What does washroom and change room design have to do with social justice? A great deal. As architects, we must consider the social impact resulting from all aspects of our work. Universal washrooms and change rooms are increasingly crucial in the design of recreation and sport facilities and are one element in our approach to more impactful design.
The design norms for public washroom facilities are surprisingly diverse around the world. Social norms, cultural values, and historical happenstance have all had a hand in shaping the manner in which common sanitary facilities are provided in various contexts. Furthermore, for much of the past hundred years the design norms within a country or region have, while allowing for technological and material advancement, remained relatively static from a standpoint of design logic. More recently, we have observed (and responded to) an evolution and divergence away from static facility design. This has been in response to rapidly changing expectations and increasing recognition of diversity within communities. This article will focus on one particular aspect of this change: an evolution from the traditional gender specific, and separated, approach to washroom design to a more integrated, universal and socially inclusive model.
The many reasons for this change are in itself quite diverse. Diversity is becoming more greatly acknowledged and accepted, be it related to culture, sex, gender or difference in abilities. Furthermore, new demographic contexts force us to reflect on our approaches to diversity – for example, consider the changing needs of an ageing population where caregivers and elderly individuals of different genders will increasingly require accessible places. In response, our facilities are becoming increasingly supportive of a broader range of multifunctional, leisure, and age-inclusive uses. Global mobility, in its various forms, has led to the need to provide facilities that respond to a wider range of expectations around comfort, privacy and acoustic separation. In some countries, such as Canada, a combination of an increasing commitment to inclusivity and human rights legislation has led to a need to reconsider our facilities with a more complex understanding of gender diversity.
There is also an increasing awareness that many people feel uncomfortable and unsafe using traditional gender-designated washrooms and change rooms. Gender-designated washrooms and change rooms often lack privacy and accessibility for many users, including those who have personal health requirements or mobility challenges, those who are transgender or transitioning, and those who may require assistance from someone of a different gender – including children and the elderly.
Regardless of the reasons in a particular context, universal washrooms and change rooms are a crucial component to ensuring that our facilities are safe and accessible for the widest range of users who in turn require service in a wider range of manners.
In response, many architects and building operators are reconsidering how washrooms and change rooms are configured, which impacts both typical gender-designated spaces (ones built for men and women separately) as well as the emerging universal models. This design evolution is part of a period of change where the normative separation by gender, which is reflective of a complex history of access and exclusion in our shared spaces, remains dominant.
There is shift to a widening understanding of access that has led to washrooms (single-user and multi-stall) and change rooms that are more inclusive for a wider range of users. They are often referred to as universal or all gender, with the term ‘universal‘ emerging as best practice. Universal washrooms and change rooms are being provided alone and alongside gender-designated options across a wide range of private and public buildings, from recreation centres to schools to private businesses. One of the challenges is to respond to evolving social values in a manner that recognizes the deeply embedded set of expectations of community members. The design response needs to be flexible to both context and the continuing evolution of our communities’ values.
There are many types of benefits associated with utilizing a universal approach to washroom and change room design including:
Inclusivity for people with a disability
Universal spaces accommodate people who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, and those who have a caregiver of a different gender. They also better accommodate a wider range of disabilities.
Inclusivity for families
Parents or caregivers can use the same change room or washroom as other family members (i.e. a grandfather can use a change room with his young granddaughter, or a woman with her elderly father).
Inclusivity for transgender and non-binary people
Universal washrooms and change rooms provide a safer and more welcoming space for transgender and non-binary people and can reduce feeling unsafe and instances of harassment and abuse.
A 2015 study of over 27,000 transgender individuals in the U.S. found that in the year prior to the survey 26% of all respondents were denied access to a washroom or were questioned, and/or were harassed or assaulted in a washroom. 59% of respondents avoided using public washrooms, and 32% avoided drinking or eating so that they would not need to use the washroom.
Increased privacy and safety
Universal washrooms and change rooms strive to create privacy and safety for all users. Increased privacy in toilet, change, and shower stalls promotes comfort as well as discretion around individual health needs (for example, a diabetic needing to inject insulin and dispose of medical waste). Openness and visual connection in central areas promotes safety.
They can often handle higher overall usage than washrooms and change rooms separated into women‘s and men’s and reduce the wait times and lines often experienced by those using women‘s washrooms during events or other high-use times. They also facilitate cleaning by staff of any gender.
Demand for universal washrooms and change rooms is growing and they offer greater flexibility. Designs that prioritize gender-neutral spaces generally integrate features that are more flexible and thus are more easily changed as community needs continue to evolve in the future.
While universal washrooms and change rooms help provide amenities that are more inclusive and accessible for all, common challenges and concerns exist around what they are and who they are for:
Confusion around language and access
Many people are unaware that the terms ‘universal washroom‘ and ‘universal change room‘ mean that they are for everyone – rather than solely for families or those with a disability. In the past, universal change rooms have been called family change rooms with the expectation that families have priority use in them over individuals, especially during high traffic times. Universal spaces do not prioritize certain users over others.
Confusion around use
Some people are unsure or unaware of what behaviour is expected in universal spaces. For example, some people do not know whether they may undress in the open locker area of universal change rooms. The following design strategies describe universal change rooms as spaces where people change or shower nude only in stalls (maximizing privacy). Signage and user education clarify that clothing or swimsuits are required in all the areas adjacent to those stalls.
Confusion around design
As their design is not standardized, many people assume that universal washrooms and change rooms look the same as gender-designated ones. The following design strategies promote key differences focused on privacy and comfort.
Some people express that sharing washrooms or change rooms with members of another sex or with transgender and non-binary people is uncomfortable or strange – it’s different than what they are used to or may challenge cultural norms. Some people also express concern that gender-designated spaces are necessary for the safety of women and children.
The best design processes involve consultation with a variety of user and advisory groups in order to mitigate concerns while design strategies can help increase comfort for as many users as possible. Designing stalls to a higher standard of privacy than found in most gender-designated washrooms and change rooms helps achieve comfort, while creating openness in adjacent areas promotes safety and visibility.
An ongoing evolution
Developing solutions for universal washrooms and change rooms is a single yet important aspect of a broader strategy that champions safer and more accessible facilities for all. These strategies are intended to contribute to ongoing and evolving discussions around designing for inclusivity and equity.
Through design, we communicate our values. Design strategies which remove barriers to access and participation make a statement that all are welcome not only in a leisure facility, but likewise within the community.
Through our experience working with our municipal clients and the communities they serve and as a component of the broad social impact framework we have developed for our work, HCMA has created design strategies for universal washrooms and change rooms to help fill a gap in design knowledge and encourage higher standards of privacy, accessibility, and comfort than are often found in gender-designated ones.
Five Design Strategies
The following five strategies were informed by our decades of experience creating community, recreation, and aquatic centres for diverse populations. They offer a guide to top considerations, and are to be explored, adapted, balanced, and applied within the context of each project. They also intend to help mitigate common concerns regarding safety and privacy for various users.
Strive for inclusivity and access for all
This means considering diverse gender identities, abilities, ages, and cultures in all aspects of design, from the soap dispensers to the stall sizes. Stalls should be able to accommodate multiple people (for those that require assistance), and sinks, lockers, hand and hair dryers, and soap dispensers should accommodate different ages and abilities. Accessible amenities should be placed in prominent areas, enhancing visibility and ease of use.
Use openness to enhance safety through activity and shared monitoring
By locating washrooms and change rooms near high traffic areas, such as reception desks and main hallways, sight lines and acoustic connections enable passive and active monitoring. The provision of more than one entry/exit assists with circulation efficiency and ensures options for entering and leaving.
Create privacy where most needed to enhance comfort
Creating privacy in universal washrooms spans a range of design decisions. By including waste receptacles in each toilet stall (as well as sharps containers) and hooks in each toilet/shower/change stall, people have greater privacy in regard to their personal health and belongings. Full-height enclosures and doors can contribute to visual, acoustic, and olfactory separation, using solid walls for maximum privacy, and door lock fixtures that clearly indicate whether or not stalls are occupied further increase user comfort and facilitate staff monitoring. Strategic placement of partial walls/dividers and screens create gradations of privacy, pertinent for reduced-exposure areas such as for vanity and baby-change areas.
Welcome everyone with signage that emphasizes function and is clear, inclusive, and positive
Clear signage ensures easy way-finding and greater understanding of universal washrooms and change rooms – this is particularly important when gender-designated or inaccessible options are also available. Function of space over identity of users should be emphasized and terminology should reflect context: key messages in languages most prevalent in the local area should be included and as best practices evolve so too should terminology.
Ensure supportive staff operations and communications
Staff should be provided with education and awareness training to equip them with the best practices, tools, and strategies to orient users, champion conversations around inclusivity, and mitigate potential conflicts. Information should also be available on the facility website and on all event/advertising materials. Ensuring cleaning operations prioritize cleanliness will also promote user adoption.
This article was originally published in SB Magazine on December 12, 2018. Read SB Magazine edition 6 online here.