Behind the rancorous debate over gender inclusivity in restrooms, an upheaval is quietly happening. Emerging from both LGBTQ advocacy work and sheer opportunity, architects and proprietors are pursuing changes to bathroom signage and design in workaday spaces—bars, restaurants, and coffee shops— throughout our cities. This is private enterprise keeping pace with a gravitational shift in societal norms.
But the quest gets tripped up when businesses of a certain size are beholden to conventional building and plumbing codes, which require a specific fixture count and gender-assignment for single-user restrooms (usually at least one male- and one female-designated facility), and when it comes to multi-user restrooms or facilities in public buildings. This is when design teams looking to do something different must seek a variance, and when proactive jurisdictions do their best to legislate maneuvers around the code.
Thankfully, the model codes are moving in the right direction. The 2018 International Plumbing Code (IPC) updates signage requirements for single-user restrooms. Section 403.1.2, Family or Assisted-Use Toilet and Bath Fixtures, originally stated that fixtures located in such facilities "required by Section 1109.2.1 of the International Building Code are permitted to be included in the number of required fixtures for either male or female occupants.” The 2018 IPC edition (Section 2902.1.2 in the 2018 International Building Code) adds the following crucial language: “Single-user toilet facilities and bathing rooms, and family or assisted-use toilet and bathing rooms shall be identified for use by either sex."
On its face, this is a call for an all-gender designation. But when every bathroom can be identical and count toward a net total fixture count, implications follow for the allocation and configuration of fixtures and sinks within a particular floor plan. No longer is an architect obliged to think and plan in pairs; that is, a men’s room for every women’s room. Coupled with flexible thinking on sink location—sometimes placed in a centralized space outside the water closet—this simple change can reverberate through the design process when it comes to mapping a building’s program.
The AIA got the ball rolling on the IPC update back in 2015, with the help of the Preview Group’s David Collins, a code consultant to architects and engineers with 40 years of experience. It took some back-and-forth on language and on public review, but the updates carried and were published this summer in the 2018 IPC. “The membership embraced the change over the committee’s recommendations,” Collins says. While there was no explicit conflict in the proceedings, Collins concludes the committee may not have initially understood the intent or full impact of the update. Signage change has powerful momentum all its own; the code update merely gives this progress recognition and standardization.
“The purpose of this code change was to not penalize owners and developers for doing what they desire with their building,” Collins says. “Under the code, you still have to have a set number of men’s and women’s fixtures, but they can now be organized as an owner or designer sees fit.”
The latest changes won’t take effect in every jurisdiction immediately. Many jurisdictions adopt the model codes with amendments. Some jurisdictions elect instead to enforce an older edition. And it can take time—a year or more—to officially adopt a new edition. “Until the adopted codes cover more innovative design concepts,” says Fred Grable, International Code Council (ICC) senior staff engineer and secretariat of the IPC, “code officials may be strongly challenged to approve designs that older codes do not address or do not allow.”
Leading with Design
A conventional design for gender-neutral single-user restrooms—one fixture, one sink—is relatively straightforward. However, there is a push for a new logic in multi-user public restroom design. As a handful of universities, houses of worship, and cultural institutions experiment with all-gender multiuser facilities, an accepted prototype to guide these well-intentioned forays into design remains absent.
Architectural innovations in this area have received limited attention in the public discourse, says Joel Sanders, AIA, principal of New York–based Joel Sanders Architect and a proponent of flexible, inclusive public restrooms. Working closely with trans theorist Susan Stryker, legal scholar Terry Kogan, and policy analyst for accessibility Quemuel Arroyo, an interdisciplinary design and research team formed following a 2016 essay by Sanders and Stryker that proposed a restroom prototype dubbed “Stalled!”
The team is focused on three core goals: developing and perfecting a prototype for retrofit projects; producing a standard for new construction; and advancing the design and availability of freestanding, all-gender public bathroom kiosks in the European mold. “Our initiative has included writing, lobbying for code changes, and lecturing around the country,” Sanders says. “Terry is working on writing an alternative to the current IPC code [to govern multi-user facilities]. We saw a lot of redundancy in the bathroom design exercises happening at universities and other institutions. There’s clearly a need for published best practices and prototypes.”
The key characteristic of “Stalled!” is its complete desegregation. Open circulation encourages the masses to pass casually through a restroom with ease, re-absorbing the once-polarizing and isolating area into the public realm. European-style floor-to-ceiling stalls, which eliminate the “peek-a-boo” opening, form a perimeter around communal washing and grooming stations inspired by the fountains that anchor Roman piazzas.
With the interests of caregivers, the disabled, and the transgender community better served, this design prototype is moving the conversation beyond gender. Even the inconvenience commonly experienced by parents taking their child of another gender to a public restroom is eliminated. And potty parity—the adequate supply of fixtures in recognition of the longer average bathroom use time among women—is further advanced with the elimination of gender-segregated facilities and with it, the long lines that often greet women in the restroom.
“Stalled!” and other like-minded, centralized gender-neutral facilities will also reduce construction and maintenance costs.
“Stalled! is meant as a catalyst of creativity,” Sanders asserts. “It’s a desegregated solution that offers designers a chance to transform public space, activating corridors into lounges.” In abolishing the binary, he continues, “architects can and should move toward a more diverse client model, one that embodies many different user groups.”
Outliers Are the New Norm
As reactionary efforts to restrict bathroom use to one’s assigned gender on their license move through state houses in Florida and Kentucky, other jurisdictions have eagerly taken steps toward all-gender inclusion, ahead of any new code adoption.
Like the 2018 IPC, California's Equal Access Restroom Act, made law in March 2017, addresses signage for single-user restrooms. The bill is significant in that all business establishments, public spaces, and government facilities with single-user bathrooms must now identify them as all-gender.
Several major cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Austin, and Philadelphia, have enacted ordinances establishing an individual’s right to a public restroom that conforms to their gender identity. Many of these cities have also passed into law some variation on the all-gender signage policy for single-user restrooms. New York and Denver diligently amended their local plumbing code to align the fixture requirement with new ordinances.
Code ordinances don’t always fall within a municipality’s control, however. Where state building and plumbing codes prevail, like in Illinois, local signage ordinances have been hobbled. In a 2016 blog post, code consultant Leah Riley singles out the suburban Chicago municipalities of Evanston and Highland Park as crafting gender-neutral restroom signage ordinance with language that works around the state plumbing code requirement that there be at least one men’s and one women’s room in businesses and buildings of a certain size. Evanston’s rule, for example, only applies to places with only one single-user bathroom, or three or more single-user bathrooms.
The result is an imperfect gesture toward inclusivity, but the more towns and cities that take action, the more likely they are to tip the scales at the state level.
“Toilet fixtures are a convenience issue, not a life safety issue," says ICC accessibility inspector and plan examiner Kerwin Lee, AIA. "Most building officials don't care much about compliance with the [fixture] numbers as long it looks reasonable. Therefore, if a designer wants to create a different type of facility, they just need to justify it under the codes section within ‘Alternative Materials and Methods.’ ”
“Good design is not hampered by the code,” he adds. “It just takes a little more work.” That added legwork may finally be what is ushering good design on behalf of broader restroom equality.
Note: This story was updated to reference Section 2902.1.2 of the 2018 International Building Code, to correct the members of Joel Sanders Architect's interdisciplinary design and research team, and to note that Terry Kogan is working on an alternative to the current International Plumbing Code (IPC).