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When Culture Outpaces Code: A Design Perspective on All-Gender Restrooms

Gender-neutral restroom sign designed by Signworks for a Gensler project. Image © Gensler

Whether you call it a restroom, bathroom, toilet, water closet or washroom, it’s the space we all prefer to have the most privacy and security. Yet the restroom is having an over-exposed moment.

The gender-neutral restroom movement is in full swing, and clever hybrid signs that stitch together dresses and pants are everywhere we turn. Incorporating gender-inclusive restrooms in public places is as simple as that, right? You just put up a new sign.

Guess again.

The process is much more involved, and it takes an experienced design team to navigate this somewhat uncharted territory. Society and the spaces we inhabit are evolving, and good design isn’t always clear, especially when it comes to the building code.

Why now?

Several years ago before the headlines captured the topic, design teams here at Gensler listened to clients’ employees, patrons and students talk about the importance of inclusive restroom policies and spaces. The workplace environment is increasingly non-hierarchal, with CEOs now sitting in open-office plans more than ever before. Companies are prioritizing the quality of life of employees in a holistic sense, both inside and outside of the office.

According to a 2014 PWC survey, 63% of CEOs are concerned about finding the best talent with the right skills. Companies are trying harder than ever to create an inclusive culture in line with the values of the best talent available. In essence, the reason the all-gender restroom movement has come so far so fast is because people are raising this issue as a high priority, and management is listening to its people more than ever.

Code needs to catch up with culture

Current building code does not account for gender neutrality. In looking at the latest International Plumbing Code 2012, it states, “where plumbing fixtures are required, separate facilities shall be provided for each sex.” This means that in order for employers to legally occupy a facility, they are to comply with code, which requires that they designate their restrooms as “male” or “female.” And let’s not forget that each state, city, jurisdiction and building type have their own subset of different definitions and requirements, further muddying the waters of best practice.

Despite this, many employers are finding creative ways to address this issue. For example, in existing buildings where accessibility had previously not been addressed and the modification of existing restrooms would provide “undue hardship” to the tenant to fix, the solution has been to provide a separate, freestanding ADA restroom.

Hai I work here 😻✨ #EtsyHQ #nonbinary

A photo posted by Marisa Hall (@eesahall) on

Washington DC recognized the opportunity in 2006 and mandated businesses to mark existing single-stall restrooms as gender-neutral and required new construction to include them. Other jurisdictions are following suit and finding ways to minimize the financial burden of providing gender-neutral restrooms. These clever workarounds will be the new norm until code can catch up with culture.

New York City recently took a major step forward on the path to equality in the restroom world. In June, the New York City Council passed a bill mandating that gender identification signs be removed from all single-stall restrooms in businesses throughout the city. This one local decision in a major city is sure to have ripple effects around the world.

There are better ways to design a restroom for the next century, but until new towers are erected with this in mind, aging cities like Boston, New York and London will need to work with individual tenant floors to accommodate the evolving paradigm.

Give me a sign.

The New York Times catalogued the many interpretations of naming and signage in a November article that focused mainly on government legislation of all-gender restrooms in public spaces. As designers, jurisdictions, companies and institutions wrestle with policy, they also wrestle with the signage. The current options range from confusing to strange to borderline offensive. One important aspect in this debate is designing brand and signage that is clear, accurate and inclusive.

What’s next?

As architects and designers, we are always trying to guess the next step in a given trend. We predict this movement will lead to a new paradigm in restroom design. As employee Johnathan Sandler wrote in a recent GenslerOn blog post, we may just be shifting design thinking more toward the spaces that have historically been ignored. The next generation of bathrooms may be everything we all want – giving everyone a private, comfortable space because in the end, the bathroom is the one space that is better left out of the headlines.

Noelle Via Borda is a senior associate and regional Leader for Gensler’s media practice. She is a designer and strategist in Gensler’s New York office and brings her hybrid background in design and journalism to her everyday creative life. Noelle believes in a co-creative design process that embraces collaborative problem solving to align each client’s values and vision with the design for the built environment. Contact her at noelle_via_borda@gensler.com.
Stephanie Lan is a Technical Director and Senior Associate at Gensler’s New York Office. She focuses on developing and implementing spaces for creative class clients who focus on how built environments can support a live/ work/ play mentality.  She recently completed Etsy’s new global headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. Contact her at stephanie_lan@gensler.com.