Keeping the Dialogue Flowing

April 1, 2001
The success of any restroom construction or renovation project requires effective communication among all parties.

What's the best way to design a school restroom? It depends on whom you ask.

Architects might define a successful restroom design as one that creates a functional arrangement of components without using excessive space. An engineer may cite traffic flow or water usage as key design issues. Others may point to capacity, accessibility or hygiene.

Dennis Eash, director of facilities for School District 46 in Grayslake, Ill., has a slightly different slant. “Maintenance is my No. 1 concern when it comes to restroom design,” he says. “Preventing vandalism is right up there, too.”

Although their answers may vary, architects, engineers and facility managers agree on one point: the success of any school restroom construction or renovation project requires effective communication between all parties from the start.

“It helps to have a lot of dialogue with our clients because each job involves a unique situation,” says Fred Schuster, principal with Ruck/Pate Architecture in Barrington, Ill. “We start out by checking with the facility directors for their preferences and then incorporate the engineers' suggestions. The facility directors often have strong preferences that are fueled by the opinions of their maintenance staff.”

Eash, who previously has worked with Schuster on projects, agrees that communicating with architects and engineers during the planning stages helps him and his staff avoid headaches. “It's worth spending the time upfront so that we don't have to spend all of our time later doing maintenance.”


Many of the preferences that facility directors embrace are influenced by years of maintenance experience. For instance, Eash prefers automatic, concealed flush valves with infrared sensors. “They prevent vandalism, and maintenance is easy — just remove the 10-by-12 metal plate on the wall and you have full access,” he says.

Schuster agrees that easy maintenance is an important consideration. “We look for plumbing products that are simple, dependable, reliable and readily accessible,” he says. “The key is ease of maintenance in water closets, lavatories and urinals. Being able to properly clean and repair these fixtures is critical.”

Schuster says he has also noticed that more elementary schools are installing faucets with infrared sensors. This increased demand for touchfree faucets may be in response to the recent attention given to certain types of bacteria and viruses that are spread through hand transmission, and the related need for educating children in better handwashing practices.

“Hygiene is a critical issue, especially in elementary schools where hand-washing training is key,” says Schuster. “Obviously faucets that are easy to operate will encourage effective hand-washing.” Whereas hygiene and maintenance issues are an integral part of school restroom design, other issues such as traffic flow, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and water conservation also should be considered.


It seems only logical for schools to pay attention to traffic patterns and accessibility requirements when designing school restrooms. It quickly becomes apparent, however, when a restroom has been designed without considering these issues: sinks at inappropriate heights or no logical progression from the placement of soap dispensers, towels or hand dryers and trash cans.

Attention to detail is the key. There are no specific ADA requirements when it comes to restroom layout, so it is essential for school officials to communicate their preferences based on their experiences.

Preventing vandalism is another key consideration for restroom design. Concealed flush valves are one choice to keep destruction of property to a minimum, and automatic faucets reduce wear and tear while improving hygiene. Building trash containers and towel dispensers into the wall helps discourage abuse, and many schools are also opting to remove restroom doors completely.

Other design options include:

  • Motion sensors instead of light switches.

  • Plastic stalls with heavyweight hinges.

  • Urinals without edges to prevent crusty buildup.

  • Toilet seats made with anti-bacterial coating to improve hygiene.

  • Hanging toilets to ease maintenance.

  • Ceramic tiling on floors and walls to enhance appearance.


Although national standards mandate the use of specific water-saving restroom fixtures, such as 1.6-gpf toilets, the emphasis on water conservation in school restrooms varies from state to state.

Schools and universities can conserve water through the use of programmable shower systems in locker rooms and residence halls. Whether showers are left running inadvertently or because of a prank, the amount of wasted water and damage from flooding can cost schools a great deal of time and money.

Today, microprocessor technology and advanced electronics can control the duration of showers, turn showers on or off at specified times, allow for delay between activations and even provide information on how often and how much water is used.

Kennedy is director of marketing for Sloan Valve, Franklin Park, Ill.

When retrofitting, think electronics

If your school's plumbing maintenance costs are rising or the restroom fixtures are inefficient because of age or wear and tear — and no plans for renovation are in sight — it may be time to consider a retrofit.

Retrofits tend to be an economical alternative to renovation. Careful planning of a retrofit can minimize some of the physical barriers in existing structures and can help preserve the interior character of older buildings.

Using electronics can make a retrofit even more beneficial. Electronically controlled equipment can help conserve water, control bacteria and promote hygiene.

Many electronic products were not available when the majority of schools were built. In addition to helping comply with ADA regulations, these plumbing fixtures have durable construction and concealed electronics that deter vandalism.

An electronic valve can conserve water by controlling the timing of the flush and eliminating the handle. In addition, electronic valves eliminate the need for schools to use costly chemicals to mask restroom odors. The valves on urinals and in water closets are able to “see” the presence (or absence) of a user. As the user steps away from the fixture, the valve automatically flushes.

Preventing corrosive buildup is another advantage to retrofitting with electronic fixtures. During down times, such as summer vacation, valves can remain idle for months. Electronically controlled valves can be set to flush periodically even when no user is present. One flush every 24 hours helps alleviate the chance of buildup.

Battery-operated electronic flush valves have no wiring and are as easy to install and maintain as manual valves. It takes approximately 10 minutes to switch a manual valve to electronic, usually without the need for an electrician.

Electronically controlled faucets also can be part of a school's restroom retrofit. They are programmable for temperature and duration of spray, and there is no chance of someone accidentally leaving it on. Faucets, too, can be battery-operated with the controls situated safely beneath the sink. Best of all, electronic faucets are water savers just like their flush-valve cousins — saving 15 to 48 percent in water use over traditional faucets.

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