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The public washroom post-COVID

The public washroom. Let’s face it, no one wanted to use them before and they’re even less appealing during a pandemic. At best washrooms were an unimportant part of commercial real estate, an insignificant but functional amenity catering for high traffic and usage. At worst they’re exactly what we’ve been conditioned to believe them to be; dirty, foul-smelling places unsafe for human use.

What constitutes a good public washroom is probably not something we will ever have given thought to unless we’re in one of the marginalized groups that depend on them. Newer shopping malls have done a slightly better job of providing facilities that are more appealing in order to keep customers shopping for longer, nevertheless, the cleanliness of these areas is coming under question as the return to work looms and building managers are preparing to welcome tenants and visitors safely once again.

What are the main issues for building managers?

Around 66% of employees surveyed by Envoy recently were worried about health and safety in the workplace. There’s no doubt that employees and the public have to be priority number one to overcome the fear of returning to public places. Part of this will be looking beyond the immediate issues of space and social distance to the wider risks associated with the long-neglected washroom.

Cleanliness is crucial in the fight against disease and the problem for building owners and managers now lies, not so much in what we can see but what we can’t; those tiny virus-spreading pathogens that linger in the air or on surfaces, threatening the health of anyone in contact. Although additional cleaning measures will help to mitigate surface germs, Coronavirus studies by the Australian Academy of Science suggest that the most resilient viruses lasted longest on non-porous plastic and steel and were detectable for up to 3 days on both of these surfaces.

An airborne virus is a completely different threat and merely using alternate stalls is inadequate protection. Anyone having used a public facility in Europe or Asia will attest to the fact that their North American counterparts lag far behind in terms of privacy, comfort and cleanliness. As an example, many public restrooms in Canada feature toilets without lids and research from a team of university scientists in Florida suggests that every flush of a toilet creates an aerosol spray of minute droplets that were detected at heights of up to five feet for 20 seconds or longer after flushing.

Unpleasant as it may be to think about it, these droplets are so small that they can remain suspended in the air for some time and pose a serious risk of transmission if they were to contain infectious organisms such as the COVID-19 virus (that’s correct, it can also be transmitted through urine and stool from infected persons). Furthermore, in high-traffic areas, the study suggested that multiple flushes in quick succession, resulted in the accumulation of ambient aerosols, further increasing risk of transmission where an area was poorly ventilated.

Washroom design, particularly related to physical space and ventilation, is a crucial factor in minimizing airborne transmission but may not be easily remedied in an existing property.

Not all washrooms are created equal

There’s a raft of information available to business owners and facility managers on preparing buildings for the eventual return-to-work. It’s clear that most public restrooms, whether they are situated in offices, distribution centers or retail outlets, will require some form of retrofit changes and revised usage guidelines at a minimum. Meanwhile all the stakeholders involved in new commercial real estate development will have a role to play in designing washrooms that allay safety concerns with individual, spacious stalls, ‘no-touch’ sensor technology and advanced air filtration systems. Here are some of the technologies and concepts that we can expect to see an increased interest for in commercial bathrooms;

  • New materials

Materials that can tolerate harsh cleaners will be of interest to those planning facilities. High-touch surfaces need to be cleaned more frequently with disinfectant and the materials must be capable of withstanding prolonged use. The virus is likely more easily transmitted on surfaces that are non-porous so examining the materials used in construction and creating innovative solutions can reduce risk. Naturally antimicrobial materials such as copper and cork may even see a comeback for both floors and surfaces.

  • Touch-free technologies

Reducing touch points not only reduces risk of transmission, it promotes confidence for the users of both the building and its facilities that their wellbeing is paramount. Automatic doors and toilet seats, motion sensor taps, ‘wave-to-open’ cubicle switches and hands-free flushing are all measures that can be taken to ensure no one really has to touch anything within the confines of the bathroom.

  • Redesigned entryways and people flow

Traffic coming in and out of a bathroom can be counterproductive for social distancing measures, particularly in limited spaces. Washrooms need to be designed for the optimum flow of people, not meeting at either the entry or exit point if contact is to be restricted. Uniquely shaped spaces allowing for circular flow of people and designs that have ‘door-less’ stalls restricted from view are creative ways to maintain distance and safety.

  • Clean air considerations

Design of toilet stalls themselves may be the major focus for facilities wanting to avoid the potential of those ‘toilet-flush plumes’ and the nasty droplets that can travel beyond one cubicle into the adjacent. One-person, gender-neutral bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling, non-porous partitions have long been debated as a resolution to minimize airflow in-between cubicles; as an aside they may help with event management too, avoiding the long lines that females usually face whilst the male washroom is underutilized.

Designers and building owners should consult with manufacturers and air filtration specialists to determine the best course of action for their facilities. There are several advanced filtration systems on the market and more emerging in the wake of COVID, however each building will need to be carefully assessed with the help of specialists who can advise on the right type of system based on such factors as airflow and location of the system in the building.

Potentially unhygienic hand drying facilities that can spread germs in the air will need a rethink too. Air filtration can help to reduce the circulation of microbes within a restroom but drying hands with paper towels remains the most hygienic solution if it can be incorporated into a washroom in parallel with the other measures discussed.

Better bathrooms for bottom-line

Prioritizing a safe, beautiful bathroom for building users does more than instill confidence, it can also add to your bottom line. Tenants and employers will have enough on their ‘to-do list’ in preparation for the return of employees without having to worry about spread of germs in the washroom. Whereas before, tenants had very uncomplicated expectations for the washroom - they were happy for it to be cleaned and well stocked with soap and paper products; expectations are growing for building owners to create a safe, low-maintenance washroom experience that reduces anxiety for occupants.

With an enormous 84% of people citing the importance of touchless features in public washrooms, the way forward is definitely hands-free.

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