Bathroom Bureaucracy: The Role of Architects for Re-Defining Gender Neutral Restrooms

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In the world of architecture, form follows code and design is powerfully positioned in the battle for equitable public restrooms.

Massachusetts passed into law a bill that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places. The older law stopped short of protecting transgender persons, with public spaces being the major point of contention. The public restroom – the same issue that has incited a civil liberties battle nationwide.

The public restroom has become a symbol of change and resistance, at both a societal level and a legislative level. For transgender rights to advance, social norms need to shift and laws need to hold accountable the people who discriminate by gender. Because this civil rights debate is centered around public space, it is also an issue relevant for the design community. Thoughtful design can transform public space, in this case a restroom, into a space that is equitably built. It can also subtly change social attitudes in the process where there is often a substantial challenge for a reason that has little to do with social debates: building code.

Google’s Boston Office has created Universal Design restrooms – a series of fixed, single stall bathrooms that each contain a toilet, sink changing table, and lock – each outfitted with the exact hardware. The design solution seems simple enough and many architects have started designing bathrooms that are accessible for all genders – creating private and safe spaces so that how you identify becomes a nonissue when you go to do one of the most basic and natural things in the world.

Universal Design means dealing with rules and regulations as outdated as the bureaucracy that LGBT advocates come up against on the legislative side. One of the most substantial challenges with Universal Design boils down to building code. Restrooms are the only category of public spaces that are still segregated by gender, which can be traced back to the 1880s. In 1887, state laws began requiring sex-segregated restrooms to ensure that women would have their own restrooms. This legislative measure was a progressive boundary-setting action intending to make women feel more welcome in the workforce. Gender segregation building codes now dictate many state plumbing codes requiring separate toilet fixtures for men and women. Per the code, architects calculate the number of toilets needed for each gender via a formula that factors in the use of the building and the number of men and women occupants.

As societal roles for men and women change, and as a broadened understanding of gender fluidity and identity has become mainstream conversations, the original intention to remedy inequity has been subverted. The code now forces nonconforming individuals to choose between the two, sometimes leading them into uncomfortable situations. The code leaves architects with a choice as well: design single and multi-occupancy bathrooms labeled “male” or “female,” or design around the code – the latter of which often takes more creativity and resources. Building codes are dictated by each municipality and depending on the code, some architects take advantage of loopholes or create clever work-arounds, while others just risk getting fined. Others will ask the city for variances, which is often a long, Kafka-esque process.

Building private, single-occupancy stalls laid out around a common area with a sink is one solution that many architects trying to design equitable gender-neutral bathrooms have landed upon. This solves for the problem of privacy and comfort without using too much of the floor plate. In addition, the single-occupancy bathrooms cost less because you do not have to make a whole multi-occupancy bathroom out of resistant materials – partitions have to be so durable that regular walls and tiles can actually be a cheaper alternative. These small amendments can make a difference by affording people privacy without making them choose “male” or “female.”

Creatively working around the code is only a temporary solution for architects who are socially minded. Architects have the skills to speak to people who work within the city and ask for innovative solutions, and to show them renderings that demonstrate how simple it could be to design gender-neutral restrooms. Architects have been missing from this fight and it is genuinely a design issue. As Richard Buckminster Fuller stated, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” Anything can be solved with good design, and Architects love a good challenge.

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