A Nice Place to Visit

Sometimes things aren't what they seem.

Walk into a high-school washroom, and you might see a mirror on the wall above a sink. Seems like a sensible setup for a washroom, right?

But a facility planner who sees that arrangement envisions not only the bathroom fixtures themselves, but also the students who will be lingering a little too long in front of the mirror as they fiddle with their hair and monitor the latest changes in their complexion. The planner also sees the students who will be propping themselves on adjacent sinks to discuss the latest boyfriend-girlfriend developments with their mirror-gazing friends.

What was supposed to be a quick visit to the washroom has become a drawn-out social gathering. The gaggle of students dawdling at the sinks clogs the flow of traffic in and out of the washroom, and students have to rush to take care of their bathroom needs and get to their next class before the bell rings. And, if students continue to plop themselves on those sinks day after day, the sinks eventually will be ripped from the wall and fall to the ground.

All because of a mirror above a sink.

“Don't put mirrors over sinks,” says Steve Taynton, an architect in the planning department of the North Carolina Department of Education. “It promotes socialization. You don't want to encourage that there.”

Those are the kinds of scenarios that school planners such as Taynton try to foresee and defuse when addressing one of the traditional trouble spots in a school building — the bathroom. By planning thoroughly and anticipating the consequences of those design decisions, schools can provide students with suitable washrooms that do not require excessive maintenance, and are not settings for bullying and vandalism.

Averting temptation

The design of a school washroom should allow students to attend to their needs without giving them opportunities to find something more interesting than going on to class. The size of a washroom can determine whether a student finds it a desirable place to hang out. A lavatory should have enough toilets to let a classroom of students use the facilities quickly, but it shouldn't have so many fixtures that large numbers of students can congregate, says Taynton.

“We recommend no more than five fixtures,” says Taynton. “If bathrooms become too large they become meeting places. You don't want fewer than five — the lines move too slowly.”

If a facility must be larger, it should have a second door to let traffic flow more easily and allow better supervision.

As noted above, Taynton thinks mirrors above sinks aren't a good idea for school washrooms. “We recommend a full-length mirror near the exit, so students can check themselves before going out,” he says.

Using durable materials such as ceramic tile or epoxy paint can deter students from marking up walls and partitions with graffiti. Fixtures controlled by infrared signals help prevent students from leaving faucets running or toilets unflushed and are less likely to be vandalized, says Steve Newsom, an architect with the School Facilities Planning Division of the California Department of Education. Flush valves are preferable to toilet tanks, which often are a target for vandalism, and electric hand dryers can help schools avoid the mess often left behind when students have access to paper towels, Newsom adds.

School washrooms should not have lay-in ceiling tiles, says Taynton.

“We recommend moisture-resistant gypsum board,” he says. “Ceiling tiles start to sag from the moisture of a washroom… and students can hide contraband up there.”

A watchful eye

Many of the problems associated with school lavatories — bullying, vandalism, uncleanliness — can be attributed to lack of supervision. A washroom that teachers can monitor more easily will be less likely to have trouble occur.

In North Carolina, planners recommend that school bathrooms be situated on main circulation paths between classrooms and major support spaces such as the cafeteria, gymnasium or media center.

“It should be in a section of the hallway where some staff is likely to be around to supervise or hear if something is going on,” says Taynton.

The entrance into the washroom should not have doors. “There should be a maze entry,” says Taynton. “That allows for auditory supervision, and it keeps people from getting hit by the door as it opens. The opening also allows staff members to smell cigarette smoke.”

Newsom adds that many washrooms are being designed with sinks for hand washing in the hallway instead of inside the washroom. That arrangement minimizes the time inside the washroom and allows teachers to make sure that students are washing their hands properly.

Another proposed solution to the problems that arise with group toilets is to eliminate them and install individual toilets in schools, as California has done in many of its state parks. An architect formerly with the California Department of Education suggested in an article that schools should look at providing single-user washrooms for individual classrooms, but Newsom says the proposal has not gained many supporters among school administrators.

“I haven't seen any schools going with the state parks scenario,” says Newsom. “It would make schools more expensive to build.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


▪ 5

Recommended number of flushing fixtures in a school washroom.

Facilities Guidelines, North Carolina Department of Education.

▪ 12

Number of inches a toilet partition should be above the floor (to allow visual supervision).

Facilities Guidelines, North Carolina Department of Education.

▪ 5.5

Recommended height in feet of toilet partition in a school washroom.

Facilities Guidelines, North Carolina Department of Education.

▪ 3 TO 5

Recommended square feet per student for toilets.

California Department of Education.

SIDEBAR: Trust and expectations

What kind of washroom facilities should a school provide? Some administrators, stung by repeated vandalism of their schools' washrooms, have chosen to lock their facilities in the interests of security. Others may opt to try to cut their losses and install the most durable, damage-proof equipment and fixtures, regardless of aesthetics.

But if they do, they may pay a price in the kind of school climate it creates and the message they are sending to students.

“The decisions about school washrooms always seem to be a reaction to something bad that can happen,” says Steve Newsom, an architect with the School Facilities Planning Division of the California Department of Education. “You should make the facilities desirable and appreciated, instead of heavy-duty and prison-like.

“When you use this heavy-duty equipment, it seems to say to students, ‘Give me a try… just try to destroy me.’”

For instance, Newsom says, many schools try to avoid having washroom mirrors broken by installing stainless-steel mirrors instead of glass mirrors.

“When you start out with a stainless-steel mirror instead of a glass mirror, you are sending the message that you expect it to be vandalized,” says Newsom. “And you don't necessarily save money with the stainless steel. They can be expensive to replace, too.”

Give students facilities in which they can take pride, and give them a chance to show they can treat the facilities with the proper respect and care, says Newsom. Bathrooms with better natural light, and walls and floors with pleasing colors and textures, will create a better climate that could improve the ambience of the entire school.

“It boils down to providing something that's decent and maintaining it, and then fostering the attitude of treating something right,” says Newsom.

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