Designing around the debate: the genderless bathroom

Designing around the debate: the genderless bathroom

“Creating an equitable city implies that each citizen sees his needs metsays architect Wanda Dalla Costa at a time when cities were perceiving change. Architects and the public have begun to recognize the gender-focused design public spaces. Around the world, urban areas have been a site of discrimination and danger for the LGBTQ+ community. Sex is demonstrated in public areas that promote visibility and interaction between people. An arduous challenge faces architects and urban planners to design just environments and equitable spaces.

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One of these partial public spaces, which seems more private, are the shared toilets. When it comes to gender inclusion, toilets have met with resistance and heated debate. For transgender people, the decision between using the men’s or women’s bathroom can be difficult and even harmful. Nearly 70% of transgender people, especially trans women, have experienced harassment in gender-segregated toilets while nearly 10% reported physical assaults. Activists have proposed the idea of ​​’gender-neutral’ toilets to prevent such atrocities, and prototypes have been mushrooming across countries such as the United States, Canada, China, India, Nepal, Thailand, Brazil and Japan.

The gender-neutral modern bathroom is simply an accessible public restroom designed for use by any gender group. It can take the form of single-use toilets, similar to those in private residences, or a common multi-use bathroom. Single-use toilets are simple in design – a sink and toilet enclosed in a private room. This typology preserves user privacy and has worked well in shared environments. Multi-user public toilets, on the other hand, have required design changes to better address public concerns.


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Students in a gender-neutral bathroom. Image courtesy of Gender Spectrum Collection

Hesitation is a significant barrier to widespread acceptance of gender-neutral toilets. Historically, gender-separated bathrooms have been the norm. Changing views on gender norms have fueled the shift to unisex facilities, consequently revealing some people’s unease with the idea. The apprehensions surrounding the concept stem from a perceived threat security and privacy, especially when it comes to unaccompanied children.

Embarrassment around other genders also makes people skeptical of a communal toilet experience. Women may feel uncomfortable tidying up in front of the mirror or meeting their menstrual needs in unisex bathrooms. They may also find public toilets a pain to use. for hygienic reasons. People suffering from a “shy bladder” might feel embarrassed by other gender groups in such environments.

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Gender-neutral toilet block in a playground in Brisbane. Image courtesy of EMSmile

The gender-neutral bathroom seems difficult to roll out in some countries, due to the different cultural ideas around modesty, gender and sexual segregation. Many religions and cultures prohibit sharing intimate spaces such as toilets with unrelated people of the opposite sex. Societal notions around menstruation can also complicate the international spread of the gender-neutral multi-cabinet bathroom.

When it comes to user security, the other side of the debate is a good argument. Gender-neutral restrooms not only provide safe experiences for trans and non-binary users, but also for children and elderly. Caregivers can accompany their dependents to the washroom and assist them with ease. Unisex bathrooms would also promote parental equality by making changing rooms and feeding rooms accessible to mothers and fathers.

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Gender-neutral toilets in Paris. Image courtesy of La Citta Vita

A long line usually precedes the door to the ladies’ room. Women usually takes longer in bathrooms due to child care, menstruation, poor toilet design and fewer cubicles. The average gender-separated bathroom may have 20% to 30% more toilets for men than for women, leaving the latter to queue. Gender-neutral bathrooms level the playing field by making more toilets accessible to women at any given time. These stalls should be equipped with sanitary bins and storage facilities to make each stall truly accessible to women.

Unisex toilets are more profitable reducing the area that would normally be occupied by a pair of separate bathrooms. Fewer appliances and accessories also reduce the time and money spent cleaning and maintaining them. Electricity and water bills are halved.

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Gender-neutral toilets in Israel. Image courtesy of Eliran T

The debate highlights the fundamental problem around this issue of social equity – toilet design. Until now, there have been no standardized layouts or sets of rules on what exactly makes a bathroom gender neutral. Little thought has gone into designing spaces according to the different needs of gender groups. These issues and concerns have shaped design briefs that aim to create ethical and comfortable washroom experiences for all.

Among recent examples, the architects at WorkAC collaborated with a queer student organization to design gender-neutral restrooms at the Rhode Island School of Design Student Center in the United States. Equipped with a gender-neutral design approach, the team came up with a set of six closed toilets around a common sink. Each washroom contains a mirror, shelf and small vanity light, allowing for moments of privacy.

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Rhos Island School of Design/WorkAC Student Center. Image © Bruce Damonte
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Rhode Island School of Design Student Center Axonomometric

Blocked ! went further and designed prototypes of safe, sustainable and inclusive bathrooms for people of all ages, genders, races, religions and disabilities. The interdisciplinary team offers a set of guidelines for designing inclusive toilets online. The prototypes address issues faced by nursing mothers, people who need to administer medication or perform religious rites, and people with physical or mental disabilities.

Most unisex restrooms have an open design to create a busier and more visible common area, ensure user safety. They may have clear glass entrances or no door at all. Partitions and doors to stalls can be made full length, and modesty features around urinals can be designed to enhance privacy. Workplaces use a combination of gender-neutral and gender-neutral washrooms to meet everyone’s needs.

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Private booths in the student center at the Rhose Island School of Design. Image © Bruce Damonte

When designing inclusive and safer spaces, it is essential to involve the end user during the planning process. Diverse groups of people provide a variety of viewpoints that designers can work with, although they do lead to disputes. Architects can contribute to social issues by lending an unbiased ear to people’s demands to design spaces that seek to benefit all of its users. There is no good design without debate.


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