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Communicating with architects and designers about projects can avoid a lot of headaches down the road.“Okay, so who uses their feet to flush the toilet?” Cue a huge laugh, and then about 90 percent of the room’s hands were raised. This was one of the questions I asked at a recent design team charrette with our architects and interior designers. The initial thought of any question relating to the personal realm of the bathroom can be quite uncomfortable, but once you begin to get into the dynamics of this room in our buildings, you can really understand what these spaces can mean for our clients.
The idea of the charrette was to sit down in a round table session, with some of our architects and interior designers, to pick their brain about the dynamics on good bathroom design. Jill Imig, senior mechanical engineer at HGA, and I sat down with the designers to discuss what non-plumbing engineers are thinking about and the different aspects as to why and how our bathrooms obtain the design that they do. The goal of the meeting and research was to broaden our bathroom design perspective.
From a societal perspective, Lyssa Olker, senior architect explained some of the current trends she’s seeing in the corporate world that weren’t even on our minds five or ten years ago:“The hot topics for HR are unisex bathrooms or wellness rooms (mothers’ rooms) and the specific plumbing needs associated with those rooms. It’s an important thing for offices; if you’re trying to recruit someone they’re going to go to the company that has the facilities for them.” The sociology behind the bathroom design was something that we didn’t expect to be so prevalent in the programmatic design of our projects.
The controversial issue playing out in our political spectrum is the request to allow transgendered people to access the restroom opposite of what is written on their birth certificate. The Supreme Court has even been brought into the picture to rule on this decision. That really wasn’t a road we wanted to travel down, but it definitely got the group thinking about the different dynamics in the public restrooms. A trend that the group has been seeing more and more of are communal bathrooms with “private” stalls. This is essentially several mini bathrooms inside of the restroom and a communal bank of lavatories. There are even some designs that are locating the lavatories outside of the room entirely. Someone suggested that this idea would force more people to wash their hands.
The conversation got into family-friendly design and how an improperly designed bathroom can be a huge problem for parents.
“Accommodations for parents with a hook to hang a bag are important,” said Jes Skaug, a senior design architect.
We’re planning our spaces around double strollers and places to “lock” your child in a seat. Apparently this is a popular thing in Japan. The topic then led to spatial design and how the more open the restroom is the better the design will be perceived. The last thing you want is someone infringing on your personal space.
Our building designers are constantly being pushed to create an environment where people feel inspired, safe, appreciated, comfortable, clean, and the list goes on. It’s pretty amazing how little the plumbing engineer really does for the bathroom. To have all of these conversations and thoughts going into the design of these rooms and then turn around and give the plumbing engineer the right to create the fixture specifications seems risky. It’s the historic form versus function. The engineer is trained to make things work. Contrary to the designers, the engineers design based on code, calculations, efficiency and past performance. If we scheduled the same water closet for our whole career that would be just fine. Change can lead to new problems and that scares us into repetition.
Do you make a point to ask your design team about the fixtures you plan to use in your design? “When I hear the story behind the design of the building, or the inspiration, it helps me with a starting point,” said Imig. “And I think it helps with engineering in general, being part owners in the building design. We’re not just serving the building; when everything jives and the design comes together, we can collectively create a great working space.”
This strikes me as rare, forward-thinking coming from an engineer, but I think she is onto something that we all need to focus more on. Communicating with our architects and designers about the project can avoid a lot of headaches down the road. Nobody wants a fourth quarter design change the week before CDs go out. Or even worse, during construction when the project is getting closed out. Collaborative design is where we can still provide value to our clients.
Looking at these pictures of outdated restrooms, you can’t help but form negative opinions about this space. If you’re in a restaurant or hotel, something like this might cause you to reconsider your decision to spend your money there. They could have the best food in the world, but when you see this in their restroom, it’s impossible not to think that somehow this correlates to the sanitary conditions in the space where food is being prepared. Your thoughts might be running to the ideas that these kinds of aspects in the design are out of your control and not your problem. I disagree. I think as a plumbing engineer you can do your part in the design process to come to the table with solutions that will hopefully improve upon your designer’s vision for that space. The bottom line is that our plumbing fixtures are the focal point of the room.
Are we doing a good job showing the clients the plumbing fixtures during design? The answer given by most was that it depended on the client and project type. Renderings and virtual reality are becoming more and more common in our design meetings with the clients. An important coordination item that relates to your bathroom fixture selection is what the client has seen already in the bathroom. If the renderings do show a more contemporary plumbing fixture that had a very specific design look and feel, it would be a mistake to specify something that doesn’t offer up that same vision. Unless that fixture is of a lesser construction integrity or the price tag isn’t supported in the budget.
You might find yourself having some difficult conversations with the design team. It doesn’t do anyone any good if the designer used a plumbing fixture that won’t be able to sustain the wear and tear in the facility or that the project can’t afford. You never want to tell the client, “Oh, hey, remember that nice fixture we showed you for your bathrooms? Yeah we can’t afford that. Sorry.” Typically it’s the high-end residential style fixture imported from Spain that was shown to someone at a trade show that can get us in trouble.
The plumbing fixture industry has definitely improved their commercial lines in terms of style and look that give the designers more options for these spaces. In the meeting, the designers did say that the finishes on the commercial plumbing fixtures need more variety than just chrome. “On that topic, what are the group’s thoughts on the green handle or the purple handle?” The answer I got was a resounding no. The group thought that there are other ways to show sustainability and that having this outlier color in an otherwise very clean palette didn’t make sense to them. It comes across as if there was an aftermarket product to fix your old chrome valve, and this one happened to be purple. I actually think it’s pretty cool, but that’s why I’m crunching the numbers and not choosing the colors.
This topic in general can be somewhat challenging for engineers who deal in black and white all day. We work in a world of quantitative analysis with If, Then statements. =IF (Logic_Test, Value_if_True, Value_if_False). This world of opinion and trends is a tough concept for the average engineer. Could you imagine if we went in the field and told the plumbing contractor that the roof drain needed more contrast with the roof? You might get asked to leave, without the benefit of a ladder. The fact remains that we have these couple spec items that everyone will see in our facilities. So, either we train our eyes to see these fixtures differently or we learn how to exchange ideas with the design team. I think the latter of the two is our best bet based on your current occupation. Maybe you are the exception and you do have some good design ideas; my guess is that your design probably won’t be as pleasing as the one selected by your designer counterpart.
The conversation about flushing the water closets with your feet was definitely enlightening for some of the members in the group. Of the people at the meeting, there were two who used their hands and never even thought to use their feet. I wonder what they do now. Next time you’re out with a group of friends, pose the question. It’s pretty entertaining what humans will do to avoid touching anything in the bathroom. My favorite is the guy who uses the paper towel to open the door then gets his foot wedged in the door so he can lean around the corner to shoot the paper towel ball in the basket. That may or may not be a personal story.
Cory Powers, CPD, is an associate at HGA Architects and Engineers office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. HGA is a top-10 national health care design firm with additional practices in energy and infrastructure, corporate, arts and higher education. Powers has a B.S. in Architectural Engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He is a licensed master plumber and certified in plumbing design (CPD). He has been a member of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) since 2008, previously serving as president of the ASPE Wisconsin Chapter. Powers currently serves on the ASPE National Board of Directors as the AYP chair. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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