Restroom privacy and sensible construction

July 30, 2021

David Leigh

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Photo credit Brett Drury. Images courtesy Bobrick Washroom Equipment

From millennials and caregivers to individuals with personal medical needs, today’s restroom users view privacy as a key amenity. As all-gender restrooms rise in popularity and are required by law in some states, privacy has taken a central role in restroom design.

While privacy has become an expectation in a range of building types, it has not always been that way. Gender-segregated restrooms did not become law in the United States until the late 1800s, when a law was passed in Massachusetts to ensure women in the workplace had a safe, private restroom during working hours. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, creating the need for compliant, accessible restrooms for all. By 2013, 150 universities and several high schools had installed gender-neutral restrooms. As of 2018, the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Plumbing Code (IPC) address single-user restrooms identified for use by any gender, as proposed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA)[2], ensuring safe, dignified access to public restrooms for all.1

Beyond all-gender restrooms, many patrons, such as caregivers, nursing mothers, the elderly, individuals with health issues, and those who suffer from chronic health conditions (e.g. diabetic patients requiring insulin injections) prefer more privacy.

From a personal safety standpoint, many individuals also feel vulnerable in the restroom. There are concerns about child safety, camera phones, and theft of personal belongings in public restrooms, and all these can be addressed by providing more privacy.

A patron’s experience in the restroom can influence their impression of the building, lower or raise employee morale, and impact a customer’s likelihood of returning to a business. Patrons care about privacy, and, by extension, so should the business owners and design professionals who serve them.

Identifying common privacy issues

Gaps between toilet compartment doors and stiles have long been a source of patron complaints. This is typically a consequence of toilet partition material selection. With metal toilet partitions, the gaps are due to configuring toilet compartment layouts to the size of restrooms using standard size doors, panels, and stiles manufactured to whole-inch dimensions.

Some of the common complaints are the standard 305-mm (12-in.) floor clearances on partition doors are excessive and allow for people to easily peek underneath to see if the toilet compartment is occupied, and the gaps allow for visibility not only from the outside in, but also from compartment to compartment.

Without any codes regulating gap or door width, there has been little impetus to enhance cubicle and partition design. Some materials are produced in stocked widths, which do not allow precise matching to room dimensions. Fortunately, there are many privacy solutions to help address these pain points across a range of building types.

Commercial offices

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Specifications such as 1829-mm (72-in.) panels, no-sightline integrated doors and stiles, and lower floor clearances support inclusiveness and privacy at the Vashon Island High School, Washington. Photo credits Benjamin Benschneider

Moderate Class B to premium Class A commercial office spaces may require additional privacy to enhance patron and tenant satisfaction and safety as well as create a more pleasant experience for employees and visitors.

In 2017, the global headquarters of a publicly traded bank in California underwent a major renovation to provide a comfortable, morale-building experience for their employees. While design was important, privacy was key to ensuring all employees felt comfortable. They were able to achieve a high sense of privacy with a European-style toilet cubicle system with interlocking door and fascia panels to eliminate sightlines, occupancy indicators, and self-closing doors.

Prestige buildings

Privacy is often viewed as an extension of quality design and can create an exclusive, private, and comfortable experience. Some prestige commercial office spaces require high-end design in addition to privacy due to the status of the company or its clientele.

At a California film studio restroom renovation, the architect was able to achieve a sophisticated look with high privacy by using European-style toilet cubicles with occupancy indicators and interlocking flush-front door and fascia panels to eliminate sightlines, complemented by luxurious finishes and a cubicle system that appears to ‘float’ due to its recessed foot pedestals.

Design professionals striving for a well-designed, clean, minimalistic look can leverage cubicles to create this flush-front exterior aesthetic, often utilizing visually interesting finishes with solid colors or patterns.

Novel materials, such as glass, also can be used to reinforce a luxurious aesthetic.

Education facilities

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All-Gender Restrooms & Related Legislation The states in teal require public facilities to accommodate individuals who wish to use the restroom of their choice rather than the sex listed on their birth certificate. Legislation is pending in the orange-colored states. The ones in grey have no pending legislation on the issue.  

Schools may require additional privacy considerations, especially when creating all-gender restrooms, including those in dorms, libraries, and other gender-inclusive spaces.

Vashon Island High School, just outside of Seattle, recently renovated both a boys’ and girls’ restroom into two all-gender restrooms—the first of their kind in Washington state.

Specifications such as 1829-mm (72-in.) panels, no-sightline integrated doors and stiles, and lower floor clearances support inclusiveness and privacy.

The principal remarked, “Making bathrooms all-gender is the safest and clearest way to prevent students from having to explain or justify their bathroom use to anyone.”

For a library renovation in 2017, the University of California, Fullerton, needed an all-gender restroom solution that would serve the building’s diverse user groups while achieving the utmost privacy. A no-sightline partition system with occupancy indicator latches delivered privacy and practicality. Floor-to-ceiling, 2705-mm (106.5-in.) doors were employed to create room-like environments, without the additional trades, cost, and construction implications associated with fully enclosed walls and single-user restrooms.

Gender-inclusive restroom legislation

The rise of all-gender restrooms underscores the scale of the privacy issue. A number of states and municipalities have passed laws protecting transgender individuals and others who wish to use the restroom of their choice within public facilities.

The states in teal (Figure 1) have passed anti-discrimination laws requiring public facilities to accommodate certain individuals who wish to use the restroom of their choice rather than the sex listed on their birth certificate. The states in orange have pending legislation. The states in gray have no pending legislation on the issue.

Currently, no states restrict access to some public bathrooms by individuals who identify with a gender that is not on their birth certificate. While North Carolina passed such a bill in 2016, it was repealed in 2017.

Privacy solutions

Several types of design solutions can achieve various levels of privacy, and each solution is associated with different costs and construction implications.

Standard toilet compartments

Standard toilet compartments, typically with 1397 or 1473-mm (55 or 58-in.) tall doors, can be equipped with a variety of options, such as no-sightline doors and stiles, which can increase their level of privacy. Standard toilet compartments are known for a large amount of floor clearance as well as large gaps. The specified toilet partition material will be a significant factor affecting which add-on privacy features are available.
The cost of standard toilet compartments range from low to mid-range. There is less coordination of trades required for installation. However, increases in cost could come from the specified material and finish and privacy options.

Increased-height toilet compartments

Increased-height toilet compartments typically consist of 1829-mm tall panels. This classification includes standard toilet partitions with taller options, as well as many European-style cubicle systems. With European-style, pedestal-supported cubicles in particular—which are growing in popularity—the compartments are not only taller to start with, but also provide zero sightlines due to the integration of the door and frame.

The cost of an increased-height toilet compartment is mid-range. However, increases in cost could come from the material, finish options, and custom partition sizing. Cost savings compared to full walls and single-user restrooms come from the ability to share HVAC systems across the tops and bottoms of compartments, recessed illumination systems to distribute light across the entire row of partitions and fire suppression systems at a rate of one nozzle for multiple toilet compartments (if partition panels are at least 559 mm [22 in.] beneath the ceiling).

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Standard toilet compartments can be equipped with a variety of options, such as no-sightline doors and stiles, to increase their level of privacy. Photo credits Sylvester Garza

Increased-height toilet compartments potentially can take up the least amount of space. However, floor clearance is a consideration, as many systems provide 100 to 150-mm (4 to 6-in.) floor clearance, which necessitates deeper and wider compartments to satisfy accessibility codes. If the wheelchair accessible toilet compartment interior dimensions are greater than 1676 mm (66 in.) wide and 1575 mm (62 in.) deep with a wall-hung toilet (or 1651 mm [65 in.] deep with a floor-mounted toilet), no toe clearance is required.

With most European-style cubicles, due to the use of pedestal dividers, the width of each toilet compartment can be considerably less than traditional partitions. Toilet compartment depth can be as little as 1550 mm (61 in.).

Extended-height toilet compartments

Extended-height toilet compartments feature panels that are made to fit the height of the restroom. Some European-style cubicles may fall into this classification. Extended-height partitions or cubicles allow for even more privacy and create nearly a fully enclosed space, without the cost or additional labor associated with gypsum boards.

The cost of an extended-height toilet compartment can vary from mid-range to high-end. There is less coordination of trades compared to full walls and single-user restrooms, but increases in cost could come from custom partition sizing, as well as the potential need for additional lighting, HVAC, and fire suppression systems. Plumbing, tiling, electrical, and/or mechanical services may be required.

Extended-height toilet partitions can take up a medium amount of space, but floor clearance is also a consideration. Many systems with minimal floor clearance require deeper and wider compartments to satisfy accessibility codes. Once again, if the wheelchair accessible toilet compartment interior dimensions are greater than 1676 mm wide and 1575 mm deep with a wall-hung toilet (or 1651 mm deep with a floor-mounted toilet), no toe clearance is required.

Drywall toilet compartments and single-user restrooms

A toilet compartment fully enclosed with drywall involves the use of framing and drywall to create floor-to-ceiling partitions on both the fronts and sides of each toilet compartment. The cost of a fully enclosed system can run high. Depending on design, special tile to cover interior walls could drive up costs. Fully enclosed systems also require more expensive door hardware, different trades like framing, drywall, paint, and tile, and need separate lighting, HVAC, and fire suppression systems. These systems take up a large amount of space, more room than a traditional partition is required for the depth and width of each compartment due to the framing needed for drywall and the framed doors.

Fully enclosed with drywall wheelchair accessible toilet compartment dimensions must be greater than 1676 mm wide and 1575 mm deep with a wall-hung toilet (or 1651 mm deep with a floor-mounted toilet), as there is no toe clearance with the full, room-height walls.

A single-user restroom involves creating individual restrooms with all necessary fixtures self-contained in a room. The cost of a single-user system will always be on the highest end for several reasons. Special tile to cover interior walls could drive up costs. Single-user systems also require the most expensive door hardware, many different trades like framing, drywall, paint, tile and others, separate lighting, HVAC, and fire suppression systems to meet local codes, and, most expensively, separate restroom fixtures for each individual room. When constructing individual toilet rooms with lavatories, the wall material must be fire code-compliant, just like a traditional toilet partition system’s doors, panels and stiles.

Indirect costs may also include the extra space they can take up. Additional space is required for the depth and width of each room due to the framing needed for drywall and framed doors. More space will be required for individual restroom fixtures in each room as well as ensuring the appropriate number of single-user restrooms that are ADA compliant, including clear floor space at the toilet and lavatory, as well as wheelchair turning space.

Optimizing privacy with cubicles and partitions

European-style cubicles and traditional partitions can feature a number of options that can further optimize privacy.

Integrated no-sightline privacy doors and stiles have routed edges, resulting in an interlocking design with no sightlines. This typically produces flush styling across a series of doors and stiles. Since precision is critical when it comes to features like no-sightline doors, it is important each panel is manufactured to strict tolerances. With stock door sizes, builders tend to compensate for discrepancies between plans and what is available by increasing gaps at all stiles and doors. Companies that provide made-to-order partition materials can make doors and panels to nearly exact dimensions, resulting in little to no gaps.

At the front of compartments, additional features can enhance privacy. Full-height or continuous hardware includes brackets running from the bottom of the door and panel to the top. Occupancy indicator latches provide users with peace of mind by eliminating the need to look under the door to check for occupancy.

Cost-benefit analyses

While it may seem appealing to specify a solution providing the greatest level of privacy, there are many considerations to keep in mind. It is critical to consider the amount of space allotted for the restroom, the cost of the privacy solution compared to the project budget, the construction implications, and the number of trades required to achieve privacy and ensure the restroom is up to code.

Possible trades may include:

All solutions typically involve tiling and paint.

Evaluating all-gender restrooms

These construction implications should be considered when deciding between gendered restrooms and all-gender restrooms. Generally, an all-gender restroom will be somewhat more expensive than a gendered restroom with the same square footage and intended capacity, due to increased costs for both the toilet compartments and associated infrastructure costs.

In gendered restrooms, increased-height toilet compartments are often the best choice, as they are an extremely cost-effective method of achieving an increased level of privacy compared to standard toilet compartments. Extended-height toilet compartments can also be a good choice, although they may offer increased construction costs due to the number of trades involved.

For all-gender restrooms, the combination of cost effectiveness and very high level of privacy often make extended-height toilet compartments the best choice. Fully enclosed with drywall compartments may also be a good option due to the extremely high level of privacy, but they may result in increased construction costs.

In both gendered and all-gender restrooms, individual toilet rooms with lavatories are an inefficient use of space, resources, time, and money, while providing limited user capacity compared to all other privacy solutions.

Comparing the implications of privacy solutions

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The panels of increased-height toilet compartments are usually 1829 mm (72 in.) tall.

Standard toilet compartments with 1473-mm tall doors and panels with 2159-mm (85-in.) tall stiles will cost between $650 and $1500 per compartment, for a total of $3750 to $7500 for a five-compartment layout. There are typically no infrastructure implications. Only plumbing and tiling services are required.

Increased height toilet partitions with 1829-mm tall doors and panels with 2159-mm tall stiles will cost between $1500 and $2200 per compartment, for a total for $7500 to $11,000. There are no infrastructure implications. Only plumbing and tiling are required.

Extended height toilet partitions feature doors, stiles, and panels to fit the room’s height. They cost between $2200 and $2600 per compartment for a total cost of $11,000 to $18,000, plus about $900 per compartment for separate HVAC, fire suppression systems, and alarms, as well as lighting. Plumbing, tiling, electrical, and mechanical services are required.

A fully enclosed compartment with drywall to fit the room’s height will cost from $2700 to $4000 per room, totaling $13,500 to $20,000 or more. The client will also pay around $900 for infrastructure and must coordinate six trades: plumbing, framing and drywall, painting, tiling, electrical, and mechanical.

A single-user individual toilet room with lavatory will require all necessary fixtures to be self-contained. This will cost approximately $20,000 to $25,000 per room and will require trades like framing, drywall, paint, tile and others, separate lighting, HVAC and fire suppression systems, and, most expensively, separate restroom fixtures for each individual room. More space will be required for individual restroom fixtures in each room as well as making sure there is the appropriate number of single-user restrooms that are ADA compliant.

ADA/ICC compliance considerations

While toilet cubicles and partitions should be designed with the privacy needs of occupants in mind, applicable accessibility requirements still apply.

When choosing a privacy solution, it is critical to consider and account for the space required to satisfy ADA and/or the International Code Council (ICC) A117.1-2017, Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, requirements. Some of these considerations include the width of entrances, exits, and aisles, as well as wheelchair turning space. Wheelchair accessible toilet compartments present challenges with horizontal and vertical toe clearance requirements, which can often be alleviated by deeper and/or wider compartments. Ambulatory accessible toilet compartments must meet ADA and ICC A117.1-2017 requirements for width dimensions, door pull hardware, door swing direction, and horizontal grab bars.

Conclusion

As more patrons come to expect privacy in commercial and institutional restrooms, so do building owners and developers. Restroom privacy has transcended trend status and is now a design convention. A range of options are available to design professionals today to satisfy their project requirements while staying sensible, on time, and within budget.

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/EastWest04.jpg
  2. as proposed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA): https://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/an-unexpected-ally-in-gender-neutral-restrooms-building-codes_o
  3. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/b-2111-replacement.jpg
  4. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Map2.jpg
  5. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Bobrick_SanAntonio_135.jpg
  6. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/evolve-render-no-fascias-front-brushed-aluminum-print.jpg
  7. dleigh@bobrick.com: mailto:dleigh@bobrick.com

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