Gender Neutral Restrooms, Accessibility

The Space Between Gender Neutral and Accessible Restrooms


This week, the City of West Hollywood passed an ordinance requiring every business to relabel their restrooms (by the way, it is only a ‘bathroom’ if you can bathe in it; otherwise it’s ‘restroom’) as gender neutral within sixty days. This does not mark the first time that equality and access have centered around restroom signage.

Long after restrooms became desegregated, we continue to fight for civil rights just outside the door to our bathrooms.  The space between is not only the undefined middle region of gender identity, but also the space where civil rights are interpreted by our accessibility and building codes.


When I practiced in California, I worked with the San Diego County Parks Department to tackle a related civil rights restroom issue.  The Parks Department was responding to the 1998 killing of nine year-old Matthew Cecchi in an Oceanside, California beach restroom.  We designed updates for all their facilities to include ‘Family Friendly’ restrooms –  gender neutral, single occupancy, restrooms intended for parents to accompany their children. The takeaway from the Cecchi murder in Oceanside was that the child was easy prey, since his aunt could not accompany him into the men’s multiple occupancy restroom.

Political pressure following the tragedy provided the push for the County to address their facility shortcomings and finally comply with the long passed 1990 Federal American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). Around the same time of the murder, the County was completing their transition plan which identified every disabled access barrier at all County facilities (parks, courts, social service centers, etc.).  In conjunction with constructing the family friendly restrooms, which were designed to meet current accessibility codes (see note below), we also constructed additional improvements which made the San Diego parks as a whole more accessible, including accessible upgrades to parking, path of travel, restrooms, picnic areas, camping grounds, even horseshoe pits. We did have to stop short at hiking trails, given the mountainous terrain of San Diego County’s hinterlands (the Earth was not created at 1/4″ per foot… sorry, Architect joke).

I was honored to play a part, albeit marginal, in creating accommodations for people with disabilities and making the parks safer for everyone.


The West Hollywood ordinance was passed in large part as a result of another restroom attack, this one against a transgender student at Cal-State Long Beach. When the ordinance was debated last June, West Hollywood Transgender Advisory Council member, Drian Juarez, cited the 2010 attack as defense of the new law.

In this case, the new West Hollywood ordinance is at odds with the building code’s accessibility regulations. In an effort to provide equal accommodation for disabled males and females, most codes require restrooms to be labeled specifically as Men’s and Women’s and the only allowable way to label restrooms as gender neutral is to provide ADDITIONAL facilities. In addition, the International Plumbing Code requires restroom facilities to be divided equally between male and female for most occupancies. In my interpretation of the code, sinks are allowed to be shared as long as the quantity meets the code required minimum (although some plan reviewers disagree).

It will be interesting to see how West Hollywood’s new ordinance plays out over time.


At our Lawrence House project, the new restrooms, to be shared by all the ground floor retail tenants, occupy a gray area between the Chicago Building Code, Illinois Plumbing Code, and ANSI. We are required to provide several toilets for each gender based on the number of building occupants.  Our design solution calls for each required toilet to be in their own room behind a normal lockable door but be centered around a common restroom ‘lobby’ with a common bank of sinks.

lawrence house, shared sink restroom

This choice is both for aesthetic reasons (restroom partitions are generally gross) and to accommodate gender neutral facilities. The sinks are designed to be shared (however, to comply with the separate facilities requirement for men and women two of the toilet rooms will have a private sink). A more forward thinking Chicago Building Code would allow for a shared sink area only, instead of forcing us to work around the code.

A Note on Codes and ADA

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the civil rights legislation signed into law in 1990 which mandates non-discrimination to persons with disabilities. Architectural design doesn’t actually comply with ADA, but with the myriad local building codes (typically based on the International Building Code (IBC)) which interpret the ADA law.  Most jurisdictions will tell you that they do not review plans for compliance with ADA specifically, but only for the accessibility requirements written into their specific governing building codes.


Another discriminated class has difficulty getting access to any kind of restroom. An ongoing issue in San Francisco is the prevalence of feces on the City’s sidewalks. And this isn’t a problem of irresponsible dog owners not cleaning up after their pets. This is coming from people, specifically the City’s homeless population who have no reliable access to clean and safe restrooms. More of the unfortunate and disgusting tale can be read here.


Restrooms are a battle ground for environmental as well as social issues.  Sometimes those issues come together, as when water shortages begin to cause civil rights problems.  As we’ve discussed before in Why you should care about saving water at home, flushing toilets account for 27% of domestic water use.   Anyone looking for ways to save water should put toilets high on their list.

An easy and readily available remedy is the waterless urinal … which are, unfortunately, barred by the Chicago Building Code (CBC). Although not explicitly referring to them, the CBC requires that all plumbing piping to be made of copper and, since urine causes copper to corrode if not rinsed by water, that makes them unusable here in Chicago. This is something Chicago’s City Hall found out the hard way when it had to remove waterless urinals because of this exact issue in 2010. Oops. This is a place where innovation and the Plumbers Union collide. Did you know the local Plumber’s Union has a full page ad in the print version of the Chicago Building Code? True!

More than you ever wanted to know about the saga of waterless urinals, which has been ongoing for an unbelievable twelve years, can be found here. Or we could just all switch to composting toilets.

Ever since plumbing was relocated indoors we have been debating who is allowed to use it, what size it needs to be, and how it is labeled. I expect this to continue. Hopefully it continues to head in the direction of environmental responsibility and equitable access for all.