Relief for multigenerational restroom design

by Katie Daniel | April 4, 2017 10:27 am

Photo © BigStockPhoto

by David Leigh
Recent demographic and social trends have increased demand for multigenerational design in commercial buildings, and the restroom offers many opportunities to cater to a full spectrum of generational challenges. Rising demand for accessible design, family-friendly amenities, hygiene, and privacy all place the onus on architects and specifiers to provide solutions that better serve an increasingly diverse range of restroom patrons.

Multigenerational solutions are not just good manners—they are also good business. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, multigenerational households grew by 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. In addition, an AARP survey revealed the number of parents over age 65 moving in with their adult children increased by 62 percent between 2000 and 2007. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also estimated by 2040, 20 percent more people will be over age 65 and 23 percent more will be under 18 than in today’s population. Extrapolated across the entire United States, these divergent age groups may eventually comprise approximately half of the country’s residents. Meanwhile, baby boomers are increasingly reaching retirement age. With an aging population requiring access to appropriate lavatory facilities, accommodating design is a pressing issue for independent living and quality of life.

These demographic shifts have resulted in a U.S. workforce that can be broken down into four distinct generations, which—in many cases—must share the same facilities:

In order for these age groups to work and live together in harmony, the commercial, institutional, and industrial facilities serving them must become more accommodating. This is especially true for public restrooms, which may extend generational differences.

Multigenerational design affects virtually every vertical market sector. For architects, developers, and project teams, multigenerational design has implications on both micro and macro levels. On the macro level, according to the American Planning Association (APA), multigenerational planning “takes into consideration all age groups” in “all stages of planning,” from needs assessment to design and implementation, in addition to considering government policies, zoning, and building codes that “ensure generational equality and access.” (This quotation is from “Multigenerational Planning: Using smart growth and universal design to link the needs of children and the aging population,” available online here.)[2] On the micro level, designers can specify accommodations, facilities, fixtures, and furnishings that serve multiple generations. To achieve true multigenerational design, facilities must be better-equipped, more comfortable, healthier, and should offer improved ergonomics and adaptive environments to result in more satisfied patrons.

For business owners, multigenerational design has multiple benefits. These include:

At Philadelphia International Airport, family-friendly restrooms with built-in benches, child-care and nursing-mother accommodations, and companion care stations were implemented to provide improved access.
Photos courtesy Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc.

Primary design challenges, liabilities, and objectives
Facilities striving for inclusivity have several strategies at their disposal when adopting a multigenerational approach to restroom design. Floor plans and equipment layouts should include modified turning radiuses, reach ranges, and mounting heights, as well as safe egress and eased navigation. Multigenerational design also affects social issues, including gender equity and ‘potty parity’—a phrase defined as equal or equitable provision of washroom facilities for both genders within a public space, including gender-neutral and family-inclusive restrooms.

Greater access to restroom facilities for all demographics also requires greater privacy, as well as elder- and child-care accommodations. It should have amenities allowing proper child care through specialized, purpose-built products such as child protection seats and baby-changing stations.

The process of implementing such multigenerational accommodations is wrought with challenges and potential liabilities for both the specifier and owner. These challenges include accommodating physically limited individuals, such as disabled children and seniors. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates public schools provide baseline accommodations for disabled children. To meet these regulations, designers must adhere to parameters such as the inclusion of ramps, disabled parking, and restrooms with wheelchair-accessible compartments and lowered sinks.

Children in particular have special consideration for hygiene amenities promoting public health and reducing the spread of bacteria. Heights must also be adjusted for partitions, sinks, mirrors, urinals, and towel dispensers. Safety fixtures such as grab bars are essential for older users, who are increasingly prone to physical stiffness, loss of strength, dementia, and aches and pains, which can result in increased risk of falling.

For designers seeking more inclusive and better- equipped multigenerational restrooms, four primary sets of objectives can be identified.

How can all users be provided with sufficient privacy to feel comfortable?

Accessibility and bariatrics
How can appropriate codes and requirements, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), be met to accommodate the needs of all people, large and small?

Child care.
Can caregivers with children address child-care needs while maintaining access to all features of the restroom?

Does the design help reduce maintenance while providing an easily cleanable, healthy environment?

Accessible restrooms should allow for a 1524-mm (60-in.) wheelchair circular or T-shaped turning radius.

Privacy procedures
Due to heightened awareness of the needs of the general public and transgender individuals, increased privacy is required to serve growing and diverse demographic groups. Privacy can help improve the restroom experience for nursing mothers, incontinent seniors, diabetics who need insulin injections, and individuals who value privacy for added peace of mind. Currently, 24 states require public restrooms to feature private spaces separated by doors, curtains, or walls, and 45 states allow breastfeeding in all public and private locations.

To provide the utmost privacy, single-compartment restrooms are preferable over multiple-compartment facilities. This benefits multiple groups, including individuals with paruresis (also known as ‘shy bladder’) and the transgender community.

Additionally, a legal movement gaining traction in the U.S. aims to make male and female public restroom spaces more equitable. The first Restroom Equity Act was passed in California in 1989, and since then, public demand has resulted in the passing of additional restroom parity laws. Now, the International Building Code (IBC) requires a two-to-one ratio of female-to-male facilities, which applies to toilet and urinal counts.

Improved equity can be achieved through providing gender-neutral toilets complemented by handwashing areas for use by both men and women, as well as dedicated rooms to accommodate baby-changing and nursing needs.

Efforts to achieve increased privacy can also include redesigning traditional toilet partition systems, which today offer a range of privacy options. For instance, maximum-height doors and panels are typically 1829 mm (72 in.), reaching from near the floor to the top rails. Overlapping, interlocking, and gap-free doors and stiles can eliminate or significantly reduce sight lines—typically the biggest complaint regarding toilet partitions. Also, self-closing door hinges are engineered to close automatically and prevent doors from swinging open accidentally.

Additional restroom privacy features may include ceiling-mounted curtains to separate areas for nursing mothers and elderly persons with specific healthcare needs, as well as seating for seniors and caregivers awaiting their companions.

Accessibility, ADA, and bariatric needs
True multigenerational design must be fully compliant with ADA. Specifiers should pay special attention the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, particularly when designing for multiple users and families or for mobility equipment like wheelchairs, scooters, crutches, and walkers. These accommodations cater to:

Entrances, passageways, and turning radiuses
Restrooms in buildings open to the public, as well as state and local government facilities, should include accessible entrance approaches, minimum numbers of compliant toilet compartments, and minimum clear floor area to accommodate a wheelchair of at least 760 x 1220 mm (30 x 48 in.).

Multigenerational design must also include wider doorways and an expanded turning radius—however, ADA code minimums may not be enough to meet the needs of some users, particularly in high-traffic restrooms. At minimum, turning spaces may be either a 1525-mm (60-in.) circular space or a T-shaped turning space within a 1525-mm square, with arms and base minimum 915 mm (36 in.) wide.

Proper door locations and opening directions, mounting heights and projections, and designs for fixtures and hardware must also adhere to ADA standards. It is critical to exceed code minimums for additional space at entryways, between compartments and sinks, and other areas where people might gather. It is good practice to avoid designing and building to the dimensional specifications in accessibility standards, as doing so places the design, construction, and ownership teams at risk of non-compliance and liability.

Touch-free fixtures mounted at proper heights can increase accessibility and promote hygiene for disabled populations.

ADA-compliant equipment
Designers striving for ADA compliance should specify specialized equipment that allows for accessibility by all users while also ensuring proper mounting heights and reach ranges. Often, as mentioned previously, exceeding ADA standards is necessary.

In 2010, the Laboratory for Efficient and Accessible Design (LEAD) conducted research on people aged 18 to 88 living in a multigenerational community. The study showed the factors that most limit a person’s ability to function include:

(The Legacy Project summarizes this research at[6].)

Thus, even small components like doors, faucets, and steps can pose significant challenges for disabled or obese individuals and children or for the elderly.

Consequently, hardware, including door locks and toilet-flushing mechanisms, should be easily operable by a wide range of users—in many cases, touchless equipment may be preferred. Many restroom accessories are designed to be ADA-compliant, such as sensor-operated (and some manually operated) soap and towel dispensers and napkin/tampon vendors. These accessories are designed for one-hand operation with a force not to exceed 22.24 N (5 lb), without grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist.

ADA-compliant accessories must be installed with a maximum protrusion of 101 mm (4 in.), at heights between 686 and 2032 mm (27 and 80 in.) above the floor. Many recessed dispensers, waste receptacles, vendors, hand-dryers, and baby-changing stations are also designed specifically to meet the 101-mm protrusion requirement.

Obesity and bariatric considerations
A national increase in obesity may also influence restroom design. The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) 2007 report, “Forecasting the obesity epidemic in the aging U.S. population,”[7] states that “As the baby-boom generation approaches retirement age, the continuing obesity epidemic signals a likely increase in the population.” Accordingly, multigenerational design must accommodate the needs of large and heavyweight users by adhering to bariatric minimums as outlined in ADA guidelines. Multigenerational bathrooms should ideally anticipate bariatric requirements such as toilets with increased weight capacity and toilet seat heights between 432 and 482 mm (17 and 19 in.) for ease of standing. Reinforced grab bars should be able to hold at least 340 kg (750 lb).

Finally, to eliminate hazards and risk of falls, any toilet compartments, such as those often found in healthcare settings, should be equipped with zero-threshold doors, which prevent tripping and allow easy passage of those using walkers or wheelchairs. Recessed countertop waste receptacles, hooks, and shelves should be used not just for convenience, but also to eliminate hazards such as bags on the floor.

Child care
Numerous surveys have signified an increased demand among parents for child-care amenities in public restrooms. For example, a 2014 survey[8] by Today found 54 percent of fathers with infants change their babies’ diapers, compared with just 37 percent in the previous generation. In October 2016, the Bathrooms Accessible in Every Situation Act (or the BABIES Act) came into effect, requiring baby-changing tables in all publicly accessible federal buildings.

For businesses, the ability to serve parents with children is a key consideration in multigenerational restroom design. In addition to more gender-equitable restrooms and layouts, a wide variety of baby-changing stations can address the needs of parents with infant children, including wall-mounted recessed models as well as surface-mounted horizontal and vertical orientations.

Baby-changing station beds and countertop surfaces must be a maximum of 863 mm (34 in.) from the finished floor when open. Additional accessibility compliance requirements include handle heights of no more than 1219 mm (48 in.), knee clearance of 686 mm (27 in.) minimum below the unit when it is open, and a maximum wall protrusion of 101 mm (4 in.) when closed. The unit may protrude into passageways if its leading edge is at or below 686 mm from the floor.

For guardians and nursing mothers, child protection seats mounted to a wall or partition—allowing guardians to comfortably secure their children while tending to siblings and other matters—also are recommended.

In multigenerational design, hygiene amenities should not only be accessible to all, but also easily maintained to ensure diligent replacement of critical consumables like soap and paper towels. For example, children have special hygiene considerations, as they are not only more susceptible to infections, but also may not be able to reach and use soap and towel dispensers. Failure to consider this may result in decreased use of hygiene amenities as well as increased risk of bacterial contamination.

To better serve the operator, attention should be paid to the interrelated concerns of hygiene and maintenance, such as timely refills of baby-changing station liners and disposable toilet liners, which are increasingly preferred by many users. Additional maintenance considerations include waste receptacles with lids for the disposal of soiled diapers, as well as diaper disposal bags to reduce odor, contamination, and visibility.

Hygiene is a major concern for all users of public restrooms. Solutions for maximizing usage and effectiveness of hygiene amenities include hands-free and automatic paper towel and soap dispensers, as well as automatic hand-dryers and plumbing fixtures. Proper ventilation is also required in restrooms, with air change mechanisms that meet code minimums as well as carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors to control fans and HVAC supply. When possible, antimicrobial surfaces that can be cleaned easily should be considered.

Additional lighting and noise considerations
Some multigenerational design considerations extend beyond the four general categories presented. Properly serving these demographics may require lighting adjustments for vision-sensitive users—namely, elimination of high-glare lighting. Low or adjustable lighting in certain areas of the restroom can create a more appropriate atmosphere for nursing or baby changing. Additionally, specifying low-noise hand-dryers (i.e. less than 75 dB) can help maintain a pleasant atmosphere for hearing-sensitive users, young or old.

For an increasingly multigenerational user base, specifiers must strive to balance a variety of solutions to create more equitable, comfortable, and long-lasting restrooms. Amenities like baby-changing stations, privacy features, and ADA-compliant accessories can provide both return on investment (ROI) and a potential market advantage for the building owner in the form of return visitors and more satisfied families and customers who appreciate the accommodations.

By serving the multigenerational market, building owners also enjoy increased market differentiation and leadership. Surveys have shown retailers offering child accommodation amenities enjoy greater patron loyalty—for example, the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA’s) 2014 survey revealed nearly seven in 10 American diners take into account a restaurant’s family- or child-friendliness when choosing where to eat. Increasing the quantity and range of types and sizes of public restrooms is socially responsible and a major trend for civic-minded, business-friendly municipalities and establishments nationwide.

In recent years, public restrooms have become a design opportunity that can deliver inclusiveness integral to today’s multigenerational trends and the movement toward architectural decency. They also provide relatively direct opportunities for designers seeking to build healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities for all citizens.

David Leigh is vice president of marketing at Bobrick Washroom Equipment Inc. He previously served as director of sales and marketing at Koala Kare Products prior to Bobrick’s 2004 acquisition of the commercial child-care product company. Leigh is responsible for overseeing all of Bobrick’s marketing efforts, including marketing strategy, media outreach, and opportunity analysis. He can be reached via e-mail at[9].

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