May 22, 2018

Inclusive Restroom Design | Library Design

Libraries grapple with the need for options beyond men’s and women’s

Until recently, the widespread re­examination of library
design principles largely stopped at the bathroom door.
But that’s changing; as awareness spreads that many patrons
identify as transgender, non­binary, agender, genderfluid,
or otherwise don’t fall within the male/female binary, libraries are exploring how better to serve users by reimagining that most
necessary, yet often overlooked, aspect of library buildings.

Sending the right sign: labels

Signage is crucial for creating a gender-inclusive restroom; in many cases it is the primary, if not the only, change made to turn a single-sex restroom into one that welcomes all patrons. There is not yet, however, a broad consensus about how that sign should read.

Libraries we spoke with have wording on their signs that vary, including “gender universal,” “gender inclusive,” “gender free,” “gender neutral,” and “unisex.” Some dislike terms that include “free” or “neutral”—as ­Rochelle Mazar, assistant dean of academic engagement at the University of Rochester, NY, says, “Gender is never neutral!”

In “Designing for Inclusivity: Strategies for Universal Washrooms and Change Rooms in Community and Recreation Facilities,” HCMA Architecture + Design says, “Universal is the recommended term rather than all gender or gender neutral. Shared is a positive term that may be considered as an alternative.” For those with multi­lingual signage, HCMA also recommends working with “transgender-informed translators to avoid problematic terms in other languages.” In addition, HCMA recommends signage near building entrances to identify which types of washrooms are available and how to find them.

Rendering courtesy of Joel Sanders Architect

Sending the right sign: images

The consensus on graphic representations is also still evolving. Many signs show the familiar man and woman icons together, but that can still feel unwelcoming to those who don’t identify as either. As one nonbinary librarian tells LJ, “The sign shows the standard woman and man bathroom icons and a person in a wheelchair. It certainly gets the point across. But if it were up to me, it would just be a picture of a toilet. While I know [the icons indicate] a restroom I can use without risk, it still technically displays only two genders that don’t apply to me.”

Attempts to rectify this by modifying the figures still don’t quite capture the complexities of gender identity. Architect Joel Sanders tells LJ, “Human avatars…presuppose the [gender] binary. Even the kooky hybrids (half-man/-woman) are still based on and reinforce the binary.”

Conveying the message through humor via space aliens or mythological creatures, often accompanied by the words “Whichever” or “We don’t care just wash your hands,” can have the effect of equating real people with made-up beings. They can also add confusion for those who don’t speak fluent English.

An emerging best practice seems to be to eschew depicting users altogether. Entro, a Toronto wayfinding and placemaking communications firm, published a paper for the Canadian Standards Association recommending that signage focus on the service, not the user, by showing the fixtures found inside. (That has the additional benefit of providing clarity about whether urinals, a potential stopper for some users, are present.) The state of California uses a white triangle to signify an all-gender restroom, but that has yet to catch on more broadly.

In addition to wayfinding, some libraries adopt explanatory signage that informs users about the goal of gender-­inclusive restrooms and the library’s policies around their use. Make sure you also explain to employees, says Erin Shea, supervisor, Harry Bennett and Weed Hollander branches of the Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT, and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker. “If I were to do it again, I would have spent some time educating the staff before simply changing the sign…because although all the staff have good intentions, there was a bumpy road with the rollout. We also had pamphlets made afterward…because a lot of people asked what ‘gender neutral’ meant.”

Single or multiuser?

The simplest—and cheapest—place to start in creating all-gender restrooms is simply to relabel existing single-user restrooms. This is likely to face little or no resistance from users, many of whom are accustomed to sharing bathrooms with people of other genders in their own homes. For many smaller libraries that may only have one or two single-user restrooms, that’s enough.

Yet larger and higher traffic libraries are faced with a dilemma. Just relabeling existing single-user restrooms may not result in an all-gender option when one is needed, such as at the University of California–Santa Barbara (UCSB), where a plan to do so would have placed the only all-gender restroom outside the section of the building that is open 24 hours a day. Instead, UCSB implemented a minimal retrofit to convert a multiuser men’s room near one of the large ­computer areas.

That accords with HCMA’s advice to locate all-­gender restrooms “adjacent to high traffic and prominent areas.” Similarly, University of Pennsylvania architect David ­Hollenberg told Building Operation Management magazine that when converting single-user restrooms, UPenn ­eliminated those in remote locations for user safety.

Relabeling single-user bathrooms also may simply not meet demand. The choices: install more single-use facilities, convert single-sex multiuser facilities into single-user restrooms (sometimes by simply installing locks on the door, as at Kansas University’s Anschutz Library), or build or retrofit all-gender multiuser restrooms.

Sanders, principal of New York–based Joel Sanders Architect (JSA), is working with trans theorist Susan Stryker, legal scholar Terry Kogan, and accessibility policy analyst Quemuel Arroyo to advocate for inclusive bathrooms, designing a multiuser prototype called Stalled! and supporting it with writing, lecturing, and lobbying for code changes. With funding from the New York State Council on the Arts and Hewlett Packard, JSA is also consolidating its research into a manual of best practice guidelines. Sanders tells LJ, “We think [choosing single-user facilities] has drawbacks because it separates nonconforming bodies, including trans people and disabled people, from mixing with other people.” He also estimates that the cost for a ­gender-inclusive restroom is about the same as two back-to-back single-gender, multiuser facilities. Sanders is implementing these principles at an East Coast university.

Higher ed leads the way

Academic libraries are far more likely to go the multiuser route, as part of a larger campus culture. Says Joan Petit, interim dean and associate professor, Portland State University Library, OR, “I think we’re somewhat unusual in having multistall, all-gender bathrooms, but ours aren’t the first on campus, so the model is familiar to our students and other campus community members. Most important, it meant we could renovate our existing multistall bathrooms affordably.”

The University of California (UC) system has a mandate for all-gender restrooms going forward. As part of that process, UCSB’s library now has a multioccupancy gender-inclusive restroom, as does UC–Berkeley’s Moffitt Library, designed by architect Gensler.

However, not every academic library is following the multi­user path. Donna Reed, director of Oregon’s Portland Community College libraries, told American Libraries, “We were…rushing to install multistall gender-neutral restrooms, and we found out that [many transgender people] were more comfortable with single-stall bathrooms…. It would have been a costly mistake.” To learn such things, Eric ­Margiotta, associate director of student engagement and campus life at Virginia Tech, told Buildings Operations Management that he recommends including the larger community in the design process.

Of the public libraries we spoke with, only Ferguson, MO, and Canada’s Edmonton Public Library (EPL) had so far installed a multiuser all-gender facility.

While multiuser all-gender restrooms are new enough not to have settled on a standard pattern, private stalls amounting to separate rooms coupled with shared sinks is perhaps the most common scenario. Such additional privacy poses some practical challenges. Sukhjit Johal, head of library capital projects and facilities management at UC–Berkeley, tells LJ, “Each stall has to be fully enclosed, which meant code-wise, each stall is a separate room. Each [has] to have its own fire strobe and sprinkler in it. It’s very expensive to implement.”

CELEBRATING THE SPECTRUM Adding a touch of color to a mostly neutral color scheme, Edmonton PL’s Calder branch’s all-gender restroom features stalls painted in a range of pinks and purples. The self-contained family restroom is set within the gender-inclusive facility near the entrance. Floor plan courtesy of the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative, Inc.; photos courtesy of Edmonton Public Library

Using full side walls accessed by a door with a few inches of gap at the top and bottom can provide privacy yet eliminate the need for such duplications, says Sanders. (For security, if a floor-to-ceiling door is desired, HCMA recommends incorporating translucent panels to facilitate staff monitoring). While longer partitions can cost more, if designers choose standard wall materials rather than prefabricated panels, it can actually be cheaper, according to Matt Nardella, founder of Chicago-based architecture firm Moss.

While some might anticipate pushback on multiuser facilities, that hasn’t proven to be the case, says Johnny Nielsen, director of facilities at EPL. “I was expecting a bunch of community outcry or conversation,” especially from a large conservative religious community near the Calder branch, but that didn’t happen. The facility has been mostly well received; Edmonton is building a second multi­user, all-gender restroom in another branch.

Products and fixtures

It may seem intuitive that an all-gender restroom would not require products not already in use in men’s and women’s rooms, but apparently that’s not quite true, as Johal found. While floor-to-ceiling partitions are common in Europe, in America, the firm learned, no suppliers offered them, so architects had to work with the vendor to design the product they wanted.

In most cases, however, it’s less a question of new products than of adding some usual suspects and subtracting others. Rooms previously designated for men often lack changing tables—though, of course, many men need to change babies—and even more lack the means to provide and dispose of menstrual hygiene products, though trans men need these as well. Adding these fixtures isn’t difficult, but it takes funds and, often even less fungible, space.

Meanwhile, there’s one fixture that often needs to come out—urinals. According to Sanders, urinals don’t work in an all-gender restroom. “We don’t recommend [urinals]…. We find that once a urinal is there, it is self-selecting; neither men nor women are comfortable.”

Perhaps as a result, even though urinals are faster to use, consume less water, and take a smaller footprint than toilet stalls, few multiuser all-gender restrooms are designed to include them. Although UCSB’s inspiration at Macalester College, St. Paul, had simply taped off the urinals that were a legacy of the bathroom’s single-sex origins, UCSB decided to remove them and cap the pipes at the wall.

Code complications

In many locales, local plumbing code requires that a certain number of bathrooms be designated for men and for women. The original goal of such regulations was inclusive—to ensure that public places had facilities for women when that was not necessarily the norm. However, these requirements made no provision for concepts of gender beyond the binary, and their application to single-stall restrooms can cause unneeded complications even for cisgender men and women, such as when one gender’s designated facility is occupied or broken while the other sits unused.

Jennifer Bruneau, director of the Boylston Public Library, MA, tells LJ, “We decided that we wanted both bathrooms to be nongendered. We hit a snag…when the architect and contractor informed us that Massachusetts building codes required us to designate a men’s room and a women’s room.” To work around the problem, the library was able to designate them both as “family” restrooms.

Fortunately, the 2018 edition of the International Plumbing Code addresses this issue, at least in part. In language proposed by the American Institute of Architects, it allows single-user family or assisted-use restrooms “to be included in the number of required fixtures for either male or female occupants” and be “identified for use by either sex.” (So far, the code does not address multistall all-gender rest­rooms, but Kogan is working on writing an alternative to govern ­multiuser facilities.)

However, many state and local governments have not yet adopted the newest code. This can be a deliberate rejection of gender-inclusive facilities, but in many places it is simply inertia, lack of knowledge, or lack of perceived need.

In other areas, however, local law may not only permit gender-inclusive restrooms but require them. Regulations requiring that ­single-stall bathrooms welcome all genders have been enacted in California, Philadelphia, New York City, Seattle, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. It’s not just big cities, either: at press time, such a rule was under consideration in Bainbridge Island, WA, population 24,404.

Creating all-gender restrooms, therefore, may start with consulting not an architect but a lawyer. Library leaders who find they are looking to build more inclusive restrooms than local code allows may find themselves ­lobbying for code change—or citing the international revisions in support of an application for a variance. Depending on the depth of governmental red tape, however, that may be a slow ­process: New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and its architect, Architecture Research Office, underwent a four-month effort to receive permission for an all-gender restroom.

Why it matters

Restrooms may seem like an odd focus for a library (although not to Jim O’Donnell, university librarian at Arizona State, who last year told LJ, “It is a significant measure of the attention architects and planners pay to the whole human being if they get the bathrooms right”). But anyone who has ever worked a desk shift can testify that “Where is the bathroom?” is by far the most common, and urgent, question.

Getting the bathrooms right can yield big benefits. Says Bruneau, “The feedback has been very positive from our customers. One father in particular came in and told us that his son was starting the process of transitioning and that the library is the one place where he feels totally comfortable.”

The benefits accrue to more than just trans and non­binary patrons and their families, friends, and allies. Eileen Daly-Boas, philosophy librarian at the University of Rochester, tells LJ, “At alumni weekend, elderly couples walk in together, leaning on each other, parents with children, etc. Access for all is lovely.”

Access for all has long been a core library value. And while we may not always have thought to apply it to bathrooms, providing welcoming facilities can make the difference to whether patrons feel they belong at the library.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Megan Davidson says:

    We have 2 gender-neutral bathrooms at my library in New Zealand.ere is my facebook post from that day:
    Today, I had the honour of making a student cry.
    The student came to the library with a friend at 7:00 am(!), desperate to get the book “Becoming Nicole: the extraordinary transformation of an ordinary family” the true story of a family leaning to accept and love their transgender daughter.
    Yes, my student is transgender.
    Yes the student’s family will no doubt have a hard time accepting it.
    Yes, my library is open at 7:00 am.
    “Hey, have you seen the new signs I put up on the bathrooms?” I asked as I issued the book. I sent them out into the foyer to look at the transgender signs I installed last week, but they didn’t come back. So I went out there and found them embracing, weeping tears of joy and hope and relief.
    “Oh, Mrs. Davidson, you really made my day,” one said, “even if you made us cry,”
    It’s good to be reminded how such a small gesture on my part can make such a big difference.

  2. Marianne J Aldrich says:

    Thanks, Meredith. I really appreciate your thorough and thoughtful article on this.

    One thing I would add, as a nonbinary library employee myself, is that employees, also, might benefit greatly from this possibility. And you don’t always *know* who would be more comfortable in a gender-inclusive restroom until you give them another option! For example, I never complained about the old restroom situation until I realized how negatively it was impacting some of our students (employees and patrons alike), but I’m so happy *personally* as well, that we have gender-inclusive restrooms in our new building.

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