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How to build freestanding public restrooms that are clean and safe

Portland, Oregon, and Montreal, Canada, offer different models for this basic amenity.

portland and montreal public toilet illos
Julian Glander

Public restrooms serve the most basic of human needs, but they’re not always easy to find. Some cities, including Portland, Oregon, and Montreal, Canada, are rising to the challenge with stand-alone lavatories that anybody can use, free of charge.

About 20 “Portland Loos” are now spread across that city, while central Montreal has installed four self-cleaning toilets since 2018 (still open during the pandemic). Though they differ in technical complexity, both have the potential to make urban communities more hospitable and hygienic.

Other cities—including Paris and San Francisco—operate public restrooms too, but Portland and Montreal stand out for their unique approaches to treating bathrooms as essential infrastructure. The Loo has proved particularly successful: in fact, its manufacturer has sold dozens that have been installed in roughly 20 cities in North America. It’s less expensive and has a much simpler design than Montreal’s technically advanced model (called TMAX) but must be cleaned manually. Montreal’s toilets clean themselves after every use, though workers also clean each facility daily. 

1. Fiberglass toilet seat prevents people from getting stuck when it’s cold (yes, it happens)
2. Optional sharps-disposal box gives people a place to discard used needles
3. Motion-activated LED lights (and an optional skylight) provide interior illumination
4. Supply cabinet in the back includes a hose and spigot for manual cleanings

The Portland Loo

• 10.6 feet long by 6 feet wide
• Wheelchair accessible
• No mirror
• Walls are made of stain- less steel coated with anti-graffiti powder that can be power-washed
• Angled slats at the top bottom let others see inside while preserving the occupant’s privacy
• Interior handles help people get up and down from toilet seat
• Exterior hand-washing station can be used by passersby; hand-sanitizer dispenser available inside
• Costs about $100,000, not including installation and maintenance
• Weighs 6,000 pounds

1. Self-cleaning mechanism disinfects entire unit in 90 seconds after each use; one automated bar sprays the toilet seat and dries it with compressed air
2. Another automated bar sprays the floor and dries it with a squeegee
3. Weight sensors in the floor prevent people from barging into an occupied unit or being caught inside during automatic cleanings
4. Emergency button and toilet-paper dispenser button are located next to toilet seat

Montreal's TMAX

• 10 feet long by 6.5 feet wide
• Wheelchair accessible
• Stainless-steel mirror (to avoid broken glass)
• Walls are made of laminate with resins and are resistant to damage, fire, and graffiti
• Structure is fully enclosed and includes bright interior lighting
• Interior handles help people get up and down from toilet seat
• Interior sink includes a soap dispenser and hand dryer
• Costs about $300,000, not including installation and maintenance
• Users press a button next to the door to enter; doors automatically reopen after 15 minutes of use

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