provide design options. The result can be bold design statements elevating standard restrooms to captivating or sophisticated interiors.
When installing floor-to-ceiling partitions and doors, additional lighting in each stall is recommended. Some clients request the accessible stall be mounted off the floor to offer visibility into the stall in case of a problem.
High-density polyethylene components are suitable for most commercial and institutional environments. They are easy to customize in the field, especially for restroom remodels requiring additional safety and privacy standards—unlike metal partition systems, which do not lend themselves to speedy onsite changes. The HDPE partitions are lightweight, use the same screws throughout the system, and can be modified with woodworking tools.
Comfort as a fundamental desire
While not a new topic, restroom privacy and usage have become increasingly popular news items. Moving forward, the discussion around spaces accessible to everyone regardless of gender or orientation will likely grow even more passionate. The last thing any employer or business owner wants is for someone to be uncomfortable, nervous, or embarrassed on their premises.
Social media has added an even greater level of concern to the privacy landscape. No one wants private moments captured for all to see. Always a priority, privacy at public venues is becoming increasingly more valuable as previous societal barriers are being broken.
Feeling safe and comfortable in one’s own space is a fundamental human desire, one which businesses, facilities, and retailers have an obligation to fulfill in its most basic form. Security should never be in question, especially in a restroom environment where nearly everyone feels vulnerable as soon as they walk in the door.
Rob Donlon is the vice-president of sales and marketing for Scranton Products, a division of The Azek Company. In his role, he has helped to develop Scranton Products into one of the leading manufacturers of HDPE partitions and lockers. Donlon leads an international team of sales and marketing professionals who work closely with the architectural and end-user communities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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