Creating a Standard for Inclusivity

This article is Part 1 of 2 in a thought leadership series focused on all-gender restroom design.

Throughout human history, those who have access to certain public spaces have been determined by larger socio-political influences. These deep-rooted circumstances of civilization – which include religion, race, economic class, and most recently gender identity – are often overlooked when interacting with the built environment. Intensive research prompts discussion around the most necessary of public spaces: the restroom. Unless belonging to a marginalized group affected by invisible access boundaries, we’ve become accustomed to the availability of public restroom facilities without acknowledging their oppressive history.

In the 21st century, exposure to a vast array of sex and gender identities has brought light to issues associated with antiquated restroom facilities and the ideologies that support them. As an Interior Designer, my approach to this outdated environment aligns design with social responsibility. I seek to provide access to restrooms for those whose bodies and identities do not conform to a rigged gender binary. My strategy is to re-imagine and re-design restrooms entirely, creating a holistic, inclusive, and safe solution for all.

The History of Restrooms

The separation of restrooms based on gender identity is a relatively new concept. Historically, access to these public necessities was restricted by other influences such as race and economic class.

Hover over the circles in the timeline below for more information:

Why All-Gender?

For marginalized groups, the uncertainty and stress of entering a restroom against their choosing risks their safety and can deter them from using the facility entirely. Restrooms are more than a requirement: they are a powerful social influence. For years, restrooms have aided in the manifestation of bias and fear by defining those as “other” who choose to, or simply cannot, identify as strictly male or female.

Additionally, we as designers need to consider new-wave generations that will soon dominate the workforce. Generation Z and their successors have grown accustomed to school facilities and other public programming built around highly inclusive, highly innovative cultures. For corporate design to remain supportive of upcoming employees, we need to push for more inclusive restrooms and amenity spaces in the workplace and beyond.

Marginalized Stats for all-gender restroom facilities.
LGBTQ youth are the largest marginalized group affected by the gendered restroom debate. They experience the highest rates of abuse in both the school and home.

Challenges to Inclusivity

Since the shift from gender-segregated to all-gender restrooms is a relatively recent discussion, there are many opportunities to address concerns with apprehensive clients. First and foremost, we must offer multiple cost-effective solutions to support individual client budgets and needs. It’s necessary to provide a range of solutions, such as designing all-gender restrooms into the project layout for new construction projects, or designing only a portion of the toilet cores in an existing building to be all-gender while the rest remains gendered. These spaces should remain inherently flexible, allowing clients to convert restrooms back to a gendered state if necessary.

As there is with many new movements, designers may also need to address the stigmas surrounding all-gender restrooms. Opposition to changing the standard restroom may reside in the fears commonly associated with shared spaces: social prejudices such as homophobia and sexism can falsely misguide safety and privacy concerns. For many, the thought of sharing often small and confined spaces with strangers, since stalls and partitions do very little to protect physical safety and privacy, could instill discomfort or false assumptions involving other users’ intentions.

All inclusive bathroom design by SMMA.

Though change can seem uncomfortable, we need to reassure our clients that it doesn’t have to be. It is our job to make sure that every individual within a space, no matter how they choose to identify, has their basic human needs met. With the support of my firm, I pride myself in creating spaces that are thoughtfully designed, functional, and accessible for all.

Creating a Standard for Inclusivity: Part 2 will introduce SMMA's design concepts to address the all-gender restroom debate.

For questions regarding this piece, contact Genevieve Messina, Interior Designer or Marie Fitzgerald, Director of Interior Design.

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