Six ways the pandemic is changing restroom design

Marianne Wilson
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The COVID-19 pandemic is fast-tracking infection control technologies and products in public restrooms.

Businesses, along with educational institutions and municipalities, are all now evaluating new procedures and products for their restroom facilities, according to Bradley Corp., a global manufacturer of restroom equipment. 

“While cleanliness has always been a goal in designing restrooms, coronavirus has underscored the need for hygienic, sterile and safe environments,” said Jon Dommisse, Bradley’s director of strategy and corporate development;

Michelle Kempen, of Milwaukee-based architectural firm Kahler Slater, added that businesses are looking at short-term and long-term fixes for operating safely.

“The goal is to create safe and healthy indoor environments that reduce the spread of airborne and surface contaminants.”

Kempen and Dommisse identified the following design strategies to help guard against coronavirus and other germ transmission in public restrooms:

1. No-touch fixtures
Today’s touchless hand washing models incorporate advanced sensing technology for continuous and reliable washing, Kempen noted.

“Voice command and IoT are other up-and-coming hands-free technologies for restrooms,” she said. “Automatic door openers typically seen to support accessible design are now also being implemented in locations to prevent hand-surface contact.”
Dommisse added that the Healthy Hand Washing Survey by Bradley Corp. showed that 91% of Americans believe it’s important that public restrooms are equipped with touchless fixtures.

“Touchless restrooms are here to stay,” he said.

2. Improved ventilation
“We are seeing clients consider using more robust HVAC systems throughout their facilities but especially in shared spaces such as in restrooms,” Kempen explained. “Ventilating with outdoor air is vital to diluting airborne contaminants.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 appears to spread indoors through close personal contact and via poor circulation of building ventilation systems. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) advises that ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems can reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 and thus the risk of transmission through air.

3. Modified layouts
Even before COVID-19, European restroom models with gender-neutral layouts were gaining popularity. A parallel can be drawn between the benefits of a restroom planned to be gender-neutral and planned to address COVID-19 concerns, according to Kempen. 

“The European model of stalls forming a perimeter around communal washing stations with open circulation may be a layout we see more of in the U.S.,” she predicted. “This design can help facilitate one-way traffic and minimize cross-traffic.”

Design elements such as eliminating doors, adding S-curved and automated doors and widening doorways are also gaining traction.

4. Avoiding wet floors
Water dripping from hands onto floors can cause slips and falls, and breed bacteria, Kempen noted. To avoid wet floors, she suggests locating soap and drying options close to sinks so people needn’t move from the sink with wet hands. 

“I see a big opportunity for sleek all-in-one hand washing fixtures that have the soap, faucet and dryer all in one unit to contain water,” she added.

5. Antimicrobial finishes and materials
Some high-touch restroom surfaces such as grab bars are available with antimicrobial coatings.

“Before COVID-19, the design community was seeing a lot of antimicrobial layers and coatings on products,” Kempen said. “We are now seeing a rise from facility managers and building owners requesting this option as an enhanced safety precaution for their customers. Clients are also considering products that are inherently antimicrobial such as copper.”

6. Sink materials and designs
For sinks, using smooth and nonporous materials with seamless construction such as solid surface and natural quartz helps prevent bacteria, mold and delamination accumulation, Dommisse recommended. 

“For multi-user restrooms, new washbasin designs with increased space between the hand washing areas allow for social distancing while washing hands,” he added.

While there are a number of infection control measures on the horizon for restrooms, in the short-term it’s still important to keep six feet of distance between people, wash hands with soap and water, dry hands completely, wear masks and limit crowding in restroom areas, he noted.