Just to be clear, the transgender people who are entangled in the so-called bathroom bill debates do not ask for US restrooms to be redesigned. They’re simply fighting for the dignity and right to use the restroom that they feel would match their gender identity. But the debates have raised questions for restroom designers. If there was an easy way to make restrooms more functional, then why can’t we explore it? Perhaps we can use toilet partitions and design restrooms in a way where people of all genders can feel safe.
So, what should restrooms look like? The biggest problem we have is the building codes that regulate sex-segregated restrooms, although some of them have already been revised. The goal is unisex, but there’s no approach to “one size fits all”.
Unisex restrooms already exist today. In fact, they have become more common in the benign and non-politicized form of family restrooms. They are popular in high-traffic spots like highway rest areas and airports. These are full-service restrooms (wheelchair-accessible), the rooms are separate with s=toilets, sinks, and changing tables.
Family restrooms were designed out of necessity – which was because of the fathers with young daughters who didn’t want to bring them to the men’s room, or mothers who didn’t want to bring their sons in the women’s room. Family restrooms currently solved many problems, even if they’re difficult to scale, especially in high-traffic areas. But this shouldn’t be the case.
Toilet Partitions: Multi-user, All-gender Design
So, how do we create practical and trans-friendly restrooms? Simple – we divide each stall into a separate chamber. Google’s offices in Cambridge uses this design, where there are eight stalls: four rooms flank a corridor. Each room has its own sink, toilet, and changing table. They’re all identical with one common mirror in the hallway.
Another similar design is a perfect gender-neutral restroom that looks like some of what we already have today. It can be an open line of common mirrors and sinks, with full-door stalls that are arranged along with one or more toilet partitions. This can include a separate section in the space for urinals, which can create a default gendered space within the restroom for people who want to use them. Urinals are better because they’re faster. Entering a stall, closing the door, and sitting down to pee takes time, so urinals can be a big help.
Most same-sex restrooms today already have stalls that are constructed out of durable, and perhaps expensive materials like powder-coated stainless steel. This model requires doors and walls to be tall enough to cover someone from the calves up. This design is good since you’ll be able to see if the stall is occupied, or if someone might be having a health emergency. They can also have full-length doors to offer acoustic and olfactory privacy and self-contained experience within a larger shared space. However, the costs of toilet partitions in multi-stall restrooms with full-length doors can be very expensive. If designers can build them out of drywall, wood, or tile, it can be less expensive than building partitions that don’t give them privacy.
Another small tweak that restroom designers can make, which will also make a big difference has something to do with functional décor. Many of these transitioning people do not want to adjust their clothes or do their makeup in the public parts of the restroom, so there should be safe places to do those. Common mirrors in shared spaces should remain, but there should be mirrors within each stall.
In a unisex restroom, some stalls already have it all: a toilet, a urinal, a nursing chair, a mirror, a shelf for mobile phones, and fixtures for wheelchair accessibility. Large establishments should offer a mix of standalone rooms and multi-user restrooms. Urinals should still be in the larger unisex restroom, with a privacy wall.
Bringing back powder rooms
What about the people who are waiting for their turn to access the stalls? It would be best if restroom designers can create anterooms or powder rooms for all genders. This room becomes a public gathering place for both men and women, which makes this place safer since there are more eyes on this space.
This space also provides more incentive to make those anterooms into well-designed, welcoming spaces. This way, we’re not just changing the signage and putting in toilets. We also want everyone to have a good experience.
How do we send the right sign?
For us to advertise that this space is friendly to everyone of all gender identities, designers should create several icons that can communicate gender inclusivity, which can include a figure with a skirt on one side and pants on the other. They can also just put “all-gender restroom” so people will know that it’s for everyone of all genders. Or, to make it easier, designers can just use a picture of a toilet. This says a lot by saying so little, and people will understand.
Toilet Partitions: Bringing Restrooms to the Forefront
Restrooms aren’t usually given prime positions during the building planning, so there’s a tendency where bathrooms get the least thought. And this is a problem that contributes to the lack of interest in their design. It also brings up safety concerns.
Usually, restrooms end up in the back corner of the building, or less safe areas. Nobody is there to see or monitor them. So how do we make them appear better, to integrate them into the rest of the building’s space? Because if they’re beautiful spaces, and have welcoming anterooms, then we shouldn’t be tucking them away.
Ultimately, these changes are easy to conceptualize. And while same-gendered spaces have value, expanding unisex restrooms offers protection and safety to more than just the transgender people. It offers protection to those mothers who don’t want to send their 7-year old into the men’s room alone, and to the elderly people who need caretakers of the opposite gender. In this way, unisex restrooms help address a lot of demographic changes and design problems.