It’s time to reconsider the design of public restrooms. The last major change in public restroom design took place 30 years ago with California’s 1987 Restroom Equity Act, which prompted “potty parity” bills in many jurisdictions as well as changes in building code aimed at equalizing restroom wait times for men and women rather than providing an equal amount of square footage or number of fixtures. Architects crunched the numbers, revised the fixture calculations, and started providing more facilities for women in an effort to achieve equity instead of equality. Though this was an important step toward improving restrooms for all building users, it was largely a change in proportion and not configuration, and somehow women are still disproportionately waiting in line.
Meanwhile, three decades of societal and technological change have continued to affect how we use and think about restrooms. A 2015 Verizon survey found that nearly 90 percent of respondents admitted to using their phones in the restroom, which could be responsible for an increase in restroom wait times, and their exposure to fecal bacteria.
The estimated number of adults who identify as transgender has doubled since 2011. Fathers are increasingly likely to struggle with the dilemma of whether to take a young daughter into the men’s room or send her into the women’s room alone — and fathers have become much more involved in caretaking and are more likely to be single or stay-at-home parents. The instance of diabetes has almost tripled in the past three decades, and this might mean more building users are seeking the privacy of a restroom to administer an insulin injection. A slew of online dating sites and apps has resulted in more first dates between strangers and more would-be romantics who may need a private place to text a friend that everything is going great — or that they are in dire need of immediate rescue.
Restrooms are the most private of public places, and they accommodate a wide range of activities beyond the exigencies of gut evacuation and hairdo repair. According to a 1985 study that remains shockingly relevant, “Much of what we do in public bathrooms is what we must not do elsewhere but what we must do somewhere” (Spencer Cahill, et al.). Consider the following:
While most of these activities are perfectly acceptable, the last three (or at least two of them)1 tend to cause a fair amount of hand-wringing. Public restroom design is a delicate balancing act between privacy and surveillance, between our own desired modesty and the watchful eye we’d like placed on everyone else. We want restrooms to shelter us from all possibility of being seen, heard, or smelled as we go about our own business, and yet they must provide no hiding place for perverts or junkies.
Luckily for the hand-wringers, those undesired activities are already illegal in most public restrooms. We can design to discourage them, but perhaps we should be most concerned with what, and who, we are designing for. Architects have an ethical obligation to design buildings that protect the health, safety, and welfare of all users, regardless of political alignment or gender identity. Debates surrounding recent bathroom bills in several states have made it apparent, however, that not all building users experience the same standard of safety in our existing built environment. In fact, a 2015 survey found that one in eight transgender adults reported being attacked, harassed, or sexually assaulted in public restrooms in the previous year. While there are fears on both sides of the aisle, no similar statistics can be found substantiating the fears that justify maintaining the status quo of restroom design. Yet restroom design has hardly been a part of the conversation, which has mostly centered around the enforcement of existing gendered signage and the consequences of that enforcement to the safety of various restroom users.
In our debates over signage, we often fail to notice the increasing distance between the signifier and the signified. We identify restrooms with a generic person meant to represent either a man or a woman, but don’t discuss the fact that these two generic people are distinguished primarily by their apparel, in a world where a woman in a pantsuit could almost be president. Perhaps we accept these quaint, outdated symbols the way we accept the icons for clocks, notepads, cameras, and even phones on our smartphones — as skeuomorphs that still mean something to us despite their increasingly loose ties to our current reality.
The gulf between signifier and signified is even wider when we look at signage for “unisex” or “gender neutral” restrooms, where a private restroom for anyone is signified by the simultaneous presence of both the generic man and the generic woman (or even more confusingly, a franken-person who is half of each). Rather than informing you of what amenities the room might provide, the sign simply points out that the question of gender is irrelevant as you pass through this door, as it surely was when you entered the building in the first place. Social justice comedian Sam Killermann has offered a simple solution to this dilemma: a free, uncopyrighted, easily identifiable graphic of a toilet that is available for use on any inclusive restroom signage.
But if signage alone can’t solve the problem, it’s time to do our job as designers and design a public restroom that protects the health, safety, and welfare of all building users. Let’s sidestep the political debates and provide an architectural solution that allows both sides to win, including building users on either side of the aisle who we may personally disagree with.
The Alamo Drafthouse Mueller in Austin, completed in 2017, contains a prototype inclusive restroom worth considering and continuing to improve upon. Though this restroom was originally designed and permitted as traditional men’s and women’s restrooms, a major shift in philosophy came about during construction, as Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League followed the debates over North Carolina bathroom bills and saw an episode of Transparent illustrating the challenges faced by transgender individuals using gendered restrooms. League came to the conclusion that the old way of designing restrooms wasn’t good enough, and that it was time to try something new. Alamo Drafthouse architect Richard Weiss, AIA, was receptive to this new direction, having himself experienced the challenges and limitations of gendered restrooms while performing in drag as frontwoman of the Sideways Grimace, a Hedwig and the Angry Inch tribute band (which he formed in 2014 with the full support of his wife of 23 years and daughters).
Together, Weiss and the Alamo team developed two potential restroom schemes, which were released for public comment via the Alamo Drafthouse Facebook page. Though there was resistance from some Alamo customers who disliked change in restroom design or disagreed with the politics that motivated it, Alamo found overwhelming support for a proposed restroom option that provided more toilet stalls and shared sinks over an option providing private restrooms with sinks, finding that customers prioritized shorter lines over greater privacy.
According to Alamo Drafthouse Vice President of Facilities, Energy, and Sustainability Vivek Abichandani, the location’s general manager has noted that restroom wait times are substantially reduced compared to other locations, and cleaning is more convenient for staff members of either gender. Customer feedback on the new restroom design has also been overwhelmingly positive. Out of 80 online survey responses that commented on the restroom from March 2017 to August 2017, 60 were positive, 6 were neutral, and 14 were negative. Neutral and negative responses often reflected discomfort with an unfamiliar restroom design, but sometimes usefully pointed out specific opportunities to improve future gender-inclusive restrooms. Some users also requested amenities that were already provided elsewhere in the restroom, suggesting a need either for better wayfinding or more examples of similar restrooms that will provide familiarity with the range of options available.
AIA Houston Executive Director Rusty Bienvenue faced an entirely different set of challenges in seeking to create inclusive restrooms in the new Architecture Center Houston (ArCH). Motivated less by the impulse to include everyone in the restroom and more by the impulse to provide full privacy for individual users, Bienvenue sought to avoid the collision of sights, sounds, and smells that can occur in shared restrooms. Gender-inclusive signage was desired to ensure that the restrooms could always be fully utilized by anyone using the ArCH, which hosts regular Women in Architecture meetings and other events that may skew toward an uneven gender distribution.
Despite several rounds of plan edits in an effort to achieve a workable solution, permitting in Houston did not go nearly as smoothly as in Austin. Houston permit officials chose to stick to the strict letter of the IBC law, requiring that “where plumbing facilities are required, separate facilities shall be provided for each sex.”2 Ultimately, the solution was a workaround — individual single-occupancy restrooms designed for future adaptability, to be installed with gendered signage per today’s code interpretation but modified as society and building codes adapt to allow more inclusivity. Though the ArCH team explored many options for future gender-inclusive signage (including a poop emoji with Le Corbusier glasses), they ultimately arrived at a conclusion similar to Sam Killermann’s and the Alamo Drafthouse team: a simple toilet symbol that lets everyone know what is inside the room.
In many jurisdictions, Houston’s strict code interpretation may be far more likely to prevail than Austin’s leniency. Building code is often a reactive document, seeking to prevent future calamities after similar calamities have already occurred, and adjusting very slowly to the changing needs of society, culture, and the people it seeks to protect. But if the intent of building code is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of building users, it’s important that we work to adapt our building code to a more inclusive society that creates safe spaces for everyone. Luckily, change is already coming: The 2018 IBC and IPC include language allowing gender-inclusive single-occupancy restrooms to count toward required fixture totals.
The ultimate goal of all of these forays into changing restroom design is to provide building users with more options, allowing them to choose appropriate facilities that support their needs and keep them safe. Though the real dangers that transgender individuals face in many public restrooms are of most immediate concern, rethinking restroom design has the added benefit of providing more options for people with varying ability levels, caretaking needs, family structures, and health and hygiene demands. Moreover, allowing all building users access to available restroom facilities can greatly reduce and equalize restroom wait times, eliminating many of the lingering potty parity issues that all of our fixture count tables haven’t yet solved.
The next time you sit down to lay out a building floor plan, pause for a moment before you draw two side-by-side gendered restrooms, and think instead as a designer, about what else may better accommodate the needs of all building users. How can you support the full range of activities that may require privacy in a public space? How can you accommodate all users, including those who may disagree with or feel threatened by one another? How can you create a room that feels like a place of rest? How might you broach this conversation with a client and invite them to join you in creating a space that is one step more inclusive than the spaces we have today?
Shelby Blessing, AIA, is a design architect at Page in Austin.
1 The author would like to note that she once attended a concert in a public restroom, and the reverberant acoustics were quite nice.
2 2012 IBC 2902.2. Related question: In states where a third gender option is now being added to official state documents, would this require a third restroom? IBC doesn’t define how “each sex” is meant to be interpreted.