Design Approaches presents the pros and cons of the three most common solutions to all-gender restrooms: the single, multi-unit, and low-budget retrofit solution.
There are two prevailing design approaches to gender-neutral bathrooms—the single-user and multi-user solutions. The single-user solution is the generally accepted code-compliant solution that was adopted in the most recent edition of the 2018 International Plumbing Code. It retains sex-segregated bathrooms and supplements them with a single-occupancy room re-labeled with a sign that uses words and/or symbols to designate it as gender neutral. The single-user maintains the status quo with a single-occupancy room, not so different from the single-occupancy bathrooms mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Advocates frequently justify this solution on economic grounds, arguing that its modest footprint does not impose undue hardship on building owners and developers who would otherwise be compelled to fund more elaborate architectural solutions.
Although a step in the right direction towards gender inclusivity, the drawback of the single-occupancy solution is that it spatially isolates and excludes: it stigmatizes non-conforming individuals, not only trans people but also the disabled, from mixing with other people. In some cases, it compels non-binary people who are not ready to come out, to single themselves out for attention.
Stalled! advocates an alternative model, the multi-user solution, which abolishes the binary. We are in favor of getting rid of typical gender segregated facilities that are characterized by American-style stalls whose revealing gaps, at floor, ceiling and doors compromise visual privacy. Instead we propose treating the restroom as a single open space equipped with doors that ensure visual and a better degree of acoustic privacy. If the project budget allows, we recommend implementing stalls with floor to ceiling doors which are slightly more expensive to build because each stall requires individual lighting and ventilation. Otherwise, a more economical approach is to use doors with small gaps at floor and ceiling that insure complete visual privacy without impacting mechanical and lighting requirements.
The multi-user solution has a number of advantages. No longer will gender non-conforming people who don’t fit the binary have to choose between two spatial options—men’s room and women’s room -- that don’t align with their identities. By consolidating a greater number of people in one rather than two rooms, there are more eyes to monitor, reducing risk. Most important, multi-stall not only meets the needs of the trans community, but it also accommodates the needs of a wide range of differently embodied subjects of varying ages, genders, and disabilities. For example, it facilitates caregiving between people of different gender expressions. Now a father can accompany his young daughter, or a woman can take her elderly male friend to the restroom.
A drawback of this solution is that it is not yet code-compliant. This is not an insurmountable obstacle. There are many instances where committed clients have been willing to take the extra time and effort required to obtain a variance. One good example is the restroom design by ARO at the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), a synagogue founded to serve the LBGTQ community in Manhattan.
LOW BUDGET RETROFIT
Stalled! has learned from conducting campus workshops across the United States that without the benefit of a common set of readily available restroom guidelines to draw from, progressive stakeholders interested in implementing all-gender solutions are left to their own devices, forming internal committees to solve the problem themselves, often without the input of people with architectural and code expertise. Operating on tight budgets and sometime under pressure from students and facultly to solve the problem as quickly as possible, many understandably seize on what seems like the most expedient and economical solution: quick-fix retrofits for their existing inventory of men’s and women’s rooms. In some instances, they choose to leave the existing restrooms unaltered and replace existing signage with labels indicating they are gender neutral. In other cases, they make minor modifications to men’s rooms by removing urinals or screening them from view, either behind screens or by enclosing them in partitioned stalls.
Both solutions have two major drawbacks. Unless given a variance, they do not meet code. And two, the presence of urinals often offends prevailing standards of modesty, making many users of different genders and religions uncomfortable. Although surveys have yet to be done, anecdotal evidence suggests that instead of encouraging mixing, this approach results in user self-selection by sex: cisgender men tend to use the former men’s room and cisgender women use the former women’s room.
Although the low-budget retrofit solution is not Stalled!’s preferred design option, we do appreciate that it has the potential to promote mixing and that if it were to become code compliant in the future, it would be appealing to clients in search of quicker and cost-effective solutions. For this reason, Stalled! is working as an advisor to a major university that has received a variance from the local building department to do a pilot study of this option.
All three design approaches—single user, multi-user and the low-budget retrofit-- pose the thorny problem of signage. Until we adopt a consistent set of graphic standards, stakeholders will continue to have to navigate through the dizzying array of available options.. Should one use words, avatars, fixture icons or a combination of all three? This seemingly practical choice is ultimately an ideological question.
We are not in favor of door labels that use variations of male and female iconslike the half man/half women symbol. Although well intentioned, these ultimately reinforce the gender binary: rather than representing gender as a spectrum, these hybridized versions of tradtional male and female symbols perpetuate the problematic but still widely held notion that trans and gender non-conforming people are merely variations of a cisgendered norm. In a similar vein, Stalled! also has reservations about graphics that employs words like “gender neutral” and “all-gender.” They legitimize the implicit message that the complexity of human identity can be categorized to the reductive category of gender. In place of the word “all-gender,” Stalled! endorses signage using the word “inclusive,” a term which better expresses our ambition to expand the purview of those whose needs are accounted for in public restrooms. Rather than focus on gender alone, restrooms are one example of the imperative to create accessible public spaces that accommodate a spectrum of people of different ages, races, religions and disabilities.
Bathroom signs using words poses the additional challenge of language. English language wayfinding labels exclude the many non-English speakers who use public building, reinforcing the impression conveyed by the current isolationist administration that the United States is no longer welcoming to outsiders . Multilingual labels are an option: but they require us to choose and to privilege some nationalities over others, and they risk becoming a graphic design nightmare due to the large size needed to make room for additional lines of text. Stalled! is in favor of supplementing or in some cases eliminating words entirely as a way of avoiding this dilemma. Instead we recommend signage that represent the activities that everyone, regardless of gender, performs in bathrooms by labeling restrooms with icons that represent the fixtures –sinks, toilets and changing stations—that users will find there.