By Petra Matar
Architecture and design serve as valuable facets within the language of creating “safe spaces”. While safe space extends beyond the physical realm, the design of our physical spaces can play a huge role in how comfortable and included we, as individuals, feel while experiencing the world. Think of the design of a round table for example, which eliminates hierarchy and promotes democracy. Likewise, the use of ramps creates ease of movement for individuals using mobility aids. Contrasting surfaces are used for individuals with visual impairments, and child-sized furniture is used in spaces intended for the youngest members of our society. The list goes on.
A space that has long been at the center of transgender inclusivity debates has been the public washroom. Arguably, one of the main reasons this space has been so hotly debated is due to the methods by which washrooms have been designed. Modern public washrooms are designed using stalls, which offer minimal privacy between users. The grouping of stalls is then closed off from view from public corridors. This divide of washrooms by gender is perceived to ensure the safety and privacy of individuals from gender-based harassment and assault – an argument used by the loudest opponents to trans individuals who wish to use the washroom that aligns with their gender identity.
Ensuring all-gender washrooms are designed in new builds and retrofits is the solution to this long-standing debate. All-gender washrooms are designed with higher levels of privacy and are therefore more comfortable for users. Sometimes these washrooms are designed as individual rooms with both a toilet and a sink, or as toilet rooms with shared sink space in an adjacent common area. This rationale may easily extend to shower rooms and changing rooms as well, by designing those as self-contained private rooms, rather than stalls. Increased transparency to the public concourse decreases the likelihood of harassment and physical assault of trans individuals, eliminating the time factor spent by trans folks while concealed from public view, waiting for a stall within the confines of the enclosed public washroom. The thoughtful addition of amenities in stalls such as sanitary napkin disposal units, free sanitary products, trash bins and mirrors with a vanity and sink, can all contribute to increased levels of safety for the trans individual – especially for someone in transition. The additions also contribute to an enhanced and safer experience for a broader range of users and a larger population of women (including trans women), as well as providing more sanitary conditions for all users.
Washrooms separated by gender perpetuate the systemic exclusion of non-binary individuals, and all new buildings and retrofits should be designed to adapt and aim to be more inclusive. This should be a standard by all municipal buildings, and private institutions should follow suit.
Furthermore, providing all-gender washrooms should extend to specialized building types that have historically been designed for male-dominant professions. These professions are now experiencing increasing numbers of women joining their forces and utilizing their spaces (e.g. fire stations). As women have entered the force, the buildings have introduced separate sets of washrooms and changerooms for female users at lower capacities.
Adding low-capacity washrooms and/or changerooms to facilities to accommodate female users runs the risk of either insufficiently meeting the needs of staff, or of adding unused surplus space, which can sit vacant depending on the demographics of the facility. All-gender washrooms and changerooms provide flexibility and higher efficiency in making use of such spaces.
All-gender washrooms do not simply benefit trans and gender nonconforming individuals, they also offer higher levels of privacy to all users and offer flexible and efficient use of the facilities in question, regardless of changing demographics and use cases. Ensuring that our spaces are designed to serve the needs of people, including all members of society, should be the aim of effective architecture and design.
Transgender Awareness Week is observed every year from November 13-19. The week is concluded by the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20—a day to acknowledge victims of transphobic violence. DPAI’s mission is to Shape the World, which means that we are continually reflecting on the way that architecture and design impacts individuals, communities, and the environment.