Uninstalled: Inclusive Bathroom Design | Architect magazine

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Jeffrey Totaro
The inclusive washroom at the I. King Jordan Student Academic Center at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC by MixDesign

Despite all their good intentions, “accessible design” solutions can sometimes make things worse. Wheelchair ramps and disabled lanes, for example, can unintentionally create stigma. Often conceived as accommodations or alternatives, these solutions run the risk of spatially isolating users and further perpetuating discrimination.

Much of the problem can be attributed to its users’ narrow understanding of living diversity architecture, says Joel Sanders, FAIA, co-founder of the New York-based think tank and design group. MixDesign. “Since ancient times, the body that architects design for in the West has generally been assumed to be white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual and, until recently, male,” he says. Anyone who deviates from the Vitruvian ideal is flagged as a special needs case.

Many flaws in accessible design show up in public washrooms. Sometimes ill-conceived, everyday necessities can become spaces where “architecture, through its codes and conventions, naturalizes many cultural assumptions about human bodies and identities,” says Sanders. A professor at Yale University, he founded MixDesign with transgender studies pioneer Susan Stryker and University of Utah law professor Terry Kogan in 2017 “to combat the complicity of architecture in reinforcing the structural racism, heteronormativity and ableism”.

Diagram of the MixDesign methodology
courtesy MixDesign
Diagram of the MixDesign methodology

MixDesign takes an “intersectional approach,” says Sanders. In designing accessible spaces, the company goes beyond the physical disabilities outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and considers culture, gender, and the myriad of neurodiverse factors that shape our experience of the world. MixDesign’s ongoing research project called Stalled! produced prototypes and recommendations for creating truly inclusive facilities.

MixDesign’s redesign of the gender-neutral bathrooms at the Gallaudet University Student Center in Washington, DC exemplifies this philosophy. After holding several design workshops with students, teachers and administrators from the 157-year-old School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the company designed a duo of open-concept restrooms – each approximately 950 square feet and containing 11 cabins – where users of all needs and temperaments can be comfortable.

We see toilets as a kind of social condenser and a bustling center. This sends a signal that health, wellness and wellness, as well as inclusiveness, are important to our university.

Sanders says an open layout creates “pot parity” and solves the dilemma of having long lines in one of the gendered bathrooms. Crucially, it also improves safety, says Sanders, citing Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street philosophy” where a crowd proves to be the best deterrent against violence in public spaces. This is particularly critical for trans women of color, who have been assaulted in public restrooms.

Creating a sense of intimacy was also a priority. MixDesign installed floor-to-ceiling cubicle doors instead of short, flimsy partitions with visible gaps common in American bathrooms. Rather than a row of identical stalls, MixDesign introduced a variety of stall sizes and layouts: standard stalls measuring 3′-6″ x 5′-2″; ADA compliant stands measure 6′-10″ x 5′-2″; and larger stalls measuring 10′-2″ x 5′-6″. Nicknamed “treatment rooms”, these larger cabins are equipped with a toilet, sink and mirror to accommodate those who need complete privacy, including those suffering from paruresis or “the syndrome of bladder shy,” who have trouble urinating in public, Sanders adds.

Finished in a palette of soothing shades, durable tile flooring and fixtures from American Standard, Elkay, Bobrick and Koala Kare, each bathroom comprises 11 individual cabins.
Jeffrey Totaro
Finished in a palette of soothing shades, durable tile flooring and fixtures from American Standard, Elkay, Bobrick and Koala Kare, each bathroom comprises 11 individual cabins.

“There is no such thing as a truly universal design,” Sanders points out. “Some populations have distinct privacy or religious needs that do not allow them to share [spaces].” The vocation of the architect, he argues, is to find a “balance between sharing and respecting differences”.

Another notable feature of MixDesign’s program is the placement of restrooms in high-traffic areas of the I. King Jordan Student Academic Center in Gallaudet. Instead of tucking them away at the end of long hallways, both facilities sit adjacent to building entrances and provide breakout spaces for students to wait their turn or simply relax. MixDesign enlisted the school’s guidance in designing “deaf spaces” and selected upholstered high-back seats in shades of blue that complement universal skin tones; color contrast improves visibility for people using sign language.

“We think of the restroom as a kind of social condenser and a center of animation,” says Sanders. “It sends a signal that health, wellness and wellness, as well as inclusivity, are important to our university.”

courtesy MixDesign
courtesy MixDesign

“We are thrilled with the newly constructed inclusive public washrooms,” confirms Elizabeth Brading, executive director of design and facilities at Gallaudet Campus, who has worked closely with MixDesign. “It showcases Gallaudet University as a pioneering institution with an ongoing commitment to meeting the needs of a diverse academic community.”

Ultimately, Sanders says, designing spaces for accessibility means working closely with people who have lived experience of the problems at hand — a feedback loop that architects have traditionally deprioritized or avoided. “I try to unlearn everything I was taught about being an architect and learn to listen,” he says.

This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.

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