Here is the most important thing to know about the new bathrooms at BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport.
With a whoosh, the toilets give you a very satisfying flush. That’s important because, as with many things in life, you want a flush guaranteed to wash away your troubles.
For men at least, it’s almost as important that the urinals don’t splash. There is nothing more annoying in a public bathroom — OK, maybe there are a few things — than being flecked with water or worse when the rinse flows with force down a urinal.
These crucial BWI bathroom fixtures are made by TOTO, a Japanese company not named for Dorothy’s little dog in “The Wizard of Oz.” Although it’s kind of pleasant to think about the little fella while standing at a TOTO urinal, the name is an abbreviation of the Japanese words for “Oriental Ceramics.”
I’m telling you these things because after I heard the updated bathrooms at BWI are up for a national award, I knew I had to go. They’re a finalist in the Cintas Corp.’s America’s Best Restroom competition, but I wanted to judge for myself. The company designs and implements restroom programs for businesses.
I now consider myself an unqualified expert on bathroom renovations. We redid the kids’ bathroom at our house this spring, and I learned a lot.
They are long moved out. It’s just my wife and me, plus our two dogs (none named Toto). So I pulled out our tools and ripped out fixtures, drywall and tile. I went all the way down to the studs and found busting up the baby-blue, cast-iron tub with a 10-pound sledgehammer to be wonderfully cathartic.
After struggling through the installation of a new subfloor, though, I looked around and realized this wasn’t going to work. So that’s what I learned: when to call a contractor. Over the next few weeks, that little space with no walls and rags stuffed into the drainpipes became a bathroom again.
It doesn’t work perfectly. The contractor did exactly what we asked, and we asked for some wrong things. Water splashes past the glass wall that covers half the shower stall, more than the mat can absorb. So, until we fix it, a little towel mop is required after a shower.
Ricky Smith, executive director and CEO of the airport, which serves more than 27 million passengers a year, understands the frustrations of redoing a bathroom.
When I visited the new men’s room on Concourse B en route to a Friday night flight, five of the fancy new stalls — ceiling-to-floor doors and dividers, red and green indicators to reflect occupancy — were marked out of order.
“Anytime we do a project of this nature, either we’re adding to the concourse or, in this case, we’re adding restrooms or making a major renovation to the building, some of the new features we add to the facility require some repair initially …,” Smith said. “They’re going to need some adjustment, some calibration.”
Admittedly, his upgrade is a lot more ambitious than my project. It includes six bathroom locations, each with separate spaces for men, women and families.
My home improvement project cost about $13,000 and involved two guys named Edgar.
The Maryland Aviation Administration Office of Architecture worked with the engineering firm AECOM and construction giant Whiting-Turner on this. It spent $55 million, which works out to about $9 million for each location on three concourses.
Five of the high-tech stalls were out of order on the Friday night I dropped by, and one of the sinks had a red-and-white sign taped over it as well. The sink was still closed and two stalls were offline when I came back through Sunday night.
And, for some unexplainable reason, the seats sat off kilter on the toilet bowls in every stall I checked. A video sent to me by a friend after I mentioned my plan to review the bathrooms shows it’s the same in the women’s room.
Smith was unsure if this last bit was an intentional design element. Maybe there’s some weird science involved. Maybe someone ordered the wrong seats.
But when we talked the following Monday, we agreed it didn’t really have any impact on the task at hand.
“You’re stumping me on that one,” he said. “I’m going to run down there and check it out.”
Even if the results aren’t perfect, they are bright and pretty. There’s a wall-size blue glass artwork behind a bench as you walk in, with men’s space to the left and women’s to the right. A family bathroom, lactation space and adult changing room are located behind the artwork.
The men’s space was very clean. The renovation involved punching through the exterior wall to create more room, adding additional toilets and installing an opaque panel that provides soft, natural lighting. The wall panel is a feature showing up in airport bathrooms more often now, and it’s the most notable aesthetic touch in the BWI bathroom.
Notes provided by the airport say the new features include touchless faucets and towel dispensers and improved ventilation, plus hooks and storage space to stow your stuff while you do your business.
Make no mistake, there’s a lot of business to take care of in the bathrooms on Concourse B. It’s the busiest spot in the airport.
“We have some 60-70,000 people come through the airport every day,” Smith said. “Because we have flights coming in in banks … a lot of people are using the restrooms at the same time.”
I get this. I’d rather not use the coffin-size bathrooms on an airliner if I can avoid it. Smith confirmed I’m not alone in a desire to go before I go and after I land.
Over the past year, this has worked out to an average of 2,272 miles of toilet paper per month — just about the distance from Annapolis to San Diego. To clean up afterward, people use about 3,100 gallons of hand soap at the airport every 30 days.
And they will continue to use paper towels because the design team opted for towel dispensers instead of air blowers. Research shows the blowers toss germs and microbes into the air, and that paper towels actually help remove them from your hands.
“It’s safer to use paper towels than to use those machines that kind of have a way of blowing stuff across the restroom,” Smith said. “That’s why we made the decision not to go in that direction.”
The paper products the airport staff chose for the bathrooms come from Blind Industries & Services of Maryland, a nonprofit that provides training and jobs for people with vision impairment. It’s nice stuff, soft and absorbent with a raised pattern woven into the paper. Some of it is recycled.
When those miles of toilet paper and towels run out, the new bathrooms include automated sensors that alert the custodial staff that more is needed. The airport has 100 custodians hired through Chimes, a nonprofit that offers training and jobs for people with developmental or behavioral disabilities. It could use more.
“They all do amazing work for us,” Smith said. “Even at 100 we’re understaffed, but this [sensor technology] allows us to slow the pace of increasing our staff.”
So far, the project is on budget and on schedule.
You can vote through Aug. 11 in the bathroom competition. And more improvements are coming.
By 2025, the airport plans to start work on its baggage pickup system, a sometimes frustrating process that Smith said is magnified by the relatively short distance from the gates to the baggage claim carousels and the need for more space in the sorting area.
I plan to use the BWI restrooms again. I mean, really, what choice is there? Hold it till I get home?
Here’s hoping all your trips to the bathroom, wherever they may take you, are flushed with success.