If the prospect of entering an airport restroom today warps you into visions of coldly administered industrial strength hygiene, delineated by chunky white porcelain fixtures under dim, faintly flickering light, it is equally possible that the last time you went to an airport was either 20 years ago or within the last few weeks.
Though airports have been deliberately evolving, in my opinion, the restrooms of many lag behind, falling short of the elegant sophistication air travellers seek to experience.
Cosmetic procedures provide brief superficial relief, but the basic experience of the restroom remains long unattended to. Take, for example, the awkward task of maneuvering your travel bag into the cubicle and convincing the stubborn latch to close, or the common and regrettable saturation of dry trousers or loose tie from the adjacent wet counter’s edge.
There may not be toilet paper on the floor, but in rush hour traffic, the trash bin is threatening to overflow, and all rolls of paper towels within reach have been spent to their callous cardboard core.
In our homes and hotels, the restroom is a refuge of privacy; here in the terminal, during hour two of six on an overnight layover, lavatory liberation can seem futile.
Over the years, ongoing security reforms and reduced complimentary provisions from airlines have required increasing resilience and endurance from travellers.
Concurrently, these travellers’ appetites for higher service levels in public spaces have elevated, and airports have responded by transforming antiquated concourses with refreshed retail and restaurant experiences.
Retail and restaurant are, however, only a part of the bigger picture of public space. In surveys completed by the American Society for Quality (a global organisation dedicated to improving quality of life around the world) restroom conditions rank as one of the most important factors for passenger satisfaction, ahead of restaurants and shopping.
ACI’s very own ASQ customer satisfaction survey shows similar results, and is perhaps why airports around the world are beginning to take note and see restrooms as an opportunity to make a high-impact change, one which will benefit not only the itinerant visitor, but also the facility maintenance staff and managers who sometimes struggle to keep up with daily supply and demand of restroom caretaking.
Indeed, this is the age of restroom enlightenment. As a frequent flyer, member of the design industry, and worker-bee in the aviation focused firm Architectural Alliance International (AAI), I have had a first class seat to the transformations taking flight among the restroom oriented air travel and service community.
AAI has been in the airport business since 1978 and, as I discovered one morning during a discussion with several team members from our aviation studio, these years of study and practice have brought not just experienced detailing to their restroom projects, but also a seasoned perspective and philosophy.
Eric Peterson, terminal planner/designer and the team’s ‘General’ leading the charge, moved to the edge of his chair as he explained: “It’s easy to make light of the toilet and public restroom, but people have been doing it wrong over and over again.”
Referring next to recent AAI restroom projects in Milwaukee, Dayton, Nashville and at Minneapolis-St Paul, he continued: “When a client is wholly committed to passenger experience, there is an opportunity to set a new standard.”
To break it down a little more, airport restrooms operate at an intensity unlike most other public locales. For visitors to the terminal, the restrooms are often the first and last place people see as they arrive or depart. They are the most commonly visited place in an airport and cross all social barriers.
Additionally, the travelling public utilises restrooms accompanied by baggage and under duress of the stressful situations inherent to air transit. On the operations side, restrooms are a high-use environment within the larger, also high-use environment of the airport general.
Just as travellers and their baggage sustain bumps and bruises by way of apathetically abusive circulation, so do the finishes and fixtures of the lavatory.
Finally, restrooms are an area where operations and visitors come most closely into contact. With every scrap of paper towel on the floor, or smear defacing the mirror, the host’s deficiencies are exposed and the guest’s positive experience significantly diminished.
“If you talk to airport directors, they are concerned about operations, but driven by meeting the needs of the passenger,” says Jeff Loeschen, AAI’s aviation project manager began. “Marrying those two things together is the basis of what we are trying to accomplish.”
In practice, the design team has directly responded to each of these visitor and operational concerns. Addressing the long dwell times passengers typically have in airports, April Meyer, interior designer on the team and 12 years vested in the industry, emphasises how “welcoming a traveller with an environment of hospitality throughout the terminal” is crucial to the visitor experience.
She adds: “A bad experience in a restroom can lead to distaste, and if that is your first perception of a community, since the airport is a gateway for that community, that is an unfortunate mishap.”
Empathetic heads nod around the table as Jeff notes: “Travelling has always been a stressful experience for passengers and has become even more so with the process of arriving, going through increased security, getting to your gate, and finally, boarding a plane.
“We try to respond to that as an industry and a firm by catering to the needs of the passenger and making that experience more relaxing, more gracious.”
This philosophy of hospitality manifests in reformed restroom design through the use of natural materials like quartz and stone and experiential details like quiet, classical music floating in the background as you wash your hands in the warm water and diffuse lighting.
Space planning also contributes to the accommodating attitude. Cubicles are large enough to purposefully store a carry-on inside, including a recess in the thick partition for large bags with a shelf and coat hooks securely located away from the back of the door.
Fixture count isn’t based on code minimums, but rather on proven observation. For speed and ease of maintenance, chases are designed larger than normal to materialise the pipe dream clearances of every plumber, paying dividends out to the bladder-laden visitor awaiting relief.
In this way, the team has found opportunities to turn the respective needs of the restroom visitors and caretakers into complementary goals with compatible solutions.
Materials and fixtures that have been carefully chosen to maintain aesthetic and durable longevity are also detailed for the wear and tear expected in airport restrooms. For example, the smooth, seamless flooring (containing recycled mirror and porcelain toilet chips) and minimally jointed wall surfaces not only contribute to a reduction of visual distractions, calming the space, but also aid restroom caretakers by providing fewer places for dirt to collect.
A solution has even been found to keep the counter and floor dry during the hand washing process. Observing this and returning to Meyer’s comment, Marcelo Pinto, project designer, enthuses: “The hospitable feel and look is about the richness of materials, the scale and intimacy, but it must still be detailed for an airport environment.”
This is where airport restrooms have to be held to a higher standard. Where a typical commercial restroom may only need to last 10 years, history has shown that an airport restroom should withstand 40 – and it’s not just the finishes and details that bear this burden.
Crucial to restroom satisfaction in longevity is the designer’s ability to master the function of the restrooms. Reform and innovation in this area require good listeners and patient detailers to work with many user groups, manufacturers, and through often overlooked details.
Jens Rothausen-Vange, project architect and restroom prototype designer, is a great example of this. A champion of thoughtful and fully processed details, he grins and glows as he explains how the 15-piece door hardware configuration he customised for the accessible cubicle user, intending their interaction with the door to be equally as hygienic and simple as for any other booth.
These long eluded functional victories significantly contribute to the end product and user experience in the restroom, proving no detail is too small to overlook.
Consider one of the most notorious annoyances in the restroom – the ‘peek-a-boo’ gap between the cubicle door and the wall. An unsolvable problem? Rather, a systematic lack of attention to detail.
Though Rothausen-Vange has admitted it to be one of the most difficult problems to solve for the restroom prototypes, in the end, he holds the key for this too.
Among the 79 airports AAI has worked with, one of the strongest partnerships has been with Minneapolis-St Paul Airport (MSP) and their governing entity, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
MAC’s dedication to putting the customer first and AAI’s ability to fulfill those goals by providing design leadership has continually kept MSP (recently voted #1 airport in the United States by the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine) at the front of customer satisfaction.
Hearing the strong voice for better restrooms from visitors and maintenance staff, the design team (including Rothausen-Vange’s and, interior designer, Sharry Cooper) pursued restroom prototypes as one of its latest commitments to big picture thinking.
Much has been learned from the preparation of this project, including the importance of location, space allocation for restrooms, and accompanying adjacencies in the overall airport master plan.
What was once thought of as secondary service space has become important core space, in certain instances even taking priority over revenue generating retail. After all, each organic smoothie sold and consumed, must also eventually arrive at its final destination.
Innovating for hygienic and operationally demanding environments isn’t easy or glamorous, especially for visitors and caretakers of the restrooms who inevitably become option-less test subjects in sub-optimal environments.
As painful as this sometimes is (realising the last clean pull on the cloth roll towel system was several sloppy hands before you, for instance), devising restroom standards cannot be done in a sealed bubble.
Lessons learned from observing other leaders in the industry, listening to diverse user groups, and, accumulated years of personal and professional experience have been instrumental to progress.
I asked our group of experts gathered around the conference room table if there was anything missing from the current MSP prototype, or if they have any hopes for future installments currently not in place.
There was a brief pause as they all looked at each other. “Nothing is missing from this round of restrooms,” says Rothausen-Vange. “We just need for the users to weigh in.”
While Loeschen notes: “Based on what we know now, and what we have learned in the past, we are meeting the needs of the participants. Where we go in the future, if we are doing our job right, will be for the users to light the way.”
So raise your head airport proletarians. Travellers and operators alike have been heard; the restroom revolution is coming, and a newfound sense of satisfaction is on the horizon.