When SmithGroup submitted a crazy idea for a design competition from the City of San Francisco, they never thought their futuristic public toilet kiosks and street furniture would be selected, let alone that they would need to be realized. Working with the City of San Francisco and JC Decaux, principals Bill Katz and Tyler Krehlik turned the stigma of public toilets being dirty, unsanitary, and dangerous on its head in order to add dignity back into these facilities for the people who need and use them.
See more about SmithGroup’s “Amenipods” here!
Once Upon a Project is a member of the SURROUND podcast network. Check out more architecture and design shows at surroundpodcasts.com.
AJ Paron: [00:00:00] Welcome to Once Upon a Project from the SURROUND Podcast Network. I’m your host, AJ Paron, Design Futurist and Executive Vice President at SANDOW DESIGN GROUP.
When you picture the City of San Francisco, what pops into your head? Most likely it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, or the iconic street trolleys, and images of people walking around the streetscape. But when you think about the landmarks that define the city, it’s probably not the public toilets.
Today we will hear from my friends Bill Katz and Tyler Krehlik, from SmithGroup, and how a crazy concept they thought was ridiculous actually got built for one of the most diverse populations in the United States.
Bill Katz: Hi, I’m Bill Katz.
Tyler Krehlik: Hi, I’m Tyler Krehlik.
Bill Katz: And we are both principals from SmithGroup in San Francisco. [00:01:00]
So, the project we want to talk to you about today is a series of public kiosks—street furniture typologies. The existing kiosks have been out there for 25 years, and they’ve lived well past their prime, and it was time to re-envision, and create designs on the street.
AJ Paron: You may be thinking, what the heck is street furniture? I mean, when I say furniture, you think of office furniture or living room furniture, but what really is street furniture?
Bill Katz: Street furniture is really all that stuff that you bump into when you’re walking down the street—everything from newspaper stands to trash cans, to public toilet kiosks, bus stop awnings. So, street furniture is all that stuff that is architecture. It’s just very small-scale architecture, but it’s part of our environment that we interface with when we walk down the street. And it provides us with the ability to come up with, especially when it’s a competition, a crazy idea and-and turn it into a reality. And for us, [00:02:00] we really relish in that-the ability to come up with crazy ideas, turn it into something, and then actually get it built and have it within our own backyard.
Tyler Krehlik: Many of the folks were interested in the social aspect of it. There is obviously a population that uses these toilets. The city talks about how it’s unhoused individuals, it’s-it’s day workers, it’s parents, tourists with kids that can’t seem to find a restroom anywhere. And that rung true to a lot of our team that they were interested in-in trying to solve that social dilemma and be a positive contribution to the city in that way.
Bill Katz: And so, while selfishly, it’s about design and architecture and street furniture, it’s also about addressing the needs of people from different neighborhoods within our city and our community to help make it a safer place filled with dignity for those who really need it.
What happened was that the city reached out to a series of designers, architects, industrial designers to create a little competition to re-envision [00:03:00] what those can be like and try to tie it to what’s happening in today’s world and today’s technologies and innovations.
If you win the competition, you get the right to actually work with JCDecaux—the company that manufacturers and engineers maintains these kiosks—and actually put them on the street within the City of San Francisco.
Tyler Krehlik: JCDecaux is, what I would call our client in this, the actual fabricator of these elements. JCDecaux is a French street furniture company—our advertising company. You’ll see their products in airports and cities across the country.
They develop and maintain small-scale urban-sized advertising kiosks, newspaper stands, these toilets, et cetera, all across the country. The arrangement that they have in place is via public bid to provide public facilities for cities in exchange for advertising revenue.
So, this whole program is the toilets are provided to the city for free, they’re maintained for free. [00:04:00] The attendance—the pit stop attendance—are paid for by JCDecaux in exchange for allowing advertising kiosks to be on sidewalks. And then they earn revenue off the advertising, kiosks to pay for the whole program.
Bill Katz: So, uh, as a design firm, we thought, “Hey, you know, we want a part of that.”
And when it comes to a competition design, of course, you have to think way outside the box. So, for us, “It’s okay, we’re gonna design something crazy. There’s probably no chance they’re gonna build this thing, but let’s just do something nuts and win this competition and see where we go.”
Tyler Krehlik: So, we get the competition from the City of San Francisco. Super excited about it, challenged by it and realize, “Hey, we’ve got this great program in our firm.” About once or twice a year, we do an internal design competition, and it’s really meant to get juices flowing and foster new ideas amongst staff across the country. And so, we published the brief and invited the entire firm to participate. They could team up as they [00:05:00] wanted in groups or teams, and we ended up having about 13 teams across the country work for a couple weeks on it. Then we actually did an internal jury and reviewed them all.
One of the teams in San Francisco ended up winning that internal design competition, and that was the team that Bill was on. We took it and refined it, pushed the idea even further, took some of the ideas from some of the other entries that had been done internally and-and then got it into the citywide [00:06:00] competition.
It was a flurry of activity for over about a month and created a lot of excitement. A lot of people were really interested in working on it, and-and I think the team had a lot of fun doing it.
Bill Katz: What we are really excited about on working on a project like this is part of it has to do with its scale. I mean, it’s in our backyard; that’s one element. But the fact that we’re doing these larger buildings that involve bathrooms and mechanical rooms and all of the boring stuff that you see in buildings. Now, we get to design a sculptural piece of street furniture that’s gonna go [00:06:00] in different neighborhoods within the city that people are gonna look at and get attracted to. You can’t resist going after a project like that. It’s something that you’re gonna see every day walking down the street.
AJ Paron: So, when I say the words “public toilet in San Francisco,” the image that probably pops into your head is something that’s, uh, quite grungy and dirty and maybe full of needles. Not the place that you would wanna bring your kids into.
So, the challenge that Bill and Tyler really had was how do you create a space for everyone—
even though they might be coming from different demographics, have different accessibility needs, have different cultural needs? You know, here we’re in a situation where everyone needs to use a bathroom but will they if they don’t feel like they’re safe?
Bill Katz: So, our big idea with the entry into this competition was [00:07:00] we wanted to create these kiosks that were going in different neighborhoods of the city, and we wanted them to reflect those neighborhoods. We knew that the competition was gonna go in and do some kiosks where, “Oh, the kiosk in the Castro District is gonna have a rainbow on it.” Or the one in downtown is gonna have building skyscrapers on it. So, we didn’t want themed competition; we wanted an interesting idea that told a story.
When you think of toilet kiosks in the city, and the reputation of what they tend to bring is people are scared of them. They think they’re disgusting. They think they’re dirty. They think that the only people who are using them are homeless. So, how can we just turn that on its head, create something that attracts people to it, that is interesting looking, that looks like it came from outer space, and tie it into a bigger story?
The winning competition entry within our office decided that, “Okay, we’re gonna tie it into nature and the story about sustainability.” So, we thought what a better way to make a public kiosk toilet is to think of something like toilet trees. [00:08:00] So, we had trees that were plunked on top of these kiosks that—and then the water that-that came down in the rain would come in water the trees, go inside the toilet, flush the toilet, and it would be continuous loop through that.
And each of the kiosks would tell a different story about sustainability and water use, while at the same time actually addressing the needs of people in those neighborhoods. They would have a similar aesthetic. The tree up top, eh, maybe in one neighborhood it might be a different type of tree that ties into what’s happening in that neighborhood or the climate in that area ‘cause San Francisco has very varied climates in different areas. So that was our big notion of tying it together, of creating one design that can adapt and change. And by the physical skin of it, the outside of it would reflect the different neighborhoods, abstractly, but at the same time tie into this whole water story.
So, that was where the-the seed of the story came from. No pun intended there.
So, the whole notion about water use was realized within the design. So, we wanted it to be true; it wasn’t just a story. So, [00:09:00] the actual rainwater would come in and water the trees, and then it would be piped down in to flush the toilets, and also some of the water would be collected to clean the outside of the kiosks.
Tyler Krehlik: So, we submitted our entry and waited with bated breath for a couple weeks while the city went through a review process. Got the random note that we had been shortlisted. I think they shortlisted three. Okay. Never expected this. This is kind of crazy. Uh, we thought this was a completely off the wall idea, and we actually got shortlisted.
Bill Katz: And one thing when you do a design competition and ideas competition like this, you kind of really need to go into the assumption that you’re gonna lose, and that the satisfaction you get out of it was the competition design. You know, we did something crazy. It was kind of fun. And so suddenly, you know, when you find out, “Oh, you’re shortlisted,” you gotta meet with these people again, you realize, “Oh my God, we have to make this thing work.”
Like-like we’ve done buildings, and-and we’ve done entire developments dealing with issues of water and sustainability and public need. And suddenly, [00:10:00] you come up with a crazy idea an- and you’re forced to engineer it, and you’re forced to work with a company to make it into a reality.
So, while there was excitement, there was a bit of a-a shock and a like, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” Pushing ourselves outside of the comfort zone—which is fantastic to do—at this small-scale, everything’s gotta be perfect.
AJ Paron: Everyone gets excited when they find out they have made the shortlist, but this one came with some caveats. The city wanted them to not only dream up the concept and fine tune it but figure out exactly how to build it.
Tyler Krehlik: Some of the ideas they wanted us to really think about were trying to make it more real. Obviously, you know, it was conceptual at the time, so it was really thinking through. We took the water story to another level, actually tried to engineer the water filtration and the capture and think about how that would actually work.
Did some thinking about trees. I think one case we had the trees on top of it, and then we were sticking them next to it in a potted attachment on the side and kind of running through all these different scenarios.
And then we had to interview [00:11:00] with the Arts Commission, who is the design authority for the City of San Francisco. And then we went to a public display, so the city solicited public comments. We had developed large boards, and the boards went up in the main public library in Civic Center, and they solicited comments. Several hundred comments from folks that went into the library and looked at these.
AJ Paron: San Francisco has a lot of historic architecture, and people are really passionate about it. So, when these kiosks were designed in a more modern feel, what was the public’s reaction to that?
Bill Katz: Oh, the comments were all over the board. Um, the best thing about a public voting and public comment is-is you get to see what everybody writes. So, a good amount of the comments were, “Why are we spending our money in this direction?” Sometimes people are not realizing the importance of these and how these are addressing need. And at the same time, we’re getting things like, “Oh, what planet did these land from?” And they’re like, “What are you crazy? Don’t touch [00:12:00] my toilet kiosk,” as if they ever actually go and use it. And to turn it into something modern was an interesting dialogue. You know, you can work on projects and buildings for years and years, and developments at hospitals and universities, and people don’t wanna talk about that. They wanna talk about toilet kiosks.
Tyler Krehlik: In the public review period, there was a lot of conversation about historicism and what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, especially in very unique neighborhoods. You go to North Beach, which is an older neighborhood in the city and has that ethos to it, and there was very strong feelings that a modern piece of street furniture is not appropriate for a historical neighborhood. The Financial District or Mid-Market, which is bigger buildings and more modern buildings, there was not a concern with having a modern piece of street furniture there.
So, we had to work quite a bit through some of the different neighborhoods. We had to go in front of the Historic Preservation Board, and present this to them [00:13:00] for the neighborhoods that they were concerned with, which was North Beach, Civic Center, which is very, uh, federalist-style civic architecture type buildings. Is-is this an appropriate solution for those types of neighborhoods? And in the end, they-they agreed that inserting a modern piece of street furniture into a historical neighborhood was not creating a false sense of history.
Bill Katz: In San Francisco, it’s very similar when it comes to trying to build a modern house in a city full of Victorians. And everybody thinks that, “Oh, we should only be building Victorians within the city.” And you get the same dialogue, and what actually to us makes San Francisco so fantastic is being able to see the contrast. The Victorians look better when this great modern architecture around them and vice versa.
It’s about that contrast. And it still celebrates the past and reflecting it literally within the faces of this actual kiosk, but also ties into the modern aesthetic, and tells a story about moving forward.
Tyler Krehlik: And then after this whole process, we get an email or a phone call, [00:14:00] that you’re selected and you’re gonna move forward with this.
And I think we all kind of looked at each other with a kind of shock on our face, that here we come up with this kind of radical conceptual idea and, somehow, we’d made it through this gauntlet of public comment and interview process. But we celebrated kind of staring at each other, just realizing how did we pull that one off? That was unexpected and crazy.
And most of the ideas, amazingly, were still intact. The water idea was still in place. Trees at that point were probably tenuous. Uh, trees became big issue; they require maintenance. And it became a hot potato of Park and Rec doesn’t wanna maintain them and Public Works doesn’t wanna maintain them. And, you know, nobody wanted to touch them, so they became a unmaintainable item.
Bill Katz: So, there are no trees on top of them yet. Maybe the ones in the future will have that, but there is still a story about water collection, about water use that happens within those to clean the kiosks.
When we found out that we won the project, it was [00:15:00] a bit of an unknown territory for us in terms of the typology. But also, what are they gonna have us do? Are they gonna say, “Oh, thank you very much,” shake our hand, go and redesign it, ruin it, and turn it into something totally different. Or are they going to involve us in it? Are they gonna let us engineer it? Are they going to let us work on the exact shape and the materiality? And it was somewhere in the middle. So, we were able to really collaborate with JCDecaux and the Department of Public Works within San Francisco to really help these elements evolve.
Okay, now you did that then in competition, that was fun, but these are the rules. You know, we have to deal with people walking down the street. You’ve gotta deal with the actual chassis that goes inside these. You have to make sure that these type of screens work. So, we needed to take those realities and tie it back to our original design and turn it into something that still met the vision of what we had but, at the same time, dealt with those realities moving forward.
AJ Paron: If you’re like me, you are dying to know what makes these toilet kiosks so [00:16:00] weird and wonderful. I asked Bill and Tyler to describe the experience of interacting with these space age toilets.
Bill Katz: So, when you walk up to this toilet kiosk, it’s this sculpture—sculptural bulbous stainless steel object—sitting in front of you. So, it’s 10 feet tall or so, and on three sides of that it’s just gonna look like a smooth tapering at the bottom, tapering at the top sculpture piece—almost like a beautiful sculptural pot of some sort.
And then as you move around, you’ll see a door, and the-the door will have your typical circle with a triangle inside. So, it starts to say, uh, very clearly that this is a toilet. Adjacent to that, you’ll see a lit-up control panel. This will be some information in multiple languages telling you how to use the kiosk, and then there’s some buttons there. There’s a button down below if you’re in a wheelchair to, uh, open the door, and then there’s a little informational [00:17:00] panel there to tell you what’s going on inside there.
So, it’s telling you the kiosk is washing, or the kiosk is ready for you to come in there, and then there’s a button for the other push. There’s also a small little digital screen that might talk about some things happening in the city as well. So, there’s an opportunity there to give, um, people information about what’s happening on there.
But for the most part, we managed to keep very little information on there except for the door and this adjacent panel. So, it really feels sculptural. There is no backside to this. It’s something you walk around. We’ve hidden as many of the hinges as possible, so there’s a lot of intrigue and curiosity of walking up saying, “What is this?”
And it ties into the story of do you want people to know what it is or not? Is it important that it has a big giant sign that says “Toilet” on it or is it more important that it ties into the aspects of people know what it is, but at the same time, some of them might not, to draw people to it?
Tyler Krehlik: So, the door opens—it’s a sliding door—it slide-it’s a curved sliding door-and it slides to the right, [00:18:00] and you walk into a very clean and clear white environment inside, reinforcing the notion that it is sterile and clean.
It’ll be a little wet because it is just self-cleaned itself. The toilet, the walls, the floor, everything has been cleaned in between each user. There is a toilet in there and a sink. It’s a single occupancy. It’s a good size room ‘cause it’s meant to accommodate big-sized wheelchairs, uh, strollers, you know, all this other, um, elements. And then the toilet starts talking to you, and it says the door is going to close behind you, and the door starts to slide closed, and then says, “You have eight minutes to use the facility.”
And then you look up, and there is a giant circular skylight in the ceiling that’s providing natural daylight in the space. During the day, there’s no internal lighting in these; the lights turn on at night only.
It’s all touchless, so there’s no buttons to push, nothing to touch. It’s all, uh, motion-sensored, auto-activated by what you’re needing to do in there. [00:19:00] The only button that you do push is there is a door open button because it’s locked while you’re in there, so you don’t get an uninvited guest coming in behind you. So, you have to actually tell it I’m done, and I’m ready to go. The door slides open again, and then the door closes behind you, and then it starts a wash activation cycle. So, the toilet actually folds up into the wall and it sprays itself clean, washes not only the inside of the bowl but the seat and the entire outside of it. It sprays the floor down underneath the toilet, so it really cleans the whole element. And then the panel on the outside of it says it’s ready for the next guest, and so the next person will go in, and it’s a-a nice, clean, sanitary environment for the next person.
Bill Katz: And somehow it manages to keep the toilet paper dry.
AJ Paron: So, I seriously want a self-cleaning bathroom in my house but maybe not the talking part.
Bill Katz: So, designing these kiosks to be in a city where things out in the street can get beaten up during the night was quite a challenge. So, understanding the durability factors [00:20:00] was a big learning curve for us. You know, we know people might go on there with a can of spray paint and tag the outside, but we really got-had a lesson in-in graffiti art these days. So, there’s stickers; there’s scratching; there’s people trying to pry off panels; and then there is the spray paint. So, understanding how that can work and designing exterior materials that can still meet a budget was quite a challenge, and it was a fun one.
You know, at first, we thought, “Okay, we want these kiosks to reflect the neighborhood.” So maybe they’re smooth and-and actually, literally show what’s happening in there, and you can go in there and fix your hair on the side of the kiosk. But the reality is that between headlights bouncing off these things at strange angles and slamming into people’s homes, we needed to be careful about that. We have a exterior stainless steel surface, which in itself is very durable, but it’s modeled, it’s pitted and keeps stickers from sticking onto the exterior surface, so that was an interesting challenge.
And then, of course, it’s not a box, so we created something that’s very sculptural. [00:21:00] We wanted it to begin to help break down the mass by undulating inside and out. But, at the same time, you know, we’re handing this design over to JCDecaux, and their engineers need to curve a metal panel with a texture on it that has multiple different curving directions. And of course, they did.
There aren’t many places that could bend a stainless-steel textured panel in two different or three different directions and make it work, but they did and seamlessly made that work. And then, in a way that we talked about earlier, where you pop a panel off in the middle of the night and replace it, was quite an interesting challenge for us and managed to make it through that.
And in terms of the toilet kiosk, you know, those things are a bit of a bunker inside. While the outside is this beautiful shell, the inside is all about, you know, somebody can go in there light the thing on fire, and then JCDecaux comes in the middle of the night, just wash- hoses it down, and then suddenly it’s back on the street and functional because they’re made to last.
Tyler Krehlik: The fire example that Bill just gave was actually happening, too. So, while we were working on [00:22:00] designing these, we actually really started to understand the amount of abuse that these pieces get. One of the toilets, while we were redesigning, what literally a fire had been set on the inside of it and ruined it.
And the contract on the maintainability of these is they can only be out of service for very short periods of time. So, they need to be so durable that JCDecaux can come in, replace as much as they need to replace, get it up and running again. That’s part of their contract.
While we were working on ’em, one of the other kiosks got run over by a car. You know, it’s things that you start to hear this, and you’re like, “Well, I could see how that happened, but I didn’t actually realize it happened as often as it really does.” That these pieces just incur in an incredible amount of-of damage and-and risk because they live on the street, and they-they’re subject to abuse all the time.
We started to think about how can we do better design to help that process? And so, the toilets, the exterior panels on them are replicated, [00:23:00] and so they’re not all individual panels, so JCDecaux doesn’t have to stock 20 different panels. They can stock just a few. And it’s the same panel; it’s just rotated upside down or the other way. And the same thing with the other kiosks. They’re all replicatable parts and pieces that are all a kit of parts that they can literally just unbolt them off. One of them gets damaged, they just pull it off and replace it and can do it in a really quick timeframe so they can keep them operational.
As we started really looking at the kiosk component—the retail and the digital kiosks, the advertising kiosks—we realized that they’re all on very narrow urban sidewalks. And we had designed a unit that was actually way too big, that didn’t actually fit on many of the sidewalks that they were in. Obviously, there’s really wide boulevards with really wide sidewalks, and those would be fine, but we realized some of these kiosks are sitting on sidewalks which are only five or six feet wide. And here we had a thing [00:24:00] that was blocking half the sidewalk. And so, there was an enormous effort to shrink them down, which was a big challenge because the advertising square footage was a fixed number ‘cause that’s where the revenue is coming from that feeds this whole program.
And so how do you get a fixed amount of advertising square footage onto a cylinder or, you know, ours is kind of a rounded, triangle? Squeezing and squeezing and squeezing that harder and harder and harder to keep the advertising size the same but keep the shape in a manner that the shape of all of these different elements are a family.
Um, it’d be really easy to just take the tiny ones and make them look like something else—just break the mold. But it is very, very important to try to make all of these four different elements talk to each other. They’re not necessarily sitting next to each other, but they’re all distributed,
and we felt it was really important for them to be a family of elements that you’d connect the dots and go, “Oh, I understand that piece matches that other piece, matches that other piece,” [00:25:00] and getting the geometries to work on those was really challenging.
We actually used parametric model, and so these aren’t necessarily drawn like in a traditional drawn manner. They’re all modeled in a parametric modeling software that is looking at the curvature and the geometry formulas to get the curves to work right. So, rather than using a compass and a triangle and, you know, traditional drawing methodologies, we’re using computer algorithms to design the geometries to keep the advertising revenue correct and keep the shape right, and then also not make the metal panels unfabricatable.
Bill Katz: When’s the last time you used a compass, Tyler? Where’s your T Square? You didn’t mention T Squares.
One of the biggest challenges that we met was the whole idea of the removal of the tree component. So, when you’ve got something that you design, it’s a funny idea—you’re calling it “toiletrees,” and then suddenly the tree’s gone. You know, at first it was kind of like they pulled the rug out from under us. What are we gonna do? What’s the big [00:26:00] story?
And while that was a big challenge, I think we really adjusted and adapted the design to still tell a collective story about a series of family of those kiosks that are still about sustainability and are about water use and about energy savings that do tell that collective story. But then really focusing and tying it into the community story—the story about inclusive use, the story about it addressing the-the needs of the people using them in the different neighborhoods, and the adaptability of this element from neighborhood to neighborhood.
A lot of the challenges throughout the process that were large were still addressed. We’re able to maintain a vision and create the spirit of our competition design.
When it comes to public toilets, especially in an era where most stores are saying things like, “Restrooms are for customers only,” it creates an environment where it doesn’t understand the nature of-of people within an urban environment, and you’ve got, sure, these are fantastic and helpful for people who are homeless, but there are so many different people [00:27:00] that use these. It ties into many aspects within the city. You’ve got Uber drivers who don’t have a place to stop. You’ve got mail carriers and construction workers who don’t have necessarily an easy place to go to the restroom. It’s about applying dignity back to these elements. You’ve got tourists with families who need to use the restroom and they want it to be safe. They want it to be clean.
There’s other aspects where people that have been afraid of them. They think that people are in there with needles shooting up in these restrooms. So, how do you address that?
So, one aspect has to do with the fact that these self-clean. They sanitize when people go out for the next person to come in. But at the same time, there’s a-a program called the Pit Stop Program that the city has where actually somebody who-who’s recently has been incarcerated is working at the kiosk. They’re helping people using the kiosks. They’re helping people understand elements around them if they need services related to finding shelter and getting food and dealing with clean needles. They’re able to help them with that. So, it ties [00:28:00] into those aspects.
There are 25 of these within the city, and they’re targeted to certain areas dealing with homelessness. In the Mission District, day laborers who are here working and helping people on projects within the city. In touristy areas where people need that.
There-there can never be enough of these, honestly, and that hopefully will be dealt with. Right now, this program replaces the existing ones, but there is the ability to continue to create more but really turning that on its head and saying that these are for everybody. And not only are they clean and safe, but they’re attractive, and they’re interesting, and they tell a story.
And we want people to come up to them and, even if they don’t need to use the restroom, and say, “You know, what is this thing?” And to walk around and we’ve seen people actually go inside, and I just wanted to check it out, and, you know, tell a story of getting on a spaceship because the way the door opens and closes, it feels very futuristic. So it’s-it’s engaging that and [00:29:00] creating a sense of curiosity out of something that’s-that’s just a toilet.
And-and that continues to develop with the additional versions. There’s the kiosk, the advertising kiosks, and then the retail kiosks. So, there’s a tiny little mini-kiosk that opens up and turns into a retail environment for somebody who might wanna sell t-shirts, or sell artwork that they make, or coffee.
And to be able to create an incubator scenario where they can develop some sort of business and maybe eventually grow it into something that can turn into a brick-and-mortar scenario. And these are free, basically. People, all they need to do is sign up with the website with JCDecaux and say, “I want to use this.”
And-and as long as they show up and use it, they can continue to do that. So, it-it helps in so many different ways—at a financial way and at a-at a community type of way.
AJ Paron: I love the fact that this project had to work for all of the users—from fancy businessmen to someone living on the streets. They all deserve to feel safe and welcomed.
Tyler Krehlik: One of the elements which was really [00:30:00] important early on with the city was access. Very important to them to make sure that they were not only compliant with ADA and federal regulations around accessibility but really trying to push that envelope and ask what are the access issues for this population and for the folks that need to use this?
A lot of conversation about how does the door work, because it’s not just thinking about traditional disabilities with a wheelchair or something. It’s people with all kinds of other disabilities that are needing to use these. And how do we create a door that is functional for everyone? Uh, has the right timing on it so it doesn’t close on people that are maybe moving slow or that have a walker or a cane. Making sure there’s no, you know, trip hazards, and really thinking about all the different various forms of access that we have in the city.
Vision-impaired. Thinking how do you make it easier that when you go inside, it actually talks [00:31:00] to you? And there’s Braille, obviously, on all the buttons, but it does talk to you so you don’t actually—can use it if you’re visually impaired.
Thinking about all those different elements. What types of access are needed to make it truly universal for everybody to utilize them in-in a friendly and welcoming manner.
We worked really closely with the Public Works Agency on access, talking about all those issues and thinking through all those things with JCDecaux to make sure that they were as universally accessible as-as possible.
Bill Katz: And designing for the public in a public kiosk kind of way, leads people to think, “Okay, the least common denominator, we need this to be durable. People don’t need mirrors. People don’t need this. They don’t need that.” But the reality is to design for people with-with—to provide this dignity, we have to understand what’s gonna happen in these kiosks.
There are gonna be people who are gonna wash up. There are gonna be people who-who wanna see what they look like. There are people who have gonna need to feel that it is clean [00:32:00] and sterilized. And adding those into the design of the elements was important. You usually expect them to be a dim, dirty place where you don’t want to touch anything, and there’s no mirror because the people are worried about being broken. There’s a mirror so people can see what they look like. There’s natural light with these skylights. So, it’s understanding the nature of what happens within these places, and that’s what makes them subtle. That’s what makes them usable. That’s what makes them attractive and feel more clean.
By having these small details that-that doesn’t take a lot to add them, but it changes the way that they’re used, and it and becomes a place that actually becomes—is widespread for people who don’t have the ability to go other places in between their jobs or in between where they’re sleeping.
So, it’s-it’s important to create that dignity in the design and the details inside and out.
So, in terms of all the kiosk typologies—
So, there are 25 bathroom kiosks, so 25 toilets. There are 114 of the other kiosk typologies, and that includes [00:33:00] the retail, the interactive touch screen, as well as the advertising. And about 10% of the 114 are those, uh, micro retail kiosk.
AJ Paron: So that’s a lot of kiosks to design. I wanted to know which kiosk was Bill and Tyler’s favorite.
Bill Katz: So, of all the kiosk designs that we’ve done in the family, the toilet is probably my favorite. It’s the most sculptural. It’s the one where, depending on how you approach this kiosk, you’re not gonna know, necessarily, know what it is. And for me that’s fantastic.
So, it-it’s this draw of something the unknown. It’s the kind of the delight in the curiosity of what it brings. The fact that it is more bulbous and more sculptural allows it to actually reflect light in different ways. And what we’ve noticed is—and the thing that’s probably been the biggest surprise—has been at night and dusk and when it rains, which it’s doing it a lot out here, [00:34:00] is this thing really comes to life.
The particular color of the lights on the streetlights have an orange or a yellowish glow to them. They really glow, and it reallysets a-a tone and attracts people to them. And for me, it’s just joyous.
The other kiosks, when you look at them, they’re a bit more telling as to what’s inside. Okay. There’s ads on there. It’s very clear to me. This one feels when it’s not a toilet, it’s really art. And it really crosses that line between architecture and art and street furniture. That I think, for me, was really the big idea at the beginning, tree or no tree, for us that that was what it was all about.
Tyler Krehlik: I absolutely love the retail kiosks. Over time, you think about historical urban environments, and there was always been newsstands and shoe shine boys, and, you know, all these sorts of elements that were on the street that created a liveliness of an urban environment. And as we’ve moved into current times, those sorts of things have all evaporated and gone away. [00:35:00]
Uh, everything’s moved into indoor spaces, shopping mall, et cetera. And we’ve lost that vibrancy that’s on the sidewalk. And I think by reintroducing these small-scale retail kiosks that can have a whole variety of vendors in them doing all kinds of different things—
These are relatively small spaces, so they’re-can really be these micro incubators for small businesses and bring a new vitality to the streets because you’re gonna have new functions, new people, activity going on-on the sidewalks that we’ve lost over time. That’s really exciting to be able to see those roll out and-and see them being occupied, and dream of, you know, a line waiting to get your, uh, macchiato or something, that somebody’s making custom in these things. It really intrigues me, and I-I think it’ll be a great contribution to the urban environment.
Bill Katz: One of the challenges that came out of this—and part of it has to do with the climate that we’re in and coming out of COVID and addressing all the other needs a city—is the-the thought that people look at these and they think they’re expensive and they-there [00:36:00] are concerns about who’s paying for this. My taxpayer dollars going to this.
How does it help what we’re doing? Is it the right thing to really help what’s happening out there on, within society and our community? And it’s important to know that this is part of a bigger program, and that these toilets are actually free to the city. And that through the contract with the city and JCDecaux, they’re able to provide these toilets for free, maintain them, provide the Pit Stop Program, provide that retail aspect to the retail kiosks for free for those who need it.
And the advertising kiosks that revenue goes to JCDecaux to help provide, uh, financial incentive to do that, and to maintain these other ones. So, it’s the challenge has been reminding people of that. That these are important. You know, streets and-and cities tend to be dirty because these things don’t exist. And these will actually help the things that people are concerned about. And they actually have an important role in-in dealing with [00:37:00] getting the city back to life, and getting people out there, and reinvigorating the retail establishments that have been closed down, and those restaurants, and it’s part of a larger story.
And so, the challenge of the initial response of “Why now,” “Why these,” “Oh, they look cool and modern, shouldn’t they just be some, ugly Portopotty plastic box sitting on the street?” results in a bit of a lack of understanding of how it’s important to address these in a way that-that understands what people need and ties it to a longer term story, and being proud of our city, and being proud of San Francisco, and-and these will be unique to San Francisco. This particular design and this aesthetic is only gonna be here. And it’s another element that ties into a bigger story of bringing people in, and we’re about art, and we’re about technology, and we’re about understanding what people within our community need and providing those services.
AJ Paron: Designing community landmarks that might outlive you brings a perspective to how your design is really impacting people. [00:38:00]
After working on this project, has it changed how Bill and Tyler think about architecture?
Bill Katz: So, working on this project, at first, I was thinking, “Hey, I don’t wanna do buildings anymore. I just wanna do small little kiosks on the street.” I mean, I love the scale of it. I love the-the passion that people have about it—whether you’re somebody using it, whether you hate it.
I-I was surprised at how much I love the negative comments about these things. It’s interesting, and their understanding of where it comes from because at first I was like, “Oh, look, we have public toilets around here. I’m not going into those.” I mean, I fell into the same trap of those are great to have, but this—you’re not gonna catch me dead inside there.
It’s totally changed my feelings about those. And really understanding the variety and myriad of use of the people who use those and how important they are, has been fascinating and critical. And addressing small needs which aren’t small to some—they might be small us—can have such a big impact. [00:39:00]
In our office, we’ve talked about being proactive with competitions like this. Now, maybe we-we should see an issue that’s happening in our urban environments and create an internal competition about that, and say, “Okay, this is not being handled well. We design stuff. Let’s go back to the office. Let’s get together. Let’s design a solution for that, and let’s roll it out there and sell it to cities,” as in like get them to do it and address these issues.
So, it’s to me, it’s inspired the aspects of how such a small project, when done correctly, can-can create such change, and really address issues that maybe larger establishments or businesses or government agencies have trouble handling, and have to go through a process when we have all the tools right there, and we’ve got the brain trust and the design talent to get together and solve these problems.
Tyler Krehlik: I’ve definitely had a realization over the process of this of what our urban environment is. I think as architects, you tend to be very [00:40:00] singular focused, and you’re looking, “That’s the building I’m working on, and I’m interested in what it looks like from the outside,” you know, kind of in a vacuum or how it functions on the inside and not this larger concept that it is part of a urban conglomeration of big and small. That yes, there are these big elements—buildings, et cetera, streets—but there is a huge collection of smaller elements like these that contribute to our urban environment, and really opening my eyes up that it’s the-the mixture of all of those elements together which makes an urban environment successful and thrive and interesting to be in.
Bill Katz: I’ve seen people just like go in there, close the door. You know, they stand in there, take pictures, and then they leave. Like they just wanna hang out in there.
The best part was when I saw one of the newscasters go in there and do some sort of Beam-me- up-Scotty kind of skit for the news show, where they went in there and said, “Oh, beam me back to ABC Channel Four,” [00:41:00] and then put her hand up, and then, suddenly, they cut the screen and show her back at her office. And you know, if it’s getting people to have that much fun doing things like that, then we’ve definitely succeeded in some way or shape or form.
AJ Paron: So many people had to come together to create this project—the City of San Francisco, the owner of JCDecaux, the architectural firm SmithGroup, and the public stakeholders. After all of that work, do the results, meet their expectations?
Tyler Krehlik: We asked JCDecaux two days ago, and the one toilet that was installed in November has been flushed 4,824 times already.
Bill Katz: And that was two days ago, so it’s probably gone up a little bit since.
Tyler Krehlik: The 25 toilet kiosks are strategically placed in the city in areas with high populations on the sidewalk, so they’re in areas with high tourist counts. They’re in areas with infrastructure for transit. They’re in areas that have [00:42:00] unhoused populations. They’re in areas with a lot of day laborers. So very specifically strategically located where there is high populations on the street, so we’re making sure that we’re providing the toilet in the location where people need it.
If you’re wondering where you could find these, they’re just starting to get rolled out. The first toilet was installed in November 2022, and it’s been, uh, heavily used since then. So, it’s a great success already. The first kiosks are being installed, imminently in the next a month or so, in unique locations around the city.
The rollout on these, for all of them is going to take several years ‘cause each one of them is hand fabricated custom in Europe and brought over, and so they’re anticipating rolling out 10-15 units a year, for the next several years.
Bill Katz: If you happen to be coming to San Francisco, and visiting and you’re going to the Ferry Building, which you should, the first toilet kiosk is directly across the street. Can’t miss it. It’s a shiny thing. [00:43:00]
AJ Paron: Bill and Tyler and their team helped to improve a design problem that affected a large portion of a city population. No matter who you are, or where you come from, we all need to go to the bathroom, and that won’t ever change. I’m heading to San Francisco next week, and I cannot wait to take a step into the shiny thing.
To hear more stories about the design process behind some of the most amazing projects and some really cool designers, make sure you follow us wherever you get your podcasts. Once Upon a Project is a part of the SURROUND Podcast Network.
You can find our show notes and full transcripts on our page at surroundpodcasts.com. That’s podcasts with an “s”. If you or someone you know has a great project to share on this podcast, just go to surroundpodcasts.com and head over to the Once Upon a Project page to submit your ideas. I really wanna hear them.
A huge thank you to Vornado for [00:44:00] letting us use their incredible podcast studio in the gorgeous PENN 1 building in Manhattan.
This show is produced by THE STUDIO at SANDOW DESIGN GROUP. Huge thank you to the pod squad that makes me sound amazing—Samantha Sager, Wize Grazette, Hannah Viti, and Brittany Lloyd.
So, that’s a wrap for season one. Huge thank you to our audience that have given us great feedback of all the interesting things that they’ve been learning, and what they’ve been enjoying. We’re already jumping into production of season two for Once Upon a Project, so make sure you’re following us to get your notifications when the next season will drop. We really appreciate you following us and sharing us with your friends and other designers.