Wisdom From the Restroom

I want to take a moment to address the small, humble single-occupant public restroom. Two of these “single-holers” as they are lovingly referred to out on the job site are standard fare for smaller spaces with low occupant loads like offices, retail shops, and restaurants. Architects who regularly design these kinds of small uses are quite adept at making their single-occupant restrooms spatially efficient while making sure they still comply with accessibility codes (especially the clear space requirements within those accessibility codes). You’ll still get the occasional client bemoaning “all that space” in those restrooms and how it costs them space elsewhere. You’ll still reassure them it’s as tight as it can be in there, and you might even demonstrate that by showing the clear space requirements of the accessibility codes as dashed lines or shaded polygons. We’re thirty years into the ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and this kind of universal design is just something we do now, it’s the default. That’s a beautiful thing.

The reason that ADAAG in particular has largely been a success in altering our built world is that building codes have adopted the ADAAG either verbatim, through incorporation of adopted standards referenced by it, or by using it as the takeoff point for their own accessibility guidelines that meet/exceed those of ADAAG. When law makes its way into building codes it becomes something easily enforced by building officials in their plan reviews and subsequent inspections. Building codes also directly drive architectural knowledge and practice, so whatever’s in them becomes integrated into architectural design. Even the tradespeople building these “single-holers” tend to memorize some of the basic accessibility requirements when they start showing up in inspection reports.

It’s a welcome change that we’re starting to recognize the shortcomings of having gender-based restrooms. The low-hanging fruit of positive change in this area of design is the single-occupant restroom. Why the hell do we even separate these kinds of facilities into men’s and women’s anyway? What difference does it make? If anything, it’s less convenient every time one of these restrooms is occupied and you’re doing the bulging bladder boogie, but the available one doesn’t match your gender or identity. Lots of building operators are already doing away with gender-based single-occupant restrooms, which is great, it’s the start of a movement. But to make it universal like we did with accessible design, we do need legislation to push forward a common sense change that actually benefits everybody, but also makes a positive difference in the lives of people who identify outside of the gender binary.

This brings me back to that whole integration thing between the law and building codes. I’ve now seen multiple instances of well-meaning municipalities pushing through gender neutral single-occupant restroom ordinances, but not updating their building codes to reflect that. A gender-neutral restroom policy will be in the municipal code alongside stuff like licensing requirements for barbers, noise ordinances, and garbage collection rules instead of being in the building code. It probably needs to be in both places, so that existing businesses retroactively comply too. But as it’s set up, many (most?) architects, especially those who aren’t based in the municipality, but get hired to do work there, will miss it. This leaves enforcement in the hands of citizens instead of plan reviewers and inspectors. Major fail.

Push your local lawmakers to get a gender-neutral single-occupant restroom ordinance on the books AND update the building code accordingly. OR, if your jurisdiction already has such an ordinance, make sure it makes the jump into the building code too. AND, just start defaulting to making those two single-occupant restrooms gender neutral in your room schedules from now on. Thanks, I’m stepping down from the soap box now.