Exceptional Design in an Unexpected Place

Ironwood Manufacturing has developed a breakthrough interior furnishing. Rich and elegant, its components embody unique intellectual property designs, incorporating customized Italian technology for edgebanding and boring, all driven by a European design application not widely used in the U.S.

Tom Deady, general manager at Ironwood, describes one project, constructed for a large aerospace company. “It was intended to match the aesthetic of its private corporate jets,” says Deady. “The Etimoe veneer originated in North Africa, was fumed in Spain, then processed through Danzer Veneer in Indiana. The doorlites are from 3form, and encapsulate silk strands hand-woven in Nepal, between two layers of acrylic.”

And the project? It was a toilet partition installation for restrooms at the aerospace firm’s headquarters.

Heretofore, there has not such been an offering quite like Ironwood Manufacturing’s for this market segment, which is global in scale—$1.656 billion in 2017, growing 4.3% annually—and quite universal in demand.

Along with its surprisingly inspired designs, Ironwood Manufacturing has created an ordering methodology that allows these most necessary elements of building interiors to be specified from a menu of components that can be tailored for individual toilet partition projects.

Ironwood Manufacturing’s development—which took founder Trey Clasen several years to refine—has begun hitting the radar of interior architects and designers. He founded the Snohomish, Washington-based millwork firm with his wife Sabrina, to bring a specialized expertise to this less frequently examined yet vital segment of the panel processing industry.

Its advances in aesthetics and production now are putting Ironwood toe-to-toe in competition with the biggest players in the field, which handle high-rise offices and high-profile projects, such as new stadiums and entertainment venues. Suppliers to this niche include ASI’s Accurate Partitions, Bradley, Bobrick, Global, Metpar and Marlite, to name a few. While most projects in the field may carry a lower profile, the trend to improved design is undeniable.

It’s apparent that architects and designers have had an unmet need when it comes to toilet stalls. Who hasn’t experienced the cognitive dissonance, walking from a soaring marble-paneled lobby or dramatically lit millwork-clad halls in public spaces, to enter the primitive cave of a standardized, off-the shelf restroom. When architects do offer custom designed build-outs, the specification may be discarded as impractical, or carried out only in the C-Suite.

Prior to Ironwood Manufacturing’s approach, there have been two worlds of toilet partitions. The commodity version, averaging $800 or $900 per stall, and largely “designed” and installed onsite, or by firms that are dealers for the largest players. A kit for a single stall from W.W. Grainger, which offers a bathroom kit (82x60x36) in stainless steel, or baked enamel steel, phenolic, plastic laminate and solid plastic polymer, with 10 colors (including almond, charcoal, white, pepper dust, etc.) runs $675.

Typically toilet stalls are built from very standardized components, which you will recognize intuitively: a door, and two side panels, connected by a pair of pilasters up front. These pilasters sometimes are reinforced with a cross brace. Panels are either 58 or 72 inches tall, with the overall dimensions largely dictated by the placement of the restroom plumbing fixtures as well as local building codes and ADA requirements. Installation may even be done by a general purpose interior construction crew.

The second (and pricier) approach is to have interior designers generate fully customized restrooms, and then, just like the reception desk or the break room, have them built in by architectural millworkers or finish carpenters. The upside of this approach is the public restroom interior can be specified to match the other public areas—establishing consistency of design. A downside is that such one-offs add to lead time, especially in sizeable projects like high-rise offices.

Now there is a third way, developed by Ironwood Manufacturing, with its new product category: high-end design, in semi-custom toilet partitions.

“I asked why is it that a designer and an owner are willing to spend so much stinking money per square foot in an elevator,” says Trey Clasen, “but they're only willing to spend cents per square foot on toilet partitions? So we started thinking, how do we doll this up?”

A first step was to offer a wider choice in materials and better doors. Clasen quickly learned the design community had been hankering for such a solution.

“Nobody to our knowledge was building a style-and-rail, toilet partition door. Nobody was putting in a doorlite. Nobody was doing louvered doors. Nobody did a captured panel door,” Clasen explains. “Once we figured out what the design community was interested in, then we built everything towards that end.”

It should be noted that toilet partitions typically tap a different array of materials than other panel projects, most notably compact laminate. The introduction of rail and stile doors, doorlites, and louvered doors was a breakthrough, especially when fabricated from compact laminate.

“The toilet partition industry was the main market for all of the big laminate producers,” Clasen says. “Their big compact laminate business was toilet stalls.” Eventually, says Clasen, Trespa started selling compact laminate as wall panel, and the applications continued to spread.

Compact laminate is typically under one-inch thick, so functional hardware used in toilet stalls— anchors, braces, locks, coat hooks, and especially hinges—must be set in a thinner and often heavier material. “And it's pretty hard to find hinges and door hardware for one inch material,” says Clasen.

Another constraint on toilet partition design is panel dimension. Ironwood sets few limits on sizing. To exceed conventional design sizes means laminating full and partial panels together, something existing suppliers have eschewed. Ironwood Manufacturing has broken new ground here, splicing blank panel, then laminating or veneering, and edgebanding after to mask the seams—reducing limits on size in design.

The company’s palette relies heavily on Wilsonart, but also includes other materials sources. In breaking the mold, Ironwood has also incorporated Corian and other solid surfaces—a venturesome direction— as well as plastic panel and real wood veneer. Its incorporation of solid surface into projects, or sandwiching two layers of compact laminate for a thicker panel, represent departures from the norm. Even hardware is sometimes custom cast for prjects, owing to the uniqueness of the functions and the materials it is used on.

Because these are restrooms, they are subject to heavy use, and exposed to water and harsh cleaning solutions. So depending on the site, the surfaces must be resilient—a reason laminates are popular. In the case of louvered doors, Ironwood builds their own, perhaps improbably, slicing laminate into slats and routing angled slots into the door stiles. This approach assures color matches, and materials performance on the louvered doors.

Another Ironwood breakthrough technique, Zero Sightline, allows for a more finished look on stalls, setting doors to close flush on both sides. This elegant solution uses a notch rabbeted on the pilaster to receive the overlap of the door, making it appear flush on the outside of the stall. This steps beyond the conventional stall, with its half-inch clearance gaps on the swinging doors. Before Zero Sightline, piecemeal solutions included simply riveting strips of metal to cover it up. Both full length or short curved versions of Zero Sightline are offered.

Further driving the move to more privacy in toilet stalls is the rise of gender-neutral public restrooms, a response to societal and cultural changes. In these designs the more familiar ladies, gentlemen, and family restrooms are combined into one all-gender restroom. A public area has mirrors, vanities, sinks, hand dryers, etc. To establish requisite privacy from the public space, toilet compartments go from floor to ceiling, and doors are flush mounted to the pilasters—with no revealing gaps. The company’s European designs, adapted to U.S. ADA access standards and local zoning rules, are increasingly in demand in such situations.

In an approach both practical and ingenious, Ironwood had its CNC doweling/drilling machining center adapted to cut the rabbet for its Zero Sightline during the machining stage. “Machines that would normally do drilling or boring or edge processing can also do parametric routing,” Deady says. “When we do a louvered door, the boring machine actually cuts the diagonal grooves.”

And the edgebander was also modified to band the rabbeted edge. “We used to have to hand edgeband lap joints or rabbets,” says Clasen. “Our new bander cuts the rabbet, and lays the edge band automatically. So we have a bander that will do a shaped profile.”

In fact, the entire manufacturing operation has been so optimized—from Fusion, a design application that is part of the 2020 suite, as well as 2020 Insight manufacturing execution system—to the automated order specification and entry (through flat packing and shipping), that projects move through the modestly sized plant quickly.

Most of Ironwood’s designs are available in wood veneer, plastic laminates, solid surface like Corian or Hi-Mac from LG Hausys, and compact laminate, for which Wilsonart is the primary resource (along with matching edgeband), but Laminart, 3Form and other sources are used, as well as stone and solid plastic.

The Ironwood shop floor, located in Florida, has been kept busy as word has spread in the A&D community about the work of the Clasens, Deady, and their associate Joe Bowers, project manager.

“In the last five or six years we've been targeting the high-end niches, hospitality, restaurants, Class A office buildings, golf and country clubs—and now, stadiums,” says Deady, whose background includes work at Gensler in Atlanta, Georgia.

“The contractors and distributors working on those projects, they now come to us for proposals on our partitions because we're already specified, which is something we work really hard to do,” says Clasen. “Ironwood’s work quality has earned us a reputation that merits being specified on a lot of high end projects. We worked really hard at gaining that reputation; it's the type of high level of projects that we want to be engaged in.”

Though willing to share their approach, Ironwood fears their innovations could be copied—though that seems less likely after drilling down on their techniques.

An LAX airline lounge is another good example of the company’s work. The design uses a mix of Ironwood techniques, starting with its floor-to-ceiling European design, a good choice in locations needing to increase privacy of a restroom. In such systems, doors and panels are manufactured to a height of 71 inches (13 inches taller than standard height) or higher.

“The LAX project was an opportunity to provide a European-style aesthetic using solid surface,” says Deady. “The components were constructed using Corian and one of the challenges was to find or develop a hinge that would support the weight of the doors. Typically, restroom door hinges have a built-in closer mechanism, but this unique hinge does not so we incorporated a commercial closing mechanism into the design.”

For the A&D buyers, preliminary specifications can be set using the website configurator, a menu of luxury-caliber components, fabricated to order. But owing to the uniformity of toilet stall dimensions, components are largely run in batches at the firm’s Florida plant. Part are assembled into kits for a project—not so differently than a flat-pack kitchen from IKEA—except much nicer, more like a semi-custom high-end kitchen cabinetry project.

In fact, the portfolio of doors at www.ironwoodmfg.com is rather breathtaking, especially set against normal expectations for public restroom interiors. And while the elegant designs are not unprecedented, the manufacturing methodology and go-to-market strategy of Ironwood Manufacturing is exactly that. 

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