With facility disinfection top of mind amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Craig Bouck and Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture wanted to get a better understanding of how they could make life easier on custodial and maintenance staff tasked with meeting today's high standards.
So, they went out and talked to them, visiting a number of facilities and speaking with individuals on the front lines of cleaning and sanitizing.
"The whole idea is, 'How do you design with maintenance in mind?' " says Bouck, a principal and partner at BRS, which specializes in designing community recreation centers. "We went to six different centers in Colorado, Wyoming and Texas, and we interviewed custodians and had them walk through their facility and point out things that make their lives harder or easier. Materials, procedures, design things — it was really enlightening. It's one thing to have an interesting idea of how to do it. It's another to have to live it every day."
And the people who live it every day have had a lot on their plate lately. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, public perception has evolved as to what it means to be in a clean, safe space, and manufacturers have been scrambling to create new sanitation technologies and products to assuage end-user fears.
"The usage of disinfectants dramatically changed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and consumers became hyper aware of the role disinfectants play in helping prevent the spread of germs, particularly in public and shared spaces," says Kirsten Hochberg, a specialist within CloroxPro's Clinical and Scientific Affairs team. "The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spark broad awareness about how germs spread, resulting in higher expectations when it comes to the standards of cleaning and disinfecting public spaces."
"What COVID's done is make people aware of the processes and protocols that people really need to follow to get proper pathogen or disinfection in their facilities," says Scott Jarden, president of disinfectant manufacturer and supplier Kennedy Industries. "People really kind of learned that maybe they hadn't necessarily been doing things the way they were supposed to be doing for a long time."
People generally know what needs to be done to clean a space. It's continually doing it that becomes a challenge. However, the increased awareness of cleanliness — and how facility cleanliness can impact society — has led to sanitization becoming a group effort.
Rather than just counting on custodial and maintenance crews to do their work, BRS is finding that there are a number of stakeholders who can work together to ensure new sanitization standards are met.
While the custodians told BRS that corners are the hardest spaces to clean and that there are specific steps architects can take to improve the sanitizing process, the in-building employees' main point was that they wanted a seat at the design table. The more designers talk to the people who are going to be cleaning the space, the easier it will be to sanitize the facility and meet members' demands for cleanliness during the pandemic and beyond.
"There's going to be attention on keeping things clean," Bouck says. "Having the ability to really reach and clean locker rooms is going to only be possible if we design for success and create the kind of equipment and flexibility so that custodians can really do an awesome job. The harder we make it, obviously the harder it's going to be for them to be successful.
"They kept saying to us, 'People didn't ask us enough when they were designing about how we were going to use this and how we could help think through some of the things that would be helpful.' "
Understanding the facility
The types of activities that go on in a building impact the maintenance process. Bouck said that BRS representatives recently visited a senior center they knew was centered around hosting community gatherings. However, upon visiting the site, they discovered they could have learned more about the gatherings, which, in this case, always included a significant amount of food. Therefore, a significant number of crockpots would be plugged in, blow the fuses and require maintenance.
While not necessarily related to facility disinfection, the senior center showed Bouck how important those early discussions with custodial and maintenance staff are.
"The point is to dig into how they're going to clean, not just the fact that they are going to clean," Bouck says. "Tell me exactly what you're going to do, the process of day-to-day use, what tools, what equipment, how you do it, where you start, where you store things, and how often you do it."
When it comes to cleanliness, fitness and recreation facilities are unique in a number of ways. Bringing people into a facility to work out requires finding sanitization solutions that address equipment, odor, laundry, bathrooms and showers.
"Gyms and fitness centers have some of the most difficult-to-cover surfaces: weights, kettle bells, weight machines, and cardio equipment — all of which are frequently touched and would be extremely difficult to disinfect effectively without electrostatics," Hochberg says, noting how products like the Clorox® TurboPro™ Handheld Electrostatic Sprayer disinfect high-touch, hard-to-reach spaces.
Products such as electrostatic sprayers, soap-and-water solutions, or on-site generators like the ChlorKing HYPOGEN are essential to cleaning. However, where these products are located goes a long way in determining how often they are used — and how productive the products ultimately are. That idea is what turned Bruce Sherman into an entrepreneur. After years in the fitness industry, Sherman invented the GymValet in 2006 with the idea that disinfection products should be located within 10 feet of every piece of fitness equipment. His GymValet solution allows fitness facilities to attach cleaning supplies directly onto strength training and cardio equipment.
While the GymValet is focused on facilitating gym-goers' sanitization of the equipment they use, custodians told Barker Rinker Seacat that the same methodology applies to locker rooms. Locker room proximities can play a big role in how clean the showers, sinks, lockers, toilets, floors and benches might be. Some staff members clean those spaces with a bucket and a mop. Some prefer to connect chemicals to a hose and spray the disinfectant throughout the locker room. Methods of sanitization may be limited by the fact that the traditional way to design locker rooms is to include a cold-water spigot underneath the sink.
"Well, nothing about that works," Bouck says. "One, they have to carry a heavy hose from some distant location, haul it into the bathroom, climb underneath the sink and hook it up to a water faucet that's only cold. They don't have any other chemicals connected to it, so they basically can't do anything they set out to do. They're really limited to cleaning with cold water and without chemicals.
"And they said, 'That's all avoidable if you would have talked to us, because we would have told you what we were going to do and maybe you could have built a closet that would have been accessible from both locker rooms, with doors and a nice big sink and place to hang our chemicals and a hose.' A lot of the people we interviewed said, 'These hoses are really long and heavy, and it's just hard for us.' No one considered that. They always just assume they're big, burly guys and it's no problem, but that's not fair, and they were a little critical of us for not being a little more sympathetic."
The message got through. A centralized location that includes warm water and supply storage would go a long way toward providing flexibility and ease of sanitization. The same goes for storing larger sanitization products such as wood scrubbers, tile scrubbers, tile steamers, floor sweepers, floor polishers, carpet cleaners and lifts.
"They aren't just things you throw on your back. They're specialized machines that have different chemicals and things," Bouck says. "Each one of those needs to have a plug-in station because they're all battery operated. The whole idea is getting a garage where they can drive this thing in here, park it and plug it in to its own dedicated circuit. What's happening is they're stuffing them anywhere they can, and they're using extension cords and power strips to try to manage it. The lesson learned and the thing moving forward is we need to learn a little more about their specialized equipment that's being utilized and give them a place to park and charging stations."
Similarly, facilities can be built with a designated space to bring individual pieces of fitness equipment when they need a deep cleaning. Equipment is cleaned throughout the day, but on occasions when more thoroughness is needed, Bouck says a designated deep-cleaning space allows a facility to "have all the cleaning supplies and all the things there, like a detail shop for a car. You can do that off the floor so nobody can see, and then it's ready to bring back out. Having a space like that would be an amazing advancement from a custodian and maintenance point of view."
Designing for cleanliness only goes so far. Fitness and recreation centers also rely on people to do the work, whether it's maintenance staff or the facility's members using the equipment directly.
"Members are part of the cleaning team," Sherman says. "Cleaning and sanitizing equipment is a team sport between the members and the staff, and is best accomplished by both working at it regularly and consistently. The recommendations for cleaning and sanitizing are that members clean and sanitize equipment before and after each use. If that did not occur, the staff should follow right behind and clean it if the member didn't do it themselves."
With members becoming such a crucial aspect of the disinfection process, facilities must help them understand their role — and how to best accomplish it.
"The sanitizing solution should be sprayed/applied to cover the full surface of the body-contacted parts of the equipment, left to sit for at least 10 seconds, and then wiped off," the GymValet website notes. "It is incumbent on fitness center owners and managers to optimize/maximize the possibility that regular equipment cleaning is achieved; give the human cleaners — members and/or staff — the best chance to sanitize the equipment by placing the cleaning supplies in direct proximity of the equipment. Every extra step that the human has to take to access the sanitizing supplies minimizes the chance that the equipment can or will be cleaned before and after use."
Jarden says Kennedy Industries has a pathogen-control manual that discusses the proper procedures for disinfecting and cleaning, and that process is even more crucial than ever amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the fitness industry.
"The only time that would be remotely connected to this is when there was a potential Ebola breakout, and then there was also a pathogen breakout five or six years ago that impacted mainly schools and things like that, but nothing to the degree that we've seen with COVID, where people were just demanding anything they can get — hand sanitizers, whatever," Jarden says. "They were spraying stuff everywhere, regardless of whether or not it needed to be. It was kind of a panic."
The panic eventually faded as vaccines became available and society got more used to living through the pandemic. After the fitness industry had shut down for months, gyms reopened. And the longer they were open, the more the disinfection standards returned to normal.
"I can only go from experiences I see," Sherman says. "Last spring, everybody was on highest alert while places were closed to get ready to reopen with the highest level of sanitizing, disinfecting measures, procedures and products in place to bring members safely back into gyms. Everybody was laser-focused on doing it right and safe.
"I think people got quite comfortable with going back to the gym, and I think attention to disinfecting and sanitizing almost went back to where it was before the pandemic. As people started going back to the gyms, which then started taking away requirements for temperature checks, questions upon entering facilities and masking, it just kind of slid away. Now, we're about 13 months after everything started reopening and we are in another very volatile period with a more transmissible mutation of the coronavirus. COVID's back in the vocabulary, and I'm guessing concern by members will ramp up again, and their requests and demands will be back in place so that they are safe in gyms."
With gym-goers' increased awareness, it's crucial facility operators keep their spaces clean. It's also crucial they give off the perception that they are doing everything they can to sanitize their spaces and protect their members.
The custodial staff is part of the customer service process, as they are the individuals that members see disinfecting the spaces they are using.
"If it feels like people are making their best effort to keep it clean, I as a customer am going to feel more confident, because I'm seeing that you're actively doing things to make it a healthy place," Jarden says. "We talk a lot about perception of customers coming in to a company or a student coming into a college setting, they're very aware of whether or not things seem clean. Before, it used to be the measure of whether or not a facility is maintained property was the bathroom. Now, I think people are looking at the whole facility. What's the appearance when you walk in the door? Are the floors clean? Are the mats clean?"
That said, it's not just about working hard in front of the customer. There are things that designers and operators can do ahead of time to enhance visitors' perception of their facility. Bouck says that architects can design buildings using materials that don't show all the dirt and smudges. These include certain foor colors, non-painted hand rails that can't be chipped, and dark grout that will appear cleaner for longer periods of time.
"We love to design spaces with glass," Bouck says. "It's beautiful, but from a custondians' point of view, it's so much work because they have to clean all the fingerprints off it all the time.
"Maybe there's some things we can do in certain locations to keep that visibility and keep daylight coming in but make it a bit less of a maintenance issue. You'll still have to clean it, but you won't have to clean it quite as often and you won't see the fingerprints quite as bad."
From engaging maintenance staff in the early stages of design to encouraging facility end-users to do their part, the industry has truly entered a new era when it comes to sanitization.
"The amount of disinfecting we're doing nowadays is going to go down, but it's never going to return to where it was before," Jarden says. "People's perception of what they want out of a facility or a particular establishment is completely different than what it was two years ago."
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Designing Facilities with Maintenance in Mind." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.