Facilities for Families

January 7, 2004

While many people wouldn’t feel comfortable using the kind of unisex restrooms depicted on the FOX television show Ally McBeal, in reality, family and unisex restrooms can be a lifesaver for people with disabilities, health concerns, or small children. These larger, more private washroom facilities simplify life and make public spaces more usable for everyone – the key to today’s universal design concepts.

Child safety, an increasing elderly population, and improved access for those with physical disabilities have all spurred legislation for family restroom construction. Many states have adopted the 2003 International Building Code, which requires unisex restrooms for all newly constructed (or renovated, when restrooms are added) assembly and retail spaces, such as malls, theatres, airports, and stadiums. Section 1108.2.1 states that facilities with an aggregate of six or more male and female water closets must provide a unisex restroom. State potty parity requirements (3:2 ratio of women’s to men’s toilets) are another factor that can quickly increase the number of toilets needed, thus boosting the need for these types of restrooms.

What’s the difference between unisex and family restrooms? Unisex restrooms are single-user toilet rooms that can be used by either men or women – the term is more universal for code purposes. Family restrooms can have multiple unisex toilet rooms within them, but may also have space allocated for other amenities and often share a common hand-washing and diaper-changing area. In addition, upscale family facilities may include family lounges, private nursing rooms, and baby changing areas.

Family restrooms are becoming a key differentiator for facilities, particularly shopping malls where consumers can easily choose one location over another. Though convenient for mothers with sons and fathers with daughters, parents aren’t the only ones who benefit; there’s more room for wheelchairs and walkers, and for caregivers who provide assistance to the physically disabled. Individuals with special health needs, such as those who give themselves insulin injections, value the added privacy.

An important design consideration for family restrooms is the placement of fixtures, dispensers, and accessories within reach of all users. This means ensuring hand dryers and towel dispensers are accessible and that there are no barriers (such as trash receptacles) blocking them. Some family restrooms have taken this one step further and are doubling up with child- and adult-height toilets, lavatories, hand dryers, etc.

As these spaces evolve, innovative new products are being designed to fill a need in family restrooms. Accessories, such as child safety seats mounted to restroom walls, help parents with infants or toddlers use the restroom easily. Another example is a multi-height, solid-surface lavatory system that eliminates the need for separate hand-washing fixtures to meet ADA requirements.

Whether it’s an inviting environment or simply a handy fixture or changing station, building owners and managers must strive for the best restroom environment for all users. The best solution is to get help with selections and design from a washroom product expert and other professionals that specialize in commercial washrooms to make certain all types of accessibility requirements are taken into account.

Jason Renner is senior product manager at Menomonee Falls, WI-based Bradley Corp. (