One Design Does Not Fit All

Defining sustainability and usability in commercial bathrooms.

Designing a modern bathroom involves more considerations and more ways to accommodate them than ever before. Knowing what to choose is driven in no small part by the goals of the design, priorities of the user and particular needs of the application.

There are very few universal truths when it comes to bathroom design, and certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. But there are two main perspectives to take into account when designing a well-functioning, long-lasting bathroom.

Designing for sustainability

As sustainability issues continue to increase in breadth and intensity across nearly every facet of building design and construction, water conservation has become a leading issue in bathroom design. 

According to the EPA, restrooms account for 28 percent of water use in office buildings, 35 percent in hospitals and 45 percent in schools, so cutting water consumption in basic needs like toilets and sinks can have a significant impact in overall conservation.

Technology in urinals, toilets and faucets allows them to operate far more efficiently than even 10 years ago, without sacrificing performance.

Urinals, for instance, can be flushed with a pint of water, an 88 percent water savings over the historical one-gallon. In the past several years alone, toilets have gone from a standard 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) to 1.28 gpf, and some manufacturers are now producing models as low as 1.1 gpf.

Faucets are perhaps the easiest place to realize immediate water savings. A minimal investment of time and resources can dramatically reduce water flow in dated fixtures. Adding or updating aerators can cut flow to as little as 0.35 gallons gpm.

Additionally, choosing hands-free sensor faucets has been shown to cut water use by as much as one gallon per hand wash by activating water flow only when it’s needed.

Other developments in plumbing, like waterless urinals, further enhance conservation efforts. 

Hydrogenerators can be used to power sensor faucets and touchless flush valves. By harnessing the flow of water through a turbine, these devices can provide enough power to operate the devices for up to 10 years, eliminating the need for batteries or electrical connections.

While water is often the first consideration when it comes to bathroom sustainability, it’s not the only one. A holistic approach to sustainability also entails looking at what materials are used in all areas of the facility.

More and more manufacturers are offering products made of recycled materials, and many also incorporate sustainable practices into their own processes, allowing a facility to emphasize sustainability throughout the supply chain in designing and outfitting its restrooms.

No discussion of sustainability in the bathroom is complete without visiting the hand dryer vs. paper towel debate. Electric air dryers are often favored for their sustainability — reducing the waste and regular expense of paper towels — but there has been some pushback from users who feel like their hands don’t get effectively dried and who want to use towels to grasp bathroom door handles on the way out.

Designing for usability

Three issues are primary when designing for usability: the needs of the facility, the budget and who will be using the restroom. 

For example, while hands-free systems might be preferred in hospital or high-end office applications, they can add significantly to the budget of a project — often three to four times the cost of traditional manual faucets — and are likely ill-suited for an average middle school, where ruggedness and durability are paramount. There, a metering faucet that’s hard to damage or vandalize might be a better option.

Likewise, a hydrogenerator that’s an excellent choice in airport restrooms that are used heavily year-round might perform poorly in a school that experiences extended periods of disuse, potentially causing power issues when school is back in session. 

Maintenance considerations can also play a role in restroom design. A sensor faucet is virtually maintenance-free, aside from maintaining the power supply as needed. A manual faucet can require periodic maintenance to replace cartridges, o-rings and other wearable parts. 

Aside from product needs, the nature of the end users themselves can also make a significant impact on maintenance needs. Consider that same middle school, where a sensor faucet or flush valve with a visible electronic lens may become a target for gum, scratching or other instances of vandalism. 

Small considerations can lessen the maintenance and ongoing costs of a bathroom. Vandal-resistant aerators, for instance, prevent users from removing the aerator, which leads to significantly higher flow rates — and thus higher water bills and more unplanned maintenance to repair or replace the parts. 

For many types of facilities, particularly health care, hygiene considerations are also a driving force behind bathroom design choices.  

Hands-free fixtures are a particularly popular choice in such settings. From flush valves and faucets to soap dispensers and hand dryers or towel dispensers, it’s possible that an entire restroom can be practically touchless, reducing the risk of potential cross-contamination. 

And the currently expanding trend of integrating sinks into countertops eliminates the seam where the two materials meet, a spot where dirt can collect and contaminants can multiply.

Materials selection can also impact hygiene. Quartz and solid surface countertops, for instance, offer non-porous surfaces that minimize bacteria growth and are low-maintenance.

Identifying bathroom design goals at the outset — whether they be sustainability, hygiene, durability or a combination of many factors — is key to creating a facility that’ll serve the users’ needs and withstand the test of time.     

David Scelsi is marketing product manager with T&S Brass.

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