So let’s talk business. Not your office business, not your business, not THE business, but doing the business. I have been looking at a wide variety of books lately both from my library and on the internet. In my recent online perusal, I came across this book … Public Restroom Design by Jacky Suchail (2019). This book leads me to think about my work and the number of public use restrooms I have designed in my 20 years of practice thus far. Even when I omit those I have designed for educational facilities, which is quite numerous, I am still in the double digits for public restroom projects.
Huh? What? Well, I have done quite a few public projects which consisted of a public restroom facility. Some of these have even been stand-alone restroom projects; meaning that was the only item to design. I will be the first to admit they are not glamorous projects, but I have learned that they can be quite fun if approached correctly. I have proposed many ideas over the years that did not get built due to their non-traditional concepts for public restrooms, but I think that notion is experiencing a bit of change recently in some circles. Now many of these projects are for parks, trails, roadside rest stops, and other outdoor recreation type spaces so the project is quite literally a building alone in a field. That provides some interesting possibilities for design. It is almost like a blank slate. Although on the flip side, these projects usually have very small budgets, so you have to keep that in mind. I seem to find that a majority of the clients often view these spaces a 150% utilitarian, which can also limit your design options. Yet this is a typology that is often overlooked and under-served when it comes to design.
One of the things that I always attempt to do is bring in natural light to these public spaces. Typically they are small and not the most pleasant place to spend time, but I think that with natural light they become much more amenable. So that is almost always my number one priority in the conceptual phase is to create some way for natural light to reach the space. Sometimes that is easier than others. But it is always a goal for me.
As I said, I have completed several of this project type. Some have been rather boring, but some have been interesting, to say the least. One of my ideas that never made it past the conceptual phase was for the project image below. It is a public use restroom in one of the community’s busiest nightspot districts. The reason for this project was quite amusing in itself … the police were tired of writing tickets for public urination once the bars closed so the city decided to build this facility. My original concept was based on the city’s guidelines for all projects in this “district” of the town; Any new building was to be 75% glazed below a height of 8’-0”. So my initial concept was to meet that requirement and had fully glazed walls below 8’-0”. They would be opaque glazing with interior lighting that would allow the movement inside to be seen, but only as vague silhouettes. I thought it was a great idea on many levels: it met the city code; it would allow the police to see if foul play was happening inside; it would deter anyone from really staying in there too long; and it would just have been cool! But unfortunately, they did not want to go that direction. While I did not think that they would, I had to pitch it solely based on the way it would not require a variance by the city planning department. They had valid concerns about the possible vandalism of the glazing and the following maintenance issue that could create. Also, they did not really like the idea of visibility; even if very blurred. So we ended up with the below. It was somewhat difficult to create a prison grade restroom for durability and meet the other “aesthetic” requirements of the city for this specific entertainment zone.
I have a few of these type projects under construction at the moment for the parks department. It is actually 3 separate facilities in two separate parks. But they are of this public restroom nature. There are two is will share at this time with some of the information about the basic concepts. As I mentioned earlier, I have a goal to have natural light in as much of these spaces as possible. With these two facilities I have managed to make that possible and hopefully, that will make the space more inhabitable for the short periods of time a user will occupy. I am proposing these projects as great feats of design, but just what’s happening in my practice at the moment and I wanted to share some parts of the thought process I think is important for this type of small project.
The first project was easier to set up due to its location and the fact that it stands alone in a field. We went with a single slope form that opens to the northeast. This allowed us to get natural light easily into the restroom spaces and not worry too much about heat gain. As these may not be conditioned spaces. To help with the issue of heat, we also make the spaces with a high volume to allow as much heat to rise as possible. Again this decision comes from the conceptual phase when we are not certain of the HVAC situation. We also adapted some Texas vernacular with the dog trot look to separate the restrooms from the storage spaces and to provide a space to find some shade on hot Texas days.
Some of the working drawings for this project. Basic elevations (above) and sections (below) While these are not award-winning designs, I believe they are cleanly presented and detailed in a manner that provides clarity of both the purpose of the facility and the means to construct it. In the sections, you can see the way in which the easterly clerestory windows provide daylight into the main space. Large symbols allow for easy navigation from the surrounding large open park fields. The restrooms are accessible from two facades to again aid in the ability to serve the park patrons.
The other project is one that was required to tightly fit into an existing space of a building that was demolished. This was a tight squeeze. But again on this project, we achieved the allowances for natural light into the space. Also, we provided a high volume to help alleviate heat buildup as much as possible. Here, we pushed up the central area to allow for the clerestory to be on all four sides of the façade to increase our ability to reach natural light.
While this may add some heat gain, we really wanted the daylight. Luckily the area has a few close trees that will aid in filtering some of the harsher light. This one took a bit more “active” modification to ensure we had daylight where we wanted. We created some sloped light shelves to help reflect and push light into the spaces. The sloping was also a practical consideration for other not so glamorous reasons. But it should aid in allowing the light to penetrate the space a bit deeper. Hopefully, that becomes evident at the conclusion of the project.
One of my favorite projects in this genre is a local project located in Austin, Texas. The Lady Bird Loo by Mell Lawrence Architects is a great example of creativity in this project type. It is in the park system of the city and won several awards, even an AIA National Design Award in 2017! A design award for a public restroom!!!
So all in all, these projects present their own kind of design challenges that may not always come to mind at first pass. While I have many grand ideas for public facilities like this if I ever get the chance, I think the qualities I want to provide in all of these facilities should be an essential baseline. They do not need to be “throw-away” projects but should be considered a chance to make the mundane a bit better through design and thoughtful consideration. If you have some other examples, I would love to see them so please share.
Until next time,