Airport Restrooms: Often Overlooked, but Seldom Forgotten

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

Airport visitors use many different names for restrooms - loo, privy, lav, water closet - but few mince words about poorly designed or ill-equipped facilities. Whatever they call them, restrooms are often the first place guests visit when arriving at an airport and their last stop before departing.




Project: Restroom Reconstruction

Location: Dayton (OH) Int'l Airport

Cost: $3.7 million

Program Manager: Atkins

Architectural Design: Architectural Alliance

General Contractor: Rhecors Mechanical, Electrical & Plumbing
Engineering: Heapy Engineering

Structural Engineering: Shell & Meyer Assoc.

Project: Restroom Reconstruction

Location: Minneapolis-St. Paul Int'l Airport

Est. Cost: $100 million (based on current costs)

Project Duration: 20 yrs.

Architectural Design: Architectural Alliance

General Contractors: CM Construction (E Concourse); Terra General Contractors (F Concourse)

Mechanical & Electrical Engineering: Michaud Cooley Erickson

Structural Engineering: MBJ

Construction Management: Kraus Anderson

Toilet Accessories & Sinks: Bradley Corp.

Quartz Panels: Silestone; Cambria

Mirrors & Light Boxes: Electric Mirror

Stainless Steel Doors: Forms + Surfaces

Flooring: Terrazzo & Marble Supply

Make no mistake, restrooms leave an impression. Are they clean, easy to locate and accessible for everyone, regardless of physical or circumstantial needs? Are they large enough to prevent long lines? Do the aesthetics and fixtures evoke the 21st century or the 1960s?

Alan Howell, senior architect at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), considers the extensive restroom renovations currently underway at MSP a unique customer service opportunity.

"It's not just about people needing to use a restroom," Howell reflects. "It's their first or last look at Minneapolis-St. Paul. It's one of the few amenities that the airport gets to provide for guests. We provide parking, space for our tenants and restrooms. All the other services are provided by our tenants."

Terry Slaybaugh, manager of Dayton International Airport (DAY), describes it this way: "Air travel has become such a challenge for the flying public. With the capacity game that airlines are forced to play, aircraft are packed. As a result, amenities at the airport itself are becoming more and more a focal point, because travelers are spending more time there. It's really the only place where we can add value to the passenger's travel experience."

While restroom renovations were overdue at both Midwestern airports, each is taking a slightly different approach based on individual needs and long-term planning strategies. Architectural Alliance planned and designed the upgrades for both facilities. 

Visual & Functional Updates

At DAY, restrooms were recently renovated in both concourses and in the post-security concessions area, even though plans are in the works to replace almost everything, including the terminal and concourses, in about 15 years.

"Our facilities are dated," explains Slaybaugh, noting that the restrooms hadn't been updated since the late '70s and early '80s. Code and accessibility issues added urgency, since the airport was built in the 1950s and some elements do not meet modern building codes or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.

Destin Nygard, Architectural Alliance's project lead for the project, describes DAY's restroom facilities as "pretty tired" and notes that they currently lack a consistent look and finish.

"While we were somewhat constrained in terms of real estate because the depth of the concourses was set, we walked through a range of renovation options with airport officials and settled on quality improvements that would move their restroom facilities toward the leading edge," Nygard relates.

Fixing a significant imbalance in the size and number of fixtures between the men's and women's restrooms was a top priority. Previously, the men's facilities had more fixtures than the women's, which is the opposite of current design standards.

Unoccupied space near existing restrooms was converted into restroom space, effectively doubling capacity. Toilet stalls were enlarged and doors were changed to swing out rather than in, to provide easier access for passengers with bags. Extra hooks allow guests to hang clothing and keep bags off the floor, and new fixtures were installed throughout the facilities.

Special family/companion facilities were added to each set of restrooms for parents traveling with children and airport guests with disabilities. Both concourses now have lactation rooms for nursing mothers.

Designers kept ongoing maintenance top of mind when specifying new finish materials. Switching from stainless-steel toilet partitions to panels made of post-consumer recycled paper and petroleum-free resin will make it easier for cleaning staff to maintain a fresh, clean look, explains Nygard. Large format ceramic tile with thin grout lines was selected to minimize the collection of dirt and grime, while terrazzo flooring was chosen to create a clean, finished look that is easy to maintain.

"We spent a lot of time thinking about the sinks, how to handle hand drying and keep water off the floor," notes Nygard. "Sinks are recessed in pairs, which allows travelers to set their bags next to them and out of the way of traffic. Users can wash their hands then turn to grab a paper towel right next to them, which minimizes water on the floor and gets people quickly through the sink locations during heavy use times."

Entry doors were removed to eliminate bottlenecks and facilitate access. And colorful glass tiles at the entry portals mark restroom locations, to help travelers locate them quickly when scanning the concourse, explains Nygard.

"Aesthetically, we've created a very pleasing look," reflects DAY Airport Engineer Liz Zelinski. "The blue glass tile ties into the theme of clouds and sky and flight."

Designers also added water bottle filling stations next to the drinking fountains outside the restrooms. "They are proving to be very popular and are in line with our green initiatives," notes Zelinski.

Long-Term Revamp

Officials at MSP realized they had a problem about three years ago, when restrooms became the airport's biggest customer service complaint. The issue came as no surprise to Jens Rothausen-Vange, senior associate architect at Architectural Alliance.

"Restrooms are one thing about which everyone has an opinion, and it's usually an emotional opinion. But they are often overlooked," explains Rothausen-Vange.

Given the input from MSP's customers and design consultants, officials decided against a mere facelift and committed to overhauling all 100 sets of the airport's restrooms. Under Architectural Alliance's guidance, planners met weekly with airport staff for about nine months to dissect every aspect of potential improvements.

"We wanted everyone involved," explains Director of Airport Operations Phil Burke. "Cleaning and maintenance staff provided input. The energy management folks were there to discuss ventilation and access issues. The electricians, plumbers and carpenters were all included at the design table. It was a unique process that generated a lot of good suggestions and ideas."

Outside the airport, the project team sought insight from representatives of the disabled community. "ADA compliance was at the top of our list," says Burke. "For example, we learned from people with hearing aids that the noise from hand dryers can be very troublesome. As a result, we chose the quietest dryers we could find on the market."

No detail was too small, recalls Rothausen-Vange: "Toilet paper holders, materials, layouts, you name it, we argued and discussed the topic for weeks on end as well as evaluated the condition of every restroom at the airport. Then, we created a master plan to establish where restrooms should be located, based their sizes on aircraft capacity, and determined what offices, concessions or other real estate would need to be moved. It was a huge commitment on the airport's part."

The result? An airport-wide project expected to cost $100 million and span more than 20 years. With projections based on current costs of $1 million per restroom set, the final price may vary, note officials.

By early October, crews had completed the first two sets of MSP's new restrooms for $1.7 million, including costs to consolidate and reconfigure space previously used by tenants. The new restrooms - one in Concourse E, another in Concourse F - will guide future renovations and construction.

"We are just at the beginning of this long-term project," Howell reports. "We know that once we touch a restroom, we may not get back to it for another 40 years. With these prototypes in place, we understand that we need to improve with each new renovation."

Currently, the airport is testing a new hand dryer that's built into the faucet, he explains. Not satisfied with having the dryer's electric motor in a public space, airport personnel are working with the manufacturer to see if the motor can be moved, perhaps behind a wall, to reduce noise levels inside restrooms. "These are the kinds of changes we can make over the long term," Howell relates. "If we find a new technology out there, we will revisit our program to see if it makes sense to implement that change."

Restroom Redux

Like DAY, MSP had a capacity issue that needed to be corrected. To increase capacity and decrease wait times in women's restrooms, planners designed them with twice as many fixtures as the men's. 

Accessibility for passengers with bags was improved by increasing size of individual toilet stalls from the standard 21/2 feet by 5 feet to 3 feet by 6 feet, the recommended size for ambulatory stalls. The walls separating stalls are 61/2 feet tall and 91/2 inches thick, and contain recessed toilet paper dispensers and recessed niches for carry-on luggage. Quartz panels along the outside walls eliminate grout lines, and outswinging stainless steel doors have a raked, slightly textured surface to resist fingerprints and facilitate cleaning.

Designers specified two-person, 18-inch-deep trough sinks in pairs, with a hand dryer and paper towel dispenser /disposal flanking both sides of each set. Multiple hooks provide a ready place to hang coats and shoulder bags, and wash areas include shelves behind the sinks to keep personal belongings secure and dry. Pipe chases allow crews to access trash containers stored behind the walls and provide clearance for carts and equipment needed for plumbing service and repairs. 

Vertical LED lighting was placed on each side of the mirrors to create a more natural glow and compliment skin tones. LED light boxes are integrated into the wall above the mirrors and at the back of the toilet stalls, creating a clerestory window effect.  

Off-white epoxy terrazzo floors eliminate grout joints and make the rooms look and feel cleaner, notes Rothausen-Vange. Crushed recycled Kohler toilets and glass mirror products add depth and sparkle to the floors while also enhancing the sustainability of the space, he adds.

Accessibility was a key focus throughout the design process. All stalls are equipped with grab bars, and enhanced accessibility stalls are included in each restroom - one in the men's and two in the women's. These stalls function as separate facilities, with sinks, mirrors, hand dryers/paper towel dispensers to complement the ADA-compliant toilets. In addition, their doors open automatically.

Each set of MSP's new restrooms also includes a separate area for families traveling with children. Similar to the enhanced accessibility facilities, the family restrooms have their own sinks and related amenities. While the toilet area does not have a door, the room is divided to maintain privacy, explains Rothausen-Vange. 

Upping the Aesthetics

MSP is leveraging visual and aural elements to elevate its restroom entrances. "Travelers entering these spaces realize immediately that these restrooms are different," Burke explains enthusiastically. "They see interesting artwork and hear classical music. There's natural daylight coming in, and the finishes are like nothing they've seen before. These restrooms are very unique."

The artwork is a series of colorful, somewhat abstract, mosaics depicting Minnesota themes such as farm fields and birch trees. Two artists, selected through a competitive process, created the large pieces.

Waiting areas are next on the airport's list. "A lot of times, one traveler will be using a restroom while a companion waits outside," Burke observes. "We want to provide them with a more comfortable waiting area in the vicinity of the restrooms. We plan to have flight information displays in the area as well as comfortable seating. We've just finished the design, and construction should begin next year."

Digital signs identify restroom locations, and will eventually be programmed to direct visitors to the nearest alternative when individual restrooms are out of service for cleaning.

With two prototypes in place, MSP is set to move forward on its long-term, $100 million restroom revamp. Construction of another family restroom in Concourse C is scheduled later this year, along with the addition of lactation rooms for the C, E and F concourses. Plans for 2014 include four sets of restrooms and another room for nursing mothers. And four more sets of restrooms are slated for 2015.

Even facilities for four-legged customers are being upgraded. A new relief area for service animals will be added in 2014.

"The next two years are going to be extremely busy for us," Howell reflects. "But the restrooms we have slated for reconstruction will probably have the biggest impact on the program, because they are in our highest need areas. The feedback we've received from both our board and the general public has been very positive, which is great for our team moving forward."

Help is on the Way

A guidebook for airports planning and designing restroom projects is expected to be available in late 2014 or early 2015. When released, it will be one of the latest installments of the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), an FAA-sponsored program managed by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies that presents near-term, practical solutions for problems faced by airport operators.

Content for the restroom project guide is being developed by Architectural Alliance. Alan Howell, airport architect at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, is leading the project, per his selection by the Transportation Research Board.

For information about purchasing the guidebook, visit


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