Will history view this generation’s battle with COVID as being similar to what humanity dealt with during the Spanish flu? And what does that mean for how we design buildings of the future?
Let’s look at the baseline similarities and differences between the two pandemics.
One of the main timeline differences between the two is that the Spanish flu occurred in a more condensed period than what we are seeing with COVID-19.
The similarities are what we should focus on however.
- Both diseases have been deadly and have taken many lives. While we have many advances in medicine today, we are a much more physically close knit and mobile world and the spread of any disease can be exponentially faster and more widespread than in the past.
- The Spanish flue had three distinct waves. With infection rates currently on the upswing as of April 2022, we seem to be in the third, and hopefully final, wave of COVID-19.
- The Spanish flu never really went away – it stayed with us, and today we know it as the seasonal flu. Experts believe that COVID-19 will fare similarly with predictions that we will have to deal with it in some state of severity for about one more year, after which it will graduate from a pandemic to an endemic. We will have to deal with it in that form from then on.
What does that mean to building and bathroom design? Last year we wrote about “Ushering in a new era in bathroom design, after which we wrote about “Navigating Today, Solving for Tomorrow”. Today we must shift our focus to a longer timeline than just tomorrow.
To repeat my earlier sentiment - we must change before we have to so we can mitigate the damage from our inability to change fast enough when the out-of-the-ordinary transpires. We have dealt with a pandemic that has spread for the most part due to a function of space, mobility, connectivity, and an unequal ability or discipline to adhere to the solutions outlined by the medical profession and governments globally. We have known of the spatial issues of a growing population and increasing densities, hyper connectedness and the fast movement of people around the world. But our systems and environment have not been designed to account for many of these challenges. In fact we have taken an opposite tack - we have made movement far easier, fostered our ability to connect and increased our ability to participate in events in large numbers.
Design elements that have worked in the past will need to be altered and standards that we have taken for granted will need to be revisited. We have a heightened focus on the need for safe environments, and we must find a way to weave that into the delicate balance that has been achieved between aesthetics, functionality, sustainability, efficiency, and productivity. There is a new and elevated standard for design, and the metrics we have used to judge success are being re-written.
The best buildings have always been ones where every aspect of the structure is in simpatico with the other. Every design element is integrated with, and accentuates, the other. The energy efficiency of the building envelope adds to the beauty of the facade. The inviting yet secure entrance leads to the fluidity and safety of the interior spaces. And the deliberate design that goes into the other parts of the building carries through to the bathrooms— because bathrooms are critical to the human experience.
For occupants that interact with a building on a daily basis, the bathroom is often the most used room in a building, and it can become the cornerstone for how the entire building is perceived.
Our built-in need for privacy is laid bare in public bathrooms, most of which are designed for multiple users and simultaneous use. Today more than ever before our need to feel safe is paramount and this can cause public bathrooms to bring out deep-rooted fears, which may manifest in a visceral response. While some people may be mildly bothered by the thought of using a public washroom, others are paralyzed by the prospect—to the point that they cannot use the washroom while it is occupied by others.
One-hundred percent of the opinion of the building can be affected by less than 1% of the cost of the building—and that is about what a bathroom costs.
One of the other problems central to the spread of the pandemic is that there was a local, fragmented response to a global problem. Collaboration will be key to our future. There needs to be collaboration within the construction industry between architects and product manufacturers, building owners and government entities and everyone in between. Beyond that there also needs to be greater collaboration between architects on a global level. There is no point if there are stringent standards in a handful of countries while very low ones elsewhere. As evidenced by this pandemic we are only as strong as the weakest link. We have an opportunity to create new global standards for how we live, work, move, and thrive.
When the Model-T FORD began coming of the assembly line Mr. Ford famously noted that you can have any color you want as long as it is black. That doesn’t work anymore especially in the built environment.
Every building has a unique use type, and even different sections within the same building should be viewed through a different lens as it relates to the types of products and materials in bathrooms. So when shopping for washroom accessories, toilet partitions, or even lockers, one of the top criteria when choosing a manufacturer, should be determining whether or not they have every type of material and product in their category, so that you have a full suite of options with which to create your vision. Choice matters—make sure you have plenty of it. Collaborate with building product manufacturers that offer CHOICE
Great Bathrooms: a universal design checklist
Let’s briefly go through a checklist to help you create a space that is both aesthetically pleasing as well as functionally appropriate. Below are some of the key elements that constitute good bathroom design, and we will explore how they intertwine.
This is not an optional attribute. Fortunately, privacy can be ensured with good design and proper installation. However, uneven floors or changes in wall dimensions during construction can cause gaps between the doors and pilasters, and can even cause locking mechanisms to get compromised if the stalls are installed askew. If there is concern of that happening, a good option would be to specify European-style partitions that are defined by extra height on both doors and panels, adjustable pedestals to accommodate for uneven floors, superior hardware, and routed edges at sightlines between doors and pilasters that eliminate visibility into the stalls.
Mitigating safety risks from hazards, such as wet floors, are a function of good design. One tip is to create an optimal ratio between sinks and the number of drying stations, as well as their location, to reduce the chances of water from dripping hands ending up on the floor.
Accessibility: Ensuring accessibility for people with every type of physical ability is fundamental. It is important to have a complete understanding of the intent of ADA codes that address issues like circulation path, maneuverability, clear floor space, reach ranges, mirror mounting height, and even door swings among others. If manufacturers of washroom accessories and partitions don’t have the experience or bandwidth to meet unique needs, specifying products that adhere to local laws can be a challenge. Careful consideration of product choice will create a safe space or everyone.
Fire standards: There are two standard test methods used to measure level of fire safety of interior finishes. The first, ASTM E-84, tests the surface burning characteristics of building materials using a tunnel test method. The other standard is a rigorous room corner test, performed in accordance with NFPA 286, which measures the contribution of interior finish materials to room fire growth during specified fire exposure conditions. Make sure that you use the most stringent testing methods to meet the highest standard of fire safety.
Toilet partitions material and style choices:
Partitions make one of the biggest visual and material impacts in the bathroom simply because they take up a lot of the real estate. There are a number of material options: powder coated, stainless steel, solid plastic, plastic laminate, and phenolic. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and each fulfills a specific task in different bathrooms. The way partitions are mounted can also impact the ease of maintenance and the types of cleaning products one can use. Seeking a source that offers multiple material and construction options will give architects a complete palette to choose from.
Washroom accessories are sometimes viewed as minor, and choices may even be left to a building manager. An important decision is good material choice—specifying washroom accessories only made of type 304 stainless steel, the standard for the washroom industry, will go a long way in sustainability. Free plastic dispensers or even low-grade dispensing systems offered by some consumable companies, like paper towel or soap suppliers, take away from the overall design intent of the architect. This can lead to mismatched selections, a misalignment of aesthetics, and it can end up costing the building owner more than if these selections were made by the design team. Getting locked into a contract with a specific brand of consumables that use a free but proprietary dispenser can cause the building owner to be at the mercy of the manufacturer’s supply chain—and we have learned that to be daunting during the upheaval caused by the pandemic of 2020.
Hand Washing and Drying:
One of the challenges for any facility management team is having enough consumables, particularly during high-volume events—that includes keeping soap dispensers filled. Specifying top fill, multi-feed systems can make maintenance fast and cost effective—creating a better occupant experience. Waste receptacles with the appropriate capacity can make a big difference in improving hygiene at a stadium or even in an airport.
There has been an ongoing debate as to the best choice for drying hands: paper towels or hand dryers. If you speak with a manufacturer that only makes hand dryers, they may never guide you to install a paper towel dispenser even if that may be the better option in a particular use-case. In speaking with a manufacturer of only paper consumables, you may get an opposite, but equally adulterated, opinion. While the debate may be worth having, choosing a manufacturer that offers both hand dryers and paper towel dispensers will ensure that you get unbiased guidance from your manufacturer’s representative.
Allowing for diversity of use and population:
High-frequency or high-demand facilities, like stadiums, must be designed with high-capacity dispensers and waste receptacles to create a fluid path of travel through the bathroom and to alleviate long lines. Stadium owners, public or municipal, will face a negative financial impact as a patron’s time is wasted in a bathroom line, rather than being used to spend money at the checkout line at a concession stand or in a merchandise store.
Public bathrooms must cater to the varied needs of people from different cultures or walks of life.
Accommodating people with heightened needs for privacy or accessibility is important. Having the appropriate products to attract customers is also important—for example, a shopping mall that has plenty of diaper changing stations in both the men’s and women’s bathrooms will undoubtedly attract more families that are in the high-spender demographic.
A shift in how we think of bathroom design
Foremost on everyone’s mind is hygiene, social distancing, and infection mitigation. The CDC recommends washing hands frequently if we are in a public space, or after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose. Our overall hygiene has been left wanting and new solutions and designs are needed.
There are more questions today than answers. Will changes be legislative, or market driven? How do we separate people while still allowing them to meet their fundamental need to be social? Can we expect more pandemics in the future or was this a once-in-a-hundred-year event?
- Regardless of the specific questions, one can imagine that public spaces will be designed for less physical contact with our surroundings, with more automation and touch free experiences actuated by voice command.
- Future designs must develop multipurpose, adaptable buildings, with built-in flexibility which would allow segments of a building to morph into use for different scenarios. There will be a move to retrofitting existing buildings so that areas of a building can be segregated to restrain the movement of people between departments.
- Public bathrooms where standard doors were once the norm will be altered wherever possible to eliminate the doors and create S-curve entrances.
- Hands-free technology in bathrooms will become the norm. Where there is inevitable contact with surfaces, designers will increasingly look out for antimicrobial product
scoatings and materials to frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs.
- There will be far more opportunities for hand washing and sanitizing and an addition of mobile sanitizer stations. There are many mobile sanitizing stations available but it is important to choose one that is not bound to a single brand of sanitizer.
- While in the past a building may have had a main entrance there will likely be multiple public entrances, along with the need for public bathrooms near each of those entrances. At each of these entrances there may be rapid testing stations and the need for sanitizers.
- Building owners who add hygienic vending machines, or even well-designed dispensers for sanitizing wipes and liquids will encourage employees to clean their own spaces more frequently.
As building owners decide to install these dispensers, careful consideration should be given to whether those dispensers can dispense multiple brands’ consumables so that they are not locked into the supply chain limitations of only one brand.
Finally as buildings and spaces become more multipurpose, people will have to become more nimble and will have to develop the flexibility to work in a state of flux from time to time.
Navigating the Future:
Cyrus Boatwalla, head of marketing at the ASI Group, notes, “we are at one of those inflection
s points in our existence where the way we react to the present must be balanced with our plan for future events. We must ensure that we have the ability to work and operate in a more flexible way so that we can maintain safety while not losing the human contact and connections that are so important to us. For that we need to work together not just with our industry but also with other constituents. We welcome the collaboration and we welcome the ability to work with designers all over the world so we can navigate for today and solve for tomorrow, and design for pitfalls we may not yet know of or see on the horizon.
So how DO we collaborate best?
Future innovation will come from collaboration between architects, building product manufacturers, building owners, tenants, and government. Leaving any party out will not provide the optimal results.
- Seek out trustworthy manufacturers’ representatives and rely on their expertise.
- Work with products designed to complement each other in order to design a more cohesive space.
- Throw away outdated standards and specs. Recycling old specs does not constitute sustainability. Shortfalls in design often occur when designers operate from a series of specifications that were either adopted from previous projects or are a part of an outdated master specification.
- Take off all blinders and pursue avenues you may not have considered before.
A well-designed bathroom can be the deciding factor in elevating a building from good to great. Bathrooms, if given the requisite attention to detail, can make a much greater positive impact on the user experience of a building—thus influencing their opinion of the school, the town, the business, the building owner, and the architects who designed the building. Protect your reputation.
As we live through what is being viewed as a third wave of this pandemic we must keep promoting design that will keep us safe through this period. We must also however plant seeds for designing beyond tomorrow. We must think about what could occur without falling into a crevasse of doom. We must think of how we can change today so that we may lay the groundwork of dealing with different scenarios. what as curators of the built environment show future generations that you stayed nimble, had forethought and most importantly the courage to leave old ways of doing things and create and embrace the news standards in building and bathroom design.
Buildings with new standards deserve bathrooms with new standards as well.
An earlier version of this article was first published in June of 2021.
By Cyrus Boatwalla
Cyrus Boatwalla, of the ASI Group, has over 20 years of executive experience, leading businesses with varied brand portfolios in roles such as Divisional GM / Head of Operations & Head of Global Marketing.
He has built Consumer Facing and B2B brands for Fortune 500, as well as private companies.