Think Like a Custodian

Written by Craig Bouck, AIA, LEED AP, and Jason Ringdahl, AIA

Craig and Jason surveyed 10 custodians at five BRS designed public facilities and these are their insights.

Think Like a Custodian was published in Parks & Rec Business Magazine in the December 2022 issue.

“Architects should think like custodians...”

– Dr. David Leatherbarrow

When I first entered architecture school, I was a naïve 20-something anticipating lectures revolving around the GOATs of architecture—Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. I walked to my first lecture, inspired and eager to learn the secrets behind these legends. 

Instead, I was met with a dose of reality. I listened to my professor say, “my best piece of advice for you is to think like a custodian.” He described that no one else understands how every piece of the building comes together, knows how the materials behave and weather, and sees how the building’s usage changes over time.

While that was not the advice I was anticipating, hearing his philosophy of beginning with the end in mind shaped the architect I became. Now, 30 years into my career as an architect who specifically designs recreation centers, I am constantly inspired by how changing trends, community demands and other external factors can change or shift a building’s original intent. I’m consistently striving to anticipate these influences to create versatile, adaptable and flexible facilities. Custodians have their finger on this pulse of change.

BRS has always been very sensitive to who has a seat at the design table and who does not. Over the years, we have made great strides in developing and utilizing different tools which encourage more critical players to join in design conversations. I’m not talking about just planners or directors. We seek a wide variety of input from IT managers, avid pickleball players, lifeguards, and many more. However, the one group we still struggle to interact with is the custodians. We strive to have the right people in the room at the right time and for a custodian, an invitation needs to be extended much earlier than you may think. The worst case is when the custodial team is excluded from design workshops entirely. I’m often frustrated that our designs lack input from the #1 caretakers of the building, and each time I find myself repeating my former professor's words of wisdom. 

Rather than wallowing in my frustration, my colleague Jason Ringdahl and I decided to step foot into their world —ditching our desks to spend several days in the lives of recreation center custodians. What we learned inspired and changed our design considerations for the better, and now we’re seeking to share and educate on our findings. 

After our time in 5 different community recreation centers of various ages and sizes and conversations with over 10 custodians, we uncovered simple recreation hacks that anyone can employ. Our research focused on five main areas: Recreation, Community, Aquatics, Lockers, and Support Spaces.


Gym Flooring: Prepare for Deep Cleans

We know we (should) refinish the gymnasium floors annually. Typically, this job is outsourced since it requires heavy-duty specialty equipment, usually needing 220 volts of electrical service. After watching contractors lug in a large generator year after year and spending precious time setting it all up—a job that is paid for by the hour, mind you, John, one of the many custodians we spoke to had the genius idea to install a 220-volt plug in the gym. The result? Lower floor finishing bids each year and an overall simpler process. Plus, he can rent the equipment without worrying about a generator throughout the year to do in-house spot treatments or mid-year clean-ups for events or post-summer camp. A simple change, that cost under $1k to install, led to long-term and lasting benefits.

Protect the Walls from Weights

Many locations we visited were still adopting physical changes due to COVID. A big one was the relocation of weight areas, either spreading them out or moving to a more freshly ventilated space. A good idea in theory had unexpected consequences—new scuffs and damage to the walls in these updated locations, since they were not originally planned to accommodate pieces of weight equipment. Chilson Recreation Center in Loveland, Colorado decided to install metal panels to protect the walls. Another simple solution that is implemented easily and can be removed or moved with very little cost or effort.


Indoor Play Structures

One of my favorite ‘hacks’ is the MacGyvered solution we picked up from a custodian at The CORE in Hobbs, New Mexico. This facility features a huge, play structure that rises two stories right in the middle of the center. Given its centralized location, everyone is viewing it constantly! Particularly their custodian, Annabelle, and what she could not help but notice was the hard-to-reach dusty spots. Her solution? A battery-powered leaf blower! They start at the top, blow it all down to the bottom, and vacuum it up.

Party Room Cleaning Closets

Another top-of-mind concern with all the custodians we visited was the time it takes to gather all the cleaning supplies, schlep them to the room in need, then put it all back. For a birthday party room at The CORE, Annabelle lost a half hour just preparing to clean. What we came up with was the idea of adding a small cleaning closet in high-usage rooms, or spaces far from the building's central janitorial closet. Implementing this solution allowed for faster room turnover, and in Annabelle’s case opened more rentable times for a birthday party room and additional accessibility for community members and income for the center.


Camouflaging Colors

What’s a custodian’s favorite color? Soap scum gray. It can effectively camouflage hard water spots by just painting slide towers, stairs, etc. a light shade of gray. Avoid dark colors at all costs.

Easy to Clean Louvers

Another ‘Ah-Ha’ moment happened at Loveland Recreation Center, chatting with Eric about their return air louvers. In the past, we have tested screw-on/off features, so they can be removed, cleaned, then returned. While that has worked well, it is still a cumbersome task that often requires more than one person. Eric’s suggestion was to install the large ones on side hinges. This facilitates cleaning the outside and inside with just one staff member.


Water Access

An additional hose bib is required by code inside most locker rooms in the US. BRS has strategically put these underneath lavatory countertops to hide the appearance and provide what we thought was a convenient location. We learned that the custodians must crawl around on their hands and knees on the dirty floor to attach their cleaning hoses. After additional investigation, we’re suggesting adding hot and cold water hose hookups within a recessed, secure box located in the shower area, lifting them off the floor and with more cleaning power.

Shower Curtains

The shower curtain debate comes up in every recreation center we design. Shower curtains get damaged and dirty very quickly no matter what you do—soap scum, mold, rips and tears – and are a constant maintenance issue. Instead, lose the shower curtain and design the shower stalls large enough to include an adjacent, separate drying area accessed by one solid privacy door (like a bathroom stall). Chant with me now, “Bring the curtain down!” 


Storage, Storage, Storage

We always advocate for extra storage on top of your extra storage because it will get put to good use, and we found custodians advocate for the same thing. Cleaning products, supplies, carts, machines, etc. all adds up. The challenge we face is that empty storage is often the first building area that gets cut when budgets are tight and value engineering exercises begin. Don’t let that happen to you by allocating space for these necessary supplies during the design process.

Also, if you outsource your custodian services, they need lockable space to separate their supplies. Discussing storage and long-term custodial goals during design are required for the most efficient layout.

Don’t Forget the Bench

Workbenches are rarely included in the design of a recreation center, but another thing we learned is that custodians are building and adding them after the fact. Planning for one from the beginning would make their lives a whole lot easier. Pro-tip: we also learned this is the place where many custodians eat meals or take a break. Anything you can do or add (nearness to a window, as an example) to make this a more enjoyable experience, the better.

“It's a people job.”

– John, Facility Maintenance Supervisor

Not a Janitor, Much More Than a Custodian

One of the biggest takeaways during this journey was realizing how much care went into the work performed by custodians. They truly care about the building, how it looks and functions, and the people using it. Yes, they are responsible for janitorial tasks, but what we learned in talking with them is that they take on much more than keeping the facility clean. The word custodian fits into this mantra, translating into a noun: a person who has responsibility for or looks after something. They are the keepers of our centers—the ones who pour their heart and soul into the upkeep and play a large, but often silent role, in creating an excellent customer experience.

While we realize that you may not be able to implement these solutions overnight, what you can do is shift your mindset or the culture of your facility to be more empathetic toward custodial staff. I promise that the benefits will amaze you.

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