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Hot trends, cool features

Modern commercial washroom designs call for more inclusive spaces with luxurious and sustainable touches.


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February 12, 2020 by Steve Goldie

(photo: Getty Images)

Having been a plumber most of his life, my father had lots of plumbing opinions and stories. One of my favourite stories did not come form his years as a plumber but rather from his time in the British army.

My dad grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, and back in those days the United Kingdom still had mandatory military service that required healthy young men to serve Queen and Country for 18 months. James Goldie could best be described as a reluctant recruit who simply ignored his draft notice for almost two years; he could not however successfully ignore the two military policemen who rudely dragged him out of his bed one Saturday morning to escort him to boot camp. Once he was there he resigned himself to his fate and went about the business of training and peacetime soldiering along with all the other lucky draftees. Apparently boot camp does not afford an individual any opportunity for free time, free expression or any type of individuality whatsoever. Every minute of every hour of every day was regimented and scheduled, filled with training and drills and such. You woke up when they told you, you ate when they told you and you went to the bathroom, or loo, when they told you.

Life can get pretty harried and busy in this day and age, so much so that at times we feel we barely have a moment to ourselves. Sadly, on days like that the washroom break may be the only quiet alone time one gets. However, in boot camp even this opportunity for a peaceful sit down is removed. The communal army latrine my dad had to use back in the day was a fairly crude set up with a long trough urinal on one wall, and a long trough drain communal toilet along the other wall.

Yes, you read that correctly, the toilets were basically a long bench seat with about 10 openings with toilet seats, each separated by a divider. Underneath ran a continuous sloped trough drain, with a single flush valve on one end that would clear the entire trough when activated.

Since the day was regimented and scheduled nobody had the luxury of coming and going as they pleased. When a bathroom break was permitted the stalls would be quickly occupied and the line up would form. On one of these occasions my father was lucky enough to be in the drivers’ seat, so to speak, occupying the end stall, the one with the flush valve.

I am not sure what inspired him this particular day, but he decided he would take advantage of his position of power by sending a surprise down the trough. He rolled up a bunch of newspaper into a soccer ball sized wad, lit it aflame and sent it down the trough. His unsuspecting army mates all had their arses singed as the ball of fire passed by underneath. Whatever repercussions or discipline he faced afterward must have been worth it because he would still get a hearty chuckle out of telling that story even 50 years later.

Thankfully modern bathrooms, as with most things in life, have evolved. They bear no resemblance to the bathrooms of yesteryear, especially those favoured by the British army back in the 1950’s. The name “Water Closet” (or WC) reveals how discreet and utilitarian bathrooms used to be. Through the past several decades that I’ve been working in this industry, bathrooms have steadily become bigger, more luxurious and more comfortable. Residential bathrooms are no longer tucked away closets, they have become more like home spas where we go to relax, refresh and revive; places we actually want to spend time.

In recent years we have also seen this trend crossing over into the commercial side as well. Clients, customers and employees’ expectations have been substantially raised when it comes to what they expect, and even demand, in public washroom facilities.

The look and feel of a commercial washroom can be a deal breaker for many consumers. No matter how comfortable your guests and customers may feel in your shop, hotel, restaurant or facility, if they don’t feel safe and comfortable in the washroom they may not come back. Successful business and building owners understand the appearance and usability of bathrooms has a significant impact on how patrons perceive them. This is probably most keenly felt in the restaurant industry for obvious reasons. That being said, I could probably fill many pages with restaurant washroom horror stories.

Modern public or commercial washrooms are becoming more universal and accessible.

Another trend we see is the move to public or commercial washrooms becoming more universal. Where most buildings would have one washroom designated for men and another for women, we now see this expanding and changing. Many spaces have added family bathrooms, typically larger and including diaper changing stations. More and more we are seeing gender neutral designated washrooms. A growing trend, again with restaurants leading the way, is to provide a number of individual universal bathrooms that resemble a powder room you might find in a high-end custom home.

If meeting these rising expectations and demands is not challenging enough, the modern bathroom designer also has to be mindful of the importance of sustainability. Water-efficient fixtures and carefully chosen materials show the business cares about the environment. Touch-free faucets and flush valves help satisfy this requirement; ensuring valves cannot be left running. Touch-free fixtures also cater to the perception of cleanliness—the less we have to touch in a public bathroom the better.

Sometimes all of these competing requirements can butt heads with each other however. Take the beautiful new and modern washroom facilities in our head office for example. We have touch-free flush valves and faucets installed in all of the washrooms. These valves have small solenoid valves in them that are battery operated, and they also have photovoltaic cells installed on them to ensure the batteries stay charged. Those smarty pants environmentally savvy designers covered all the bases and checked all the right boxes!

Unfortunately sometimes we are too smart for our own good. Those photo voltaic panels on the faucets are not very effective in the dark, and that is exactly where they are more often than not thanks to the motion detector light switches that ensure the lights stay off when nobody is in the washroom. I guess the designer’s left brain didn’t tell their right brain what they were doing.

When you think about it, designing, building and maintaining commercial washrooms is quite a complex challenge with so many factors to be considered. Not only do they need to look clean and comfortable but they have to be accessible to everyone without offending or excluding anyone. In addition, they have to be durable and vandal resistant; oh and don’t forget to provide facilities to change the baby’s diaper, and if you do retain separate gender designations, the diaper change station better be in all of them.

Well at least nobody has to be afraid of having their morning sit down disturbed by a flaming fireball anymore. RIP Dad, I hope that story can still make you chuckle wherever you are.

Steve Goldie learned his trade from his father while working as a plumber in the family business. After 21 years in the field, he joined the wholesale side of the business in 2002. His expertise is frequently called on to troubleshoot systems and advise contractors. He can be reached at sgoldie@nextsupply.ca.

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