The Case for Inclusive Design – A Restroom for Everyone

Much of the world is currently celebrating Pride Month – a month dedicated to honoring and advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community. While we ponder equality and inclusion during this celebration, it’s important to consider our built environment and how it also fosters inclusivity and equality for all people. As designers and builders, it is our moral obligation to create spaces that are accessible to EVERYONE, despite physical abilities or identity. This is essentially the concept of Inclusive Design, which is the idea that built environments should be designed “to be useable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without need for adaptation or specialized design”. It places people at the center of the design process. Architects, designers, and builders should consider all abilities and identities when designing a space – from ensuring a building’s entrance can be accessed by those in wheelchairs, to ensuring members of the LGBTQIA+ community have appropriate access to a restroom.

One of the biggest matters in inclusive design is the modern restroom. In recent years, restroom designations, which were originally created in the 1800s, have not completely reflected the nuanced understandings of gender. Traditionally, restroom signage will indicate Men, Women, or Family, but what about “All-Gender” designations? This term refers to a restroom that can be used by anyone regardless of ability or gender.

Advantages of Inclusive Design

You might be wondering how designing an inclusive restroom is different from, for example, designing a “gender-neutral” bathroom. Inclusive restroom design goes a step further. Rather than just considering gender, inclusive restrooms reflect all abilities, identities, and circumstances.

Overall, inclusive restrooms improve efficiency, and in the case of the modern restroom, it reduces wait times because each individual stall is available to any person regardless of age, gender, and ability. For commercial spaces like restaurants, owners have been a proponent of inclusive design due to the square footage savings – 71 sq. ft on average. According to Acorn Engineering, the smaller footprint of an inclusive bathroom benefits other industries as well. Depending on the market, you could save $2,100–$6,600 per year per restroom. In an office building, that translates to significant savings.

On a fundamental level, inclusive design is a success for users and organizations because it expands ease of access to more users and has the power to build empathy and spark innovation. Implementation of inclusive restroom design grants involvement of people of all abilities and identifications, which can contribute to the overall enrichment of society as a whole.

Code Considerations

When navigating the construction permitting process, designers and architects must do a deep dive into all of the applicable code sections that are relevant to their project type. This encompasses many aspects of the design, from life-safety requirements, all the way to the number of water fountains needed for your occupancy number. Restroom fixture counts are a major consideration from both a space planning and accessibility perspective, as well as permitting and final occupancy sign-off. When it comes to restroom fixture counts, the International Plumbing Code (IPC) is generally what guides designers in the United States (some states use Uniform Plumbing Code [UPC] instead).

This code provides calculations for the number of plumbing fixtures that are needed per gender (male or female), based on both the use of the space and the number of occupants in the space. Typically, when working through fixture counts for your project, designers will calculate the total occupancy of your space based on the user type and then divide that number in half to account for the gender binary stated in the IPC. These numbers are then applied to either gender’s fixture calculation.

When designing restrooms that are not explicitly linked to gender, the code requirements in many states have not been updated to account for all-gender, gender-neutral, unisex restrooms, or inclusive restrooms. Some organizations prefer gender-neutral restrooms, so navigating plumbing counts that are attributed to specific genders can be a bit tricky with building officials. In some scenarios, code officials prefer to see MEN or WOMEN designated on the submitted documents for multi-stall restrooms in other scenarios where there are individual walled uni-sex restrooms, code reviewers will approve drawings with just RESTROOM as the designation. It's difficult to predict when code officials would like to see gender designation on permit drawings, but it is easy to accommodate the preference of the reviewer in a Correction Letter. However, that does not necessarily mean you need to designate your restrooms as gendered when you receive final occupancy for a finished project.

It is hard to predict exact scenarios, and it can vary per state, city, or individual building inspector. No matter how you plan to designate your restrooms, the number of toilets/sinks/water fountains calculated using the gender binary in the IPC is the total number of fixtures needed. If you decide that all of your restrooms will be all-gendered, or inclusive restrooms, you will still need to provide the same number of fixtures that you would if they were attributed to male or female.

Principles of Inclusive Design

Good design is good for your organization or business. Good design is also inclusive design, and it should reflect the range of individuals who use it. As designers and builders start the design process, they should remember the five key principles for designing inclusively.

  1. Design with people at the heart of the process

  2. Acknowledge diversity and differences

  3. Offer alternatives where a specific design solution cannot accommodate all users

  4. Allow for flexibility

  5. Deliver a built environment that is accessible and enjoyable for everyone to experience

The Future of Inclusive Restroom Design

There’s no question that inclusivity will change the future of restroom design. In today’s social and economic climate, inclusive design has the chance to become not just a trend but a standard. Inclusive restrooms offer private spaces to change your child’s diaper, comfortable areas for mothers to nurse, and adequate space to help those needing assistance. They also provide a space for EVERYONE in terms of washing, grooming, and eliminating. While daunting, building and designing inclusive restrooms doesn’t have to be challenging. Once you are aware of how to navigate code and signage, implementation can be fairly painless.

Good design creates an exceptional user experience for everyone, and inclusive design is the way to accomplish that. If you are a building owner, architect, designer, or builder, it is important to embrace inclusive design at the start of the design process. The sooner in a design process that inclusivity is discussed the better able the design team can develop a solution that works for everyone.

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