The Top 3 Reasons to Update Your Campus Bathrooms

Changing societal norms and student expectations have catapulted campus bathroom updates to the top of the facilities priority list.  Many older campus buildings, and particularly residence halls, have communal or “gang style” bathroom configurations. This former design standard maximizes efficiency and capacity – whether a bank of showers in a residence hall or public access restrooms in campus common areas.  However, campuses can no longer rely on the status quo of the past.

1. Students Want More Privacy

Privacy is a highly valued campus feature that can be either a positive differentiator or a detriment to recruiting efforts.  Prior to moving onto campus, most students have never shared a bedroom and many have had their own bathroom.

Colleges and universities are responding with diverse design strategies for increased privacy. They range from reducing the number of students sharing a bathroom to increasing privacy within a communal bathroom structure.

Bathroom update plans for Dickinson College, Drayer Hall
Planned updates to Drayer Hall, a 1950s era four-story campus residence hall, at Dickinson College include reconfiguring bathrooms. Each floor will have several inclusive bathrooms and two spa bathrooms with communal vanity sinks and private toilet/shower compartments.

Individual shower stalls with lockable doors and shower pods, which incorporate a private dry-floor changing space, are increasingly designed into building renovations. Toilet stalls are being redesigned to include floor-to-ceiling partitions and doors with reduced gap or gap-free options. Stalls are also being replaced with hard-walled toilet rooms with standard doors. These changes must often balance code requirements in opposition to student desires for privacy, as well as accessibility for disabled students.

Some institutions are taking this concept even further by providing completely private bathrooms. Located within a larger group bathroom or off a corridor, these bathrooms maximize student privacy. This design approach is typically more costly since it requires more square footage and materials than a “gang style” design.

Introducing the Spa Bathroom

Another option is modifying existing communal layouts to create “spa bathrooms.” A spa bathroom provides private shower and toilet facilities with common vanity sinks.

Franklin & Marshall College Schnader Hall Bathroom Updates
Schnader Hall was one of seven residence halls at Franklin & Marshall College renovated over five years of 11-week periods during the summer break. Updates responded to increasing student diversity and expectations for privacy, introducing all-gender, ADA accessible bathrooms. These spa bathrooms share sinks, but provide separate, private toilet and shower areas.

Recognizing the socialization benefits of communal bathrooms, this hybrid approach allows students to interact while performing daily grooming functions. Spa bathrooms are often centralized, but also provide either complete or partial privacy. This model is growing in popularity, helping to balance student-demanded privacy with a more economical approach that also maintains intentional social space.

2. Campus Bathroom Updates Foster Equity and Inclusion

Emerging student-led trends, spurred by the social shift to gender neutrality, have launched a new paradigm in bathroom accommodations. The traditional male and female-designated bathrooms are being replaced with alternatives that are not based on gender.

Franklin & Marshall College All Gender Bathroom Updates
Franklin & Marshall College has upgraded and introduced additional private, all-gender bathrooms in five of its older student residences to provide accessible, comfortable and safe access for all.

An efficient strategy to create all-gender bathrooms is to convert existing single-occupancy restrooms by updating signage. However, it is also important to confirm that these restrooms are easily located throughout the campus.  In addition to signage, many campuses are starting to publish lists or online maps showing every gender-inclusive restroom on campus.

All-gender bathrooms also provide equitable access for people with disabilities—especially those needing help from an assistant who may be a different gender. Single-use restrooms are also beneficial to students with medical issues that can make multi-stall restroom use uncomfortable.  (Knowles, & Skues, 2016). Particularly for large scale campus common spaces, such as performing arts or athletics venues, all-gender restrooms can help to alleviate long wait lines commonly associated with female-designated restrooms.

Gender inclusive bathroom signage
Updating signage to reflect programming changes should be carefully considered in a collaborative way. Universities that solicit input from campus DEI leaders can avoid having to revisit a large-scale signage conversion.

Navigating the Details

Updating signage to reflect programming changes can present its own challenges.  Gender designations have become obsolete in many cases. “Gender neutral” has become “all gender” or sometimes simply “restrooms.” Many colleges and universities are converting bathroom signage throughout their campuses to reflect this shift.  Facilities management staff may want to solicit input from campus Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) leaders prior to any large-scale signage conversion.

Consult with your design professional regarding local building codes which frequently lag behind the social and political landscape.  Despite the current imperative for gender-inclusive spaces, many state and local building codes dictate a required number of men’s and women’s plumbing fixtures.

3. Updates Can Make Campus Bathrooms More Efficient and Durable

L to R: New toilet compartment options from CARVART, WashBar touchless handwashing experience from Bradley Corporation, VIVE audio integrated mirror from Electric Mirror

Today’s bathrooms are more efficient than their former counterparts. Current strategies include low flow fixtures, LED lighting, water and light sensors or energy-efficient exhaust systems

Universities can also take advantage of opportunities to make students more energy-aware. This can help positively impact behaviors.  For example, energy dashboards, timers or water meters can serve as educational tools that ultimately encourage quicker showers.

Improving Durability for Lasting Appeal

Durability is a key consideration for these high-use, non-supervised support spaces.  Lasting value is achieved through selection of high-performance building systems, durable interior finishes and energy-efficient fixtures. Updates should also be maintenance friendly and comply with campus materials standards and stewardship objectives.

  • Updating exhaust systems can help to reduce moisture content in the space more quickly. Ventilation rates need to go beyond the minimum code requirements to reflect student use which can vary widely at different times in the week. For example, Friday and Saturday nights typically having a much higher demand than Monday mornings. The end result is more comfortable spaces, easier maintenance and longer periods between updates.
  • New water-resistant partition options can better handle steam and high humidity. Examples include HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and HPL (High Pressure Laminate) or phenolic partitions. These highly durable materials are resistant to scratches, dents, and impacts. They also offer the added benefit of graffiti-resistance.
  • Solid surface countertops can be easily cleaned and are impermeable to moisture due to their nonporous structure. They are also antimicrobial (bacteria, mold and mildew resistant). Scratches can be easily removed due to their homogenous color.

Specifying materials and products that can withstand heavy use will require less maintenance and help campuses control life cycle costs. Recent innovations also reflect a heightened focus on infection control.

Now available in the US from Thrislington Cubicles, touchless bathroom cubicles feature an integrated access system that uses hand proximity sensors for door control.

Updates to Integrate Touch Free Technology and Convenience Features

Touch-free fixtures are much more prevalent today with a range of available options. These include toilet flush valves, soap dispensers, faucets, paper towel dispensers, and hand dryers.  Hands-free cubicles are a recent innovation that allows users to avoid touching door handles when accessing toilet rooms.

Infection control measures should be considered in the context of sustainability/healthy building guidelines.  According to the WELL Building Standard, paper towels are more effective in removing bacteria than using air dryers. The WELL Standard also provide guidelines for bathroom sink dimensions to avoid recontamination and alternatives to bulk refillable soap dispensers to reduce potential bacterial contamination.

A trend from the hospitality industry that could help universities stand out when seeking to attract new students is lighted mirrors.  We found one Bluetooth-compatible mirror that would allow students to pair their smart phones or tablets to transform it into a wireless stereo system.

Time for Campus Bathroom Updates?

Bathroom updates are no longer just about making sure there are enough sinks, toilets, and showers to accommodate student enrollment. Today, campuses must offer appealing, functional and welcoming bathrooms that students can easily access, use comfortably and feel safe.

Industry research, client discussions and RLPS focus groups indicate that a mix of single bathrooms and updated communal or spa bathrooms with private toilets and showers are preferred.  Ultimately, the right mix is specific to each campus. This is determined during the programming phase through a review of options with your design professionals and facilities team.

In a survey of 25,000+ students, more than 78 percent of respondents said that the availability of high-quality housing affected their college selection. Learn more about the benefits and opportunities available through on-campus housing renovations by downloading What is Old is New Again:  Resetting the Clock on Residence Halls.  

Download the Resource

Carson Parr, AIA, LEED BD+C, WELL-AP, is a Partner at RLPS Architects.  He leads the firm’s higher education practice, helping clients with campus programming and planning, project design and construction. An NCARB registered architect, Carson, holds a Master of Architecture, Community and Urban Design, from Pennsylvania State University.  He serves as a student mentor and is a board member and past president of AIA Central Pennsylvania.

Jessie Shappell, IIDA, RA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C, earned a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She also holds  a Master of Science in Interior Architecture from Chatham University. Jessie is a volunteer and former Board Member for the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ).

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP

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