The Future of Restrooms is Inclusive

Dr. Michael Ralph, Lead Researcher and Sam Church, Intern October 19, 2021

The idea of public space is complex, and the way a community shares space shows up differently in schools, workplaces, and commercial centers. While these facilities host many different activities, they all share a common need for restroom facilities. In this case, the public facility needs to be equipped to host a group of users that closely represents everyone in the surrounding community. For some of those people, public restrooms are a mundane assumption of any public environment. However, our pursuit of more just designs demands that we take a closer look at what it means to provide inclusive restrooms for everyone.

A key opportunity to make public spaces more welcoming for all people is in restroom design. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation of public spaces based on race. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act instituted requirements for public facilities for people with disabilities. Now, the 2021 International Building Code allows all-gender, multi-user toilet facilities to satisfy building restroom requirements. Moving toward inclusive restroom designs represents an opportunity to have a real impact for making public spaces more inclusive. On the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 59% of respondents had avoided using a public restroom in the past year due to fear of problems. Moving away from binary, gendered systems toward inclusive designs reduces anxiety and increases comfort for trans and gender non-binary people, parents with children, adults with a caregiver, and anyone who is marginalized by the man/woman dichotomy.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of a binary restroom layout, even if we have not heard it described that way. Binary restroom design assumes that users will always fall into one of two gender categories: man or woman. Picture a typical restroom setup in a shopping mall or an airport with two entry doors: the men’s restroom is indicated by a person wearing pants and the women’s, by a person wearing a dress. Generally, a single plumbing wall separates these two spaces, and they are nearly visually identical (although women’s restrooms usually omit urinals). More recently, code requirements in some areas now also require a binary layout to provide a single-stall, ‘family’ restroom (where the toilet, sink, changing station, and other facilities are all situated in one room) near the binary system, but that varies by project.

Binary restroom systems assume everyone is either a man or woman, which explicitly excludes individuals who do not clearly fall into the categories of man or woman (like nonbinary and intersex folks). An inclusive restroom does not make such a distinction based on user gender, and we simply call it an “inclusive restroom” because the benefits to user inclusion go beyond those realized with regard to gender (such as users with small children or a caregiver). Binary restrooms are also generally less efficient than inclusive restrooms. One example is redundant fixture counts. When a binary layout is transformed into an inclusive layout, the number of code-required fixtures does remain the same; however, the number of code-required ambulatory and wheelchair-accessible stalls decreases due to combined access for all genders. The inclusive system can decrease the total required square footage, saving on space costs. Well-designed inclusive restrooms both increase access and save money.

An inclusive approach to restrooms is still unfamiliar to many users in the United States, and discomfort is a natural part of learning about new things. However, we can be encouraged by recognizing that society has relearned many habits throughout history. Even now, we are already seeing disruptions to the conventional gendered restroom paradigm. An overwhelming majority of US states have adopted the 2003 International Building Code, which mandates single-user restrooms in addition to binary systems. There is no one correct way to do inclusive restrooms; single-user restrooms and multi-user all-gender restrooms are both more inclusive than a binary system.

Designing with an Inclusive Paradigm

As implementation of inclusive restroom systems becomes more widespread, we are studying how best to approach inclusive restroom design. Inclusive restrooms are only safe and comfortable when we design with attention to issues like privacy and security. Full-height or extended-height partitions with zero sight-lines increase visual, acoustic, and olfactory privacy. Occupancy-indicating locks on stalls reduce unwanted interactions. Designers may consider how visible they want the common areas of the restroom (hand-washing areas, etc.) to be. Designers must also consider some tradeoffs between privacy and security. There are often multiple inclusive designs that approach issues like privacy and security differently. As designers, we can share the options with a client and the community to decide together which solutions are most appropriate.

In a high school, it may be desirable for the common areas of an inclusive restroom system to remain visible to the corridor to reduce unwanted behaviors.

In a location where monitoring of restroom users is not necessary, like an office building, it may be more appropriate to tuck the restrooms away where they are less intrusive to the overall aesthetic of the workplace.

Inclusive restrooms expand the usability of our public facilities and make space for more people. As designers, we have a responsibility to ensure public spaces welcome every member of the public. We are passionate about creating more inclusive space designs and will continue to participate in the conversation around the best approaches to making inclusive facilities.

This article is the result of collaboration and dialogue among Multistudio professionals from across studios around the United States. Special thanks to Whitney Lang, Tyler Lindquist, Jay Holley and Rachel Johnston in Lawrence, KS. Special thanks to Lauren Maass and Joshua Kehl in San Francisco CA. Special thanks to Melissa Alexander and Lia Fondrisi in Phoenix, AZ. Special thanks to Julie Nelson Meers and Mallory Wiegers in Kansas City, MO.

We are proud to imagine a more just, equitable future together.

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