Historical and Architectural Impact of Restroom Design

Historical and Architectural Impact of Restroom Design

This is the first part in a three-part series. To read the other two parts, click here.

The design of public restrooms has long been a contested territory for civil rights issues and policy debates. From the civil rights battles of the Jim Crow era, when restrooms were separated by race, to the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act on building code, how we design restrooms and who we design them for has long been a contested conversation.

The architectural profession, now more than ever, is deeply involved in this conversation. And perhaps no issue currently more contentious than the rethinking of the gender-segregated restroom model in educational facilities. The prominence of the gender-segregated model can be traced back to an 1887 Massachusetts state law that mandated sex-segregated public restroom facilities. Viewed as a progressive, anti-discriminatory measure at the time due to an increasing number of women entering the workforce, this norm has recently come under increased scrutiny by the LGBTQ+ community, as it fails to recognize the non-binary nature of gender and creates social difficulties for members of the transgender community.

It is because of these fraught social circumstances that legislation has been enacted in nearly 20 states that prohibits gender discrimination in public spaces, including bathrooms. These laws are intended to allow transgender individuals to use whichever bathroom most closely aligns with their gender identity. However, these laws have brought about legal challenges, and the conclusion to this civil rights battle is not yet clear.

What is clear are the implications this battle has on the architectural profession. At its core, the debate around inclusive restrooms explicitly involves a component of the built environment that is heavily regulated by code and whose design has been firmly in the realm of the profession for centuries. Although at one time it was considered acceptable to have a minimum of at least one unisex restroom, many advocates now consider this number too small, and these areas alienating, as they regulate trans-people into the category of “other.” Today, the solutions most commonly advocated for are multiple-occupant gender-neutral spaces, with lockable, single-occupant stalls.

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