Composites Manufacturing Magazine

Showers Are Awash with Design Solutions

When the Frank J. Manning Apartments in Cambridge, Mass., were built in 1976 using a cast concrete plank system, the construction style was efficient and cost effective. But more than 40 years later, the style is obsolete, according to the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA), which manages the 19-story building for elderly and disabled residents. In 2015, the CHA launched a $58 million renovation project to update the façade, core systems, apartment interior and common spaces.

“A lot of public housing units in the country are well over 30 years old, beyond the usable life cycle for many things inside those apartments,” says Megan Multanen, senior sales officer for Bestbath, a manufacturer of composite bathing products in Caldwell, Idaho. “While housing authorities could build new apartments, that’s expensive and time-consuming. Renovation is key to maintaining public housing that is safe and decent.”

Bestbath worked hand-in-hand with CHA, project architect Bargmann-Hendrie + Archetype Inc. and contractor Shawmut Design and Construction on bathroom renovations for all 199 units in the Manning Apartments. The manufacturer provided showers and accompanying components, including domes above the shower, soffit walls and duct covers.

The CHA had three main priorities for the shower renovations: updating the look, ensuring they were easy to clean and maintaining air quality in the bathrooms. “There was a big concern about preventing mold and making sure the bathroom was a healthy space with good air quality,” says Multanen. “In bathrooms, the ability to quickly, easily and effectively clean surfaces is important.” That made Bestbath’s products a good choice for the project.

The company, which has done other projects with the CHA, worked with the design team and engineers on specifications for the showers. Bestbath then took the engineered drawings and built a custom mold for the showers. Afterward, it fabricated and delivered the showers based on the contractor’s construction schedule – one floor of the high-rise building at a time. Bestbath shipped the first load in June 2016 and the last one in November 2017.

Bestbath is an open mold, spray-up facility. The laminate schedule for the apartment showers included five layers. First, technicians sprayed on a gel coat consisting of a polyester resin and additives to enhance its properties and color. After the gel coat was cured with a methyl ethyl ketone peroxide (MEKP) initiator, the technicians added a proprietary barrier coat to improve the sheen of the gel coat and enhance durability. The barrier coat also was cured with a MEKP initiator. Next, they sprayed on E-glass fibers, rolled out any air bubbles and added a layer of plywood, fully backing the shower wall. Finally, the technicians added another layer of GFRP to encapsulate the wood and cure the product.

The addition of the plywood core is critical for a few reasons, says Multanen. First, it acts as a heavy-duty stiffener. “A resident isn’t going to stand in the shower, push against the wall and be able to flex it,” says Multanen. In addition, the integral wood backing allows property owners to easily add universal design features, such as grab bars and seats, without searching for studs. Finally, the core provides noise reduction from the drumming of water spray on the shower walls and sound insulation from adjacent bathrooms, an important feature in multi-family housing.

According to Multanen, there were three primary challenges associated with the renovation. First, high-rise buildings include fire chases – fire-rated shaft enclosures designed to limit the spread of fire from unit to unit. In the Manning Apartments, the fire chase is in close proximity to the wet wall, behind which the bathroom plumbing is located. Bestbath consulted with the architect and design team to ensure the plumbing didn’t penetrate the fire chase. The manufacturer created a special mold for a four-inch inset, directly behind the shower wall, to contain the plumbing.

The second challenge concerned the concrete slab. “We had to carefully position the shower drains to avoid hitting all of the additional reinforcement in the slab building,” says Multanen. “Obviously, the CHA didn’t want 199 unique showers. So we worked to find a universal drain position that would avoid the reinforcing in the concrete and still allow for a barrier-free entry.” The 60-inch shower opening is nearly even with the bathroom floor for accessibility for disabled residents.

Finally, the heating and exhaust ducts run directly over the shower. The ducts needed to be covered, but remain accessible for maintenance. Bestbath fabricated a composite shower dome with a recessed maintenance access panel.


A Bestbath employee packages shower wall pieces and accessories for shipment. Photo Credit: Bestbath

Design details were decided upon well in advance, with input from everyone involved. “Our engineering team worked closely with the project engineers because we are the composites experts and they know the mechanics of the building,” says Multanen.

This kind of teamwork is common in architecture products. In addition to working with engineers, Bestbath also partners with architects to ensure its products meet specific code requirements. “Our sales reps are bathing code experts and can help architects really refine what they need and want in projects,” says Multanen. The company’s products are often specified by architects and engineers.

The combination of quality materials, an exacting manufacturing process and collaboration with clients is a success. “Our showers are meant to take a beating. They go into high-use environments, like public housing and college dormitories,” says Multanen. “So we want our products to be not only attractive, but durable.” The showers in the Frank J. Manning Apartments achieve both goals, truly representing the pinnacle of engineered composite solutions.

Learn More!

Megan Multanen of Bestbath will share details of the Frank J. Manning Apartments renovation at a CAMX educational session on Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 9 a.m. Mark your calendars to attend the session, entitled “Enhancing Performance with Composites: Think Outside the Shower.”