“Washrooms for All” is the right of everyone, regardless of gender, accessibility requirements, or personal needs, to feel safe and welcome when they need to use a public washroom. In 2016, Bill C-16 amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code. The change added gender identity and gender expression to the list of “prohibited grounds of discrimination.” The purpose is to protect those individuals who identify as such and acknowledge their right to the same freedoms and accommodations as everyone else. As awareness and understanding of the importance of gender equity have risen, the demand for gender-inclusive washrooms in public spaces has too.1 Several recently established organizations are providing education and tools that support this movement.
In addition, the need for greater accessibility (both access to and usability) has become a top priority in public washroom design. Like gender-neutral washrooms, the goal of accessibility is to provide everyone with the freedom and safety to access public spaces. In the United States, Stalled, a consultant company, has responded to the ongoing demand by providing open access lectures, writings, and design guidelines – all developed through years of research. They have taken the debates regarding transgender washrooms and expanded the discussions to include equity of access for all individuals.
As a result of the increasing demand for “washrooms for all,” the team at Figurr has seen more clients asking about incorporating or updating existing washrooms to gender-neutral, accessible restrooms. In general, the new layout for a typical washroom is divided into three zones – a series of fully enclosed private stalls in “communal grooming and washing stations, and a lounge that transforms the corridor into an animated social space.” This distribution of functionalities ensures adequate user privacy and safety and ease of ongoing maintenance. These considerations are essential to creating a more inclusive and safer environment for everyone.
Figurr Architects Collective has been working closely with the University of Montreal to renovate the washrooms in the J.-A.-De Sève Pavilion on the main campus. Inspired by Stalled and the need for equitable access, Figurr has been working with the university to develop designs that more closely align with its mandate to place equity, diversity and inclusion at the heart of its growth.
There are generally four categories of design that address the typical questions relating to incorporating “washrooms for all” in any project. Questions that clients frequently ask include:
- How can the design counter sound transmission?
- How will the design control odours?
- How can we manage security?
- How comfortable will the space be?
Addressing these questions early in the design process is critical to project success. Through collaboration and creative thinking, Figurr is excited to help the University of Montreal with its vision to create a more inclusive campus experience.
Sound Transmission and Privacy
One of the primary considerations of sound transmission is that sound can easily travel between washroom stalls and between the stalls and the public corridor. One way to alleviate this issue is to opt for closed individual stalls with walls instead of the typical toilet partitions. Floor-to-ceiling walls offer better acoustic control than partitions. In addition, the full-height door to access individual stalls has acoustical qualities; with proper latches and door closers, we can alleviate issues related to sound transmission.
Some materials can also lessen sound transmission in restrooms. Architects and designers can integrate durable materials and foliage in washroom designs to absorb sound. Adding these materials can be very helpful if there is a shorter transition between spaces. In addition, if there are concerns with noise transmission between the sink area and the public corridor, one way to fix that is with a recycled paper dispenser rather than electric hand dryers, as these tend to be louder and messier.
Odour control is one of the most critical issues of designing public washrooms. This is an issue for both the washroom user and the surrounding public spaces. One of the most productive ways to address this concern is by adding a mechanical exhaust to each stall to remove odour since each stall is closed. The new washrooms at the University of Montreal will include this mechanical exhaust system. Another thing that clients can do is to add automatic door closers to each stall which helps to limit the spread of odour. It is important to note that gender-neutral washrooms don’t include urinals, one of the primary sources of odours in public restrooms.
Consideration of user safety is an essential part of designing “washrooms for all.” Everyone who needs to use a public restroom should be able to do so without fear of safety, discrimination, or judgement.2 One of the main design principles considers circulation as part of the public corridor, reducing the designated washroom area. Since there are no doors to enter the washroom area, users will also gain a clear vision of others in the space - increasing feelings of security by providing an open area that is easy to exit. Improving lighting and adding motion sensors for automated lighting will also promote safety. Finally, gender-neutral washrooms are easy to maintain and secure. Their open spaces allow staff to access the restrooms with less interruption to their regular rounds, and there is no issue with staff gender when accessing for cleaning and maintenance.
Everyone should feel safe and comfortable when using public washrooms - regardless of gender, accessibility requirements or other needs. Sound transmission, odour control, and security design increase overall user comfort. Another design feature that can enhance comfort is the addition of rest areas adjacent to the restroom. A rest area offers a socialization zone that brings more people near the washroom and decreases isolation, making people feel secure. The washrooms at the University of Montreal are adjacent to a public space where student services are located. The project incorporates green walls in this area too. This supports student wellbeing and sound control. This place is used as a waiting area, a meeting point, and a general circulation zone.
Figurr believes that architecture can be transformational – transforming the lives of those who use it. In the case of designers, the changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code mean we will strive to include gender-neutral and accessible washrooms in our projects as a part of our best practice. It also means that we will continue to promote the education and discussion of “washrooms for all” with clients and the public. For us, this means ensuring that with every project we design, everyone feels welcome.
1. Wong, Herman et. al. “Genderless washrooms slow in coming to Ottawa,” The Capital Current. (2020) https://capitalcurrent.ca/genderless-washrooms-slow-in-coming-to-ottawa/ Accessed: January 31, 2022.
2. “Toilet Training: The basics of making your washrooms inclusive for everyone – Plus some resources to get you started!“ Eagle Human Rights Trust. (2022) https://egale.ca/awareness/inclusive-washrooms/. Accessed: January 31, 2022.
Resources and References:
"Accessible Washrooms for All," Changing Places. (2020) http://changing-places.ca/ Accessed: January 31, 2022.
Chellew, Cara. "Washroom Advocacy," Toronto Public Space Committee. (n.d.) https://www.publicspace.ca/washroom_advocacy Accessed: January 31, 2022.
Foth, Zann. "Not fitting into the gender binary makes public washrooms my enemy," CBC First Person. (June 15, 2021) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/gendered-bathrooms-first-person-1.6058277 Accessed: January 22, 2022.
Hoang, Cindy Lam. "You go, I go, we all go: Toilet talk with Lezlie Lowe," Capital Current. (2019) https://capitalcurrent.ca/you-go-i-go-we-all-go-toilet-talk-with-lezlie-lowe/ Accessed: January 31, 2022.
Rhee, Minna. "Gender-neutral bathrooms gaining popularity across Canada," Global News. (January 13, 2019) https://globalnews.ca/news/5388958/gender-neutral-bathrooms-canada/ Accessed: January 31, 2022.
Stalled! (n.d.) https://www.stalled.online/ Accessed: January 22, 2022.