LYNN — In a downtown punctuated by giant murals from artists around the world, it’s easy to overlook the sleek, stainless steel hand-washing stations that have been popping up near social service agencies, shelters, and outdoor restaurant spaces.
But to Beyond Walls, the Lynn nonprofit behind both the colorful outdoor paintings and the more functional sanitary installations, both are examples of design with a purpose: bringing people back into downtowns whose economies are in desperate need of business.
Since 2016, Beyond Walls has made a name for itself helping communities to organize and commission public art projects by well-known creators — first in Lynn and recently in Cambridge, Beverly, and Peabody. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made such efforts difficult. So Beyond Walls is looking for a new niche that can help outdoor restaurants, construction companies, and community organizations keep their patrons’ and employees’ hands clean.
“As much as we believe in the power of art, we wanted to lean in and put our muscle behind trying to figure out solutions in whatever way we could to the health crisis and what was going to have to be a focus on economic development,” said Al Wilson, chief executive of Beyond Walls.
In Lynn alone, Beyond Walls has been involved in about 60 art projects, including public lighting projects, neon signs, and murals including modernized portraits of historic figures, textured patterns, and cultural representations created by artists from the Boston area and around the world.
But there are impediments to continuing that work during the pandemic. Grants and philanthropic donations are harder to come by — Wilson notes that they are sorely needed for other purposes — and the community conversations that go into planning the huge installations can’t be easily held in person.
So Beyond Walls has shifted much of its attention to developing its “WaSH” stations, along with a a companion product called “FoLD,” a folded stainless steel alternative to the concrete Jersey barriers that protect newly created outdoor dining spaces along urban streets. Get it? Wash and fold.
The organization is selling the WaSH stations for $3,333 — cheaper if you buy more than one. They’ve released about 20 of them, half of which are now in service. And it’s just preparing to install its first FoLD barriers.
Wilson hopes the sales will keep the organization on its feet so it can continue to do its work during the pandemic. The idea came to him and his colleagues early on in the health crisis, Wilson said, as they tried to think of ways to help homeless people in Lynn avoid getting sick. At the time, many cities with large homeless populations were working through ways to provide access to sanitation and shelter, in an effort to try to limit the danger that people would catch COVID-19 while living on the streets.
They quickly came up with a less-than-elegant device that was soon installed outside of the Lynn Community Health Center. It was a squat piece of machinery, fronted by a sheet of metal and an industrial-style sink, a soap dispenser, and exposed PVC pipe. Wilson described it as a “kit of parts.”
He was astonished by how often it was used. They went through 68 gallons of water in the first 24 hours — which meant hands were washed 550 times. With many public accommodations closed during the outbreak, they realized, people were looking for ways to wash their hands.
It dawned on the team that the need for outdoor hand washing would only grow as the restrictions eased. Construction sites were being asked to provide sanitation options onsite. Restaurants were preparing to open with outdoor dining only.
But there was a limited supply of portable hand-washing stations available from rental companies that also provide portable toilets, and those facilities are designed with much more of an emphasis on function than form.
So Beyond Walls worked with Parke MacDowell, an architect at the Boston firm Payette, to conceive a more high-end design for the hand-washing stations. They arrived at a small, waist-level metal sink positioned on a tapered cuboid base made from stainless steel. The solar-powered devices are mounted with soap dispensers and operated by a foot pedal.
Wilson said the designs for the WaSH and FoLD products are supposed to work in many contexts, giving restaurateurs the ability to design their outdoor spaces with some intentionality.
“The idea of getting over the hump to go out to eat when you’re afraid of going indoors to wash your hands — that could be a barrier,” Wilson said. “How do you create a better environment . . . outdoors? The novelty wears off quick when you’re next to an orange parking cone and a concrete traffic barrier.”
Lynn’s Nightshade Noodle Bar, not far from the Beyond Walls studio, has a hand-washing station on a patio that it has set up along Exchange Street. Chef/owner Rachel Miller said the restaurant has hand sanitizer and wipes on hand, but eating there can be messy, and offering the wash station helps limit the number of people coming inside to wash up.
“We wanted to limit the traffic in the restaurant as much as possible, and it’s definitely helped a lot,” she said. “It makes things a lot more convenient for [guests] to just feel clean during their visit.”
The stations are drawing interest in other municipalities, including Nashua, where Mayor Jim Donchess had been considering hiring Beyond Walls to create murals before the pandemic hit. As the city rethinks its downtown to emphasize outdoor dining, the stations will be part of the ambiance.
Donchess said the WaSh and FoLD stations “carry with them a certain aesthetic that Beyond Walls understands.”
The new line of business has helped Beyond Walls bring in a class of summer interns, who are helping the organization fabricate the devices at its downtown Lynn workshop and headquarters. On a recent afternoon, Thomas Molea and Antonio Morales, both rising juniors studying precision machining at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, were wrapping up their first week of work on the project.
“I feel like I’m actually putting my skills to use — especially when you’re washing your hands with them,” Molea said.
Morales added, “Got to give it a test!”