Clean Restroom Design

How restroom design can increase cleaning costs and what can be done to keep them down.

by Robert Kravitz — Several years ago, developers teamed up to open a bank in downtown San Francisco, CA. Hoping the new structure would soon be recognized as one of the most important in the city, they hired a well-known local architect to design the building.

Indeed, when the bank opened, the look and design of the building were met with widespread applause by just about everyone—except the contract cleaning company hired to maintain the facility.

One of the first problems the company encountered involved the lighting. The cleaning contractors had been charged with replacing ceiling light bulbs as they burned out. Unfortunately, the ceiling was almost three stories high. That meant without scaffolding, and because of the way the bulbs were angled in their fixtures, it was extremely difficult to remove them. In time, building owners had to replace all of the light fixtures—at considerable cost—to allow for more accessible bulb changing.

Restroom Issues

One major area where design/maintenance issues arose was the restrooms. Instead of more conventional sinks and counters, the restrooms had freestanding pedestal sinks. The soap dispensers were mounted on the wall next to each pedestal, and the paper towel dispensers were built into the mirror frame placed over each pedestal.

This resulted in a few significant cleaning and maintenance problems almost from the start:

  • The soap dispensers had a tendency to drip soap on the floor after each use. In addition, when they were opened to be refilled, soap would invariably overflow onto the floor. In a relatively short time the floor beneath each dispenser, a light-colored stone floor, was dark from soap stains.
  • Because the dispensers had no marking, restroom users had to “feel” their way for the paper towel dispensers built into the mirror frames. Often with wet hands, they would touch under the mirrors grasping for the dispenser and soiling the mirrors, the frames, and the wall tiles at the same time—not to mention possibly contaminating their freshly washed hands.
  • Because the paper towel dispensers were designed specifically to fit into the frame of the mirrors, the number of paper towels each dispenser could hold was considerably less than what a conventional wall dispenser would hold. Thus, dispensers often ran out of paper two or more times per day.

“Situations like this are actually not that uncommon,” says Richard Sanchez, a building services contractor in Northern California. “Architects and their clients, especially those out to make a ‘statement’ with a new property, often show little concern about how the facility will be cleaned and maintained once it is built and put into use.”

Fortunately, it does not have to be this way. And many designers today do pay considerably more attention to how a facility they design will be cleaned, maintained, and cared for once it is completed and put into use. A lot of this growing attention is due to the impact of “green” cleaning and the desire by many building owners to have their properties certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design—or LEED Green Buildings Rating System. As a result, building operations, including cleaning, are being given more consideration. Additionally, because of the economy, concerns about overall building operations, and related costs are now a top priority for building owners and managers.

Image vs. Functionality

The core problem with the bank restrooms discussed earlier was that the designers and their clients put more emphasis on the image they were trying to present in the restrooms than on functionality.

Restroom Basics

While a restroom designed for ease of cleaning does not have to be “plain Jane” by any means, it would help cleaning professionals if functionality and certain design basics were followed. Below are some of these suggested basics.

Touch-free fixtures. Today’s restroom users do not like to touch anything in restrooms. Of benefit to cleaning workers, touch-free faucets also help reduce the frequency that these fixtures must be cleaned and maintained. Plus they can have additional benefits, such as helping to promote hygiene, enhance public comfort with restrooms, decrease vandalism, and reduce water consumption. Further, according to some studies, sensor-controlled, touch-free faucets use about 10 percent to 20 percent less water than conventional faucets.

Fixture placement. Standing fixtures, such as sink faucets, placed too close to the wall or backsplash to allow sponges, microfiber cloths, or other cleaning tools to fit can create a breeding ground for dirt and germs.

Countertops. Whatever material is selected, light-colored countertops tend to better camouflage soiling and water stains, whereas splashes and stains on darker-colored countertops tend to be more noticeable and require more maintenance. “Water-impervious surfaces and fixtures are also helpful because they enable complete, rapid spray down and removal of contaminants,” says Allen Rathey, president of The Healthy Facilities Institute®. “Also, smooth or less-porous surfaces help guard against the penetration of soils.”

Hand dryers. Hand dryers cost more than paper towel dispensers initially but can be a cost-effective alternative that makes restrooms easier to maintain as well. While some users do not like them, it cannot be denied that hand dryers help reduce cleaning time and labor expense along with the costs for ordering, storing, replenishing, and disposing of paper towels. Also, many systems are now touch-free, further reducing cleaning needs. Planners should weigh these benefits along with user preference when deciding which system fits best in a facility.

Paper towel dispensers. If paper towel dispensers are selected, Rathey advises the installation of no-touch towel dispensers that “automatically dispense a prescribed amount of towel without the need to pull and tear-off pieces that contribute to floor litter.”

Toilet paper dispensers. Installing jumbo toilet tissue dispensers that hold larger rolls and more of them is an easy way to make the cleaning professional’s job less taxing and reduce trips for restocking, which also translates into labor cost savings.

Trash receptacles. Near the exit door is the best place for trash receptacles especially if the restroom has a handled door to enable users to open the door using a paper towel and throw the used towel in the receptacle instead of on the floor.

Floors. The first consideration is always safety, so a nonslip floor should be installed. Beyond this, some engineers are encouraging the use of seamless floors (i.e., no grout areas) or homogenous tile floors. Homogenous tiles are a form of ceramic tile composed of fine porcelain clays that are fired at much higher temperatures than ceramic tile. This process makes the tiles harder and less porous than ceramic tiles so that they are less prone to moisture and stain absorption. This can help make the floor easier to clean and maintain.

Walls. With walls as well as floors, homogenous tiles are getting more consideration. And wall coverings, such as natural stone (well-sealed) and glass block are getting attention as well because in addition to adding an “air of elegance” to a restroom, they can prove easier to clean and maintain compared to more conventional materials, such as tile and grout.

Toilets. “Toilets with lids that can close helps prevent the dissemination of microbes during flushing,” microbes that are unhealthy and must be removed by cleaning personnel, suggests Rathey.

Partitions. Some functional and easier-to-maintain restroom stall partition materials include low-maintenance enameled-steel, stainless steel, and aluminum panels treated with surface texture that show fewer fingerprints as well as marble slabs are another solution. These products tend to also stand up against abuse, including graffiti and vandalism. Also, sometimes a seemingly small change, such as using ceiling- or wall-mounted toilet partitions, can simplify cleaning. This allows janitorial staff to quickly clean floors without needing to work around the partitions.It also eliminates unsightly build-up of dirt in corners around the partition anchors.

Miscellaneous. Some other items suggested by Rathey include the installation of UV-C lighting (for use only after-hours and in unoccupied restrooms), which kills germs using light; multiple floor drains to enable washing, rinsing, and draining of floors; and high or ceiling-mounted electrical outlets to prevent moisture infiltration and to keep cords off floors when powered equipped is used.

Did You Know?

  • The toilet is flushed more times during the U.S. Super Bowl halftime than at any time during the year.
  • Most toilets flush in the key of E flat.
  • One-third of all Americans flush the toilet while they are still sitting on it.
  • 40,000 Americans are injured by toilets each year.


A Commonsense Approach

When it comes to the design and construction of public restrooms, designers are encouraged to add some flare and individuality as long as it is mixed with functionality and some plain old common sense. One of the best ways to determine which products and fixtures should be installed is to first consider traffic volume and anticipate the cleaning challenges that might occur. Take into account also people with special needs and those who will be using the facilities most frequently.

Additionally, decision-makers should be wary of proprietary systems, such as the built-in dispensers in the bank restroom that, while aesthetically appealing, can lock you into products that are not only difficult to maintain themselves, but can also create additional restroom problems.

With a little planning, a restroom can be both aesthetically pleasing—and easier to maintain.

Robert Kravitz is president of AlturaSolutions Communications, a public relations, communications, and marketing firm serving the professional cleaning industry. He may be reached at

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