Smart Architecture Solves the Political Problem of Gender Neutral Restrooms


Bathrooms once again take center stage in a political fight, this time in Houston, Texas. This Tuesday, voters there will decide the fate of Proposition 1, which centers around the affirmation or repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).

The ordinance passed by Houston’s City Council in 2013, HERO uses simple, clear language to ban discrimination in housing, employment and pretty much everything on practically any basis including sexual orientation and gender identity (it also included race, age, military status, pregnancy, religion, ethnicity, disability, etc.). Many other major cities have enacted similar ordinances.

Opponents of this and similar ordinances saw an easy opening to repeal by attacking the portion on sexual orientation and gender identity. The fact that there is even a proposition that allows some people to restrict the rights of others is pretty shameful and reminds me of the similar passage and later repeal (ahem, fine tuning) of a law in Indiana a little closer to home. While its clear Houstonians, or anyone, should vote against discrimination (can’t believe I have to say that in 2015) this ordinance has focused on who can use which bathroom.

This is an area where I, and everyone else in the design community, can make a difference.  In fact, clever design solutions can completely resolve the problem posed by gender specific public restrooms.   As we posted earlier this year following a gender neutral bathroom ordinance in West Hollywood, California, design can mostly solve the problem. For quite some time, designers have defaulted our bathrooms to large, multiple-occupancy corrals for either men or women.

That is not a great solution.  Multiple user bathrooms have a number of drawbacks.  I’ll first say, with likely unanimous support, that multiple user bathrooms are generally gross.  Worse, they are typically very expensive.  The toilet partitions which divide them up, have to be resilient to pretty much everything, which makes them one of the most expensive parts of a bathroom.

I suggest we eliminate multiple user, partitioned bathrooms altogether.  We can replace them in future construction with multiple, gender neutral, single-occupancy bathrooms. Some of these will meet the disabled access requirements, while the others will be standard, 3′ x 5′, or so, sized stalls behind their own door and full height walls. The sinks (lavatories in code parlance) can be shared in a common area directly outside the toilet rooms. The accessible, single user bathrooms can still have a sink in the stall itself to comply with technical plumbing code requirements.

And as a result … every bathroom can be gender neutral.

gender neutral restaurant layout

Here, for example is the (general) layout for a restaurant bathroom a recent project.  The space for the bathrooms was squeezed between a necessary stair and even more necessary work space. Individual, gender neutral bathroom stalls allowed us to maximize the behind-the-scenes space for the restaurant without limiting the number of restroom stalls.  

We aren’t breaking new ground here. Bathroom layouts similar to this can be found all over Europe and are starting to sprout in California restaurant and hospitality uses. There are even a couple examples here in Chicago.

While this approach seems straight forward, it has been met with sideways glances by plumbing inspectors in Chicago on our projects, who object personally to placing a sink outside the room where the toilet is located. (Never mind there is no code section that states you can’t do this).  The complaint we’ve heard from inspectors is that touching a bathroom door handle before reaching the sink seems unsanitary.  However, I’m not sure what the difference is between touching a toilet partition handle and a door handle before someone can get to a sink. I can also say from experience that many men cannot be guilted into washing their hands, or using soap, just because they see other people doing it. So as long as everyone washes their hands there are no issues in either case.

I don’t expect inspectors to be on the cutting edge of design trends or gender neutrality, so Chicago, I call on this city to take the step to ensure that our own anti-discrimination ordinance matches our Building Code and allows for gender neutral bathrooms by-right, on all projects.

And, Houston, I’d like to give you the opportunity to outshine Austin as the only progressive-minded alcove in Texas. Please be on the right side of civil rights for all on Tuesday.

NB: the toilet icon in our featured image via this incisive and funny post. Please learn more here.