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Rethinking the restroom

Big changes to public bathrooms may be on the way. How much will they cost, and will they provide more safety?

The bathroom at Oval Park Grill in Durham, N.C. Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Rethinking the restroom
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In 1998, LSD user Brandon Wilson, saying he had received an “order from God,” stabbed 9-year-old Matthew Cecchi to death at a park in Oceanside, Calif., inside the men’s restroom. The boy’s aunt was only a few feet away, waiting for him outside the door. A judge later called Cecchi’s murder “the most haunting case I’ve ever had.” In 2011 Wilson apparently hanged himself in his San Quentin prison cell.

The murderer was not a transgender person. Cecchi’s death, which led to calls for family restrooms, underscores the fact that transgender people aren’t the only ones asking for changes in bathroom policy and design.

Apart from that issue, the trend is already toward bathroom privacy. One layout in particular may represent the way of the future: the private restroom with a single toilet and a door that locks.

So far the debate over transgender people and their restroom choices surrounds traditional separate-sex group restrooms, like the ones found in schools or stadiums. Architects call these “gang restrooms”: Each typically has two or more toilet fixtures separated by metal partitions that stop a foot or two from the floor. Some gang rooms are co-ed, and in those, building owners sometimes have floor-to-ceiling stall partitions in an effort to provide more privacy.

With private restrooms, though, it doesn’t matter whether the user is male, female, a potty-training child, a person living with paruresis (the social anxiety disorder that upsets 7 percent of Americans using public restrooms), or the rare transgender person (perhaps 3 of every 1,000 Americans). The restrooms might be labeled “all gender” or “gender neutral” with a variety of skirt- or half-skirt-wearing stick figures, but they’re known in construction as “unisex.”

Dave Wilde, a senior architect for the Aspen Group in Frankfort, Ill., said his clients, mainly churches, are adding more “family restrooms” in both old and new facilities. This accommodates dads taking young daughters to the bathroom: “It’s just not a given that both mom and dad are at church,” he said.

Joshua Every, a Detroit-area building consultant, advises charter school, office building, and hospital owners: His clients consistently chose unisex restrooms for their new constructions. When designing a multimillion-dollar project, Every said, the cost difference between the two styles is minimal compared to the total cost of the project. That makes it relatively easy to factor into the budget: “In a new construction, you’re doing it all anyway.”

SO WHAT DOES IT COST TO MOVE from gang restrooms to privacy? The big cost to builders and architects is space: Each additional square foot increases original construction costs and future utility bills. Bruce Pitts, who has worked on heating and air conditioning systems for 17 years, says gang restrooms waste space. They have much more “circulation square footage”—the “milling around” space required in each restroom for people to get around each other.

Pitts says unisex private restrooms can save square footage, but their infrastructure construction costs per square foot—plumbing, water supply, drains, exhaust fans, and even sprinklers—are higher. On the other hand, unisex bathrooms cut down on wait times, because the next available bathroom goes to the next person of either sex waiting in line.

Several architects I talked with liked a middle-of-the-road approach: unisex, private rooms with toilets only, and a communal sink area for both men and women. One variant of that: a heavily used shoreline park “comfort station” in San Diego, just 45 minutes up the coast from where Matthew died in 1998, has unisex private bathrooms and outdoor shower spigots allowing swimmers and scuba divers to rinse off.

Mary Coakley Munk, president of the American Restroom Association, researched and designed the comfort station. She said in the off-season half the stalls are closed. The rest of the time, janitors clean stalls one by one—leaving at least one available for use at all times. “These are cost savings that are not usually calculated into construction costs,” she said. Lt. Brian Ahearn of the San Diego City Police Department likes the comfort station: Individual stalls and exterior sinks discourage criminal activity.

I asked Carlson Architecture, an Illinois firm that has designed several Chicago-area churches, to create and price for WORLD three sample designs for church bathrooms that could serve 20 people and would conform to Americans with Disability Act standards. Concept A: a standard “gang” restroom for men, a “gang” restroom for women, and a restroom for a parent and a small child. Concept B: Twenty individual restrooms, each with a toilet and sink, that either sex could use. Concept C: Three separate restrooms (rooms, not stalls), each with its own bathroom and sink, and seven more rooms just with toilets, across an aisle with communal sinks.

Costs for each design would vary according to finishes and region of the country. Based on estimates from two Chicago-area design firms, the Concept A cost—traditional gang restrooms—would be around $180,900. The Concept B cost, with individual bathrooms, would be 125 percent more: $407,000. The Concept C cost, though, would be only 26 percent more: $227,700. President Todd Carlson also pointed out that either Concept B or C would come in handy for men’s or women’s conferences, when one sex or the other might temporarily crowd the church.

WOULD CHURCH CONGREGANTS—or users of any building that chose Concept C—be ready to mix communally for hand washing? Carlson said, “Although this occurs commonly in an outdoor festival environment, it may take some time for congregants to embrace this layout in a church facility.” WORLD asked 50 people across the country in person and online about the three bathroom designs. Participants ranged in age from 15 to over 70, but most were between 20 and 40 years old.

Seven out of 10 thought Concept B was fine—two participants immediately brought up the cost—and 55 percent said they would be comfortable using Concept C, the “festival” style with communal sinks.

Safety issues topped the list of concerns for both designs, since the circulation space in both concepts would not be visible from, say, the rest of a church lobby. “I wouldn’t want to go into a bathroom when it’s just me and one man—particularly at night,” said Laura Sawyer of Virginia. Christopher David in Illinois suggested lining up the rooms along a hallway instead, pointing out that less seclusion would reduce the potential for harm.

Overall, men had few comments about the designs aside from safety concerns; one discreetly asked if the walls would be soundproof. Women, on the other hand, had conflicting views about the opportunities for “primping” and congregating with other women—or occasionally getting help with a stubborn zipper.

Kelley Griffin in Washington, D.C., said of Concept C’s “festival” sinks, “I wouldn’t feel that I could ‘get myself together’ with enough privacy.” In neighboring Maryland, Nancy Wunderlich said: “Where the sinks are has no impact on my comfort. I am more concerned about the comfort and safety of the minority group—specifically, the transgender community.”

Irena Dragas Jansen grew up in Croatia and still can’t get used to the relative lack of privacy in traditional American restrooms—she described European women’s restrooms with metal partitions stretching from floor to ceiling. Still, she said, she could get used to a variety of designs, since already “I share bathrooms with men in my home, and other homes.”

SOME CITIES ARE ALREADY PUSHING toward unisex private restrooms. Washington, D.C., has a website where the public can report single-stall bathrooms that are not labeled unisex.

The overarching authority on bathroom regulations is the International Building Code (IBC), which provides a complicated labyrinth of requirements for buildings based on occupancy, square footage, and building age. States use the IBC as model code for bathroom regulations almost universally, according to Robert Brubaker of the American Restroom Association.

Until recently, regulations required small establishments (like gas stations) to provide one men’s room and one women’s room. These extended even to private, single-fixture restrooms with doors that locked. University of Chicago law professor Mary Anne Case has written that such policies hearken back to a time when legislators sought “potty parity” for women. Women’s restrooms at one time were rare in downtown areas largely populated by men.

One recently announced IBC rule for 2018, though, states that all single-fixture restrooms should be labeled unisex, so either a male or a female can use the next available restroom. Another rule states that in any establishment big enough to require six fixtures (for three men and three women), one of them must be a family/unisex bathroom. States will phase in these rules over a period of about five years, Brubaker said, and the cost may be as little as a couple of cheap plastic signs.

—Laura Finch is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate

Safe haven

Some big numbers: About 324 million people live in the United States, and 300 million of us have no problem with the standard bathrooms found in public buildings. About 7 percent of Americans, though, are paruretics who feel anxious when sitting in a bathroom stall next to a stall also occupied: They would prefer to have separate, individual bathrooms.

Some relatively small numbers: Several hundred thousand males and females identify with the opposite sex. Some have had sex-change operations, but others who retain the male organs with which they were born insist on using bathrooms designated for women, even though that leaves some women fearful and many women annoyed. Meanwhile, some men who say they want to be women fear using men’s rooms.

About half of Americans are pro-physical-fact, thinking everyone should use the bathroom that corresponds with his or her sex organs. Maybe 40 percent are pro-psychological-choice. It’s one sign of our mixed-up politics that a tiny trans tail is wagging a big dog. Nevertheless, that’s where we are, and Christians have to figure out what to do in the strange situation in which God has placed us.

One starting point: Distinguish between where we must stand and where we may negotiate. Freedom not only to worship God but to teach our children and help the poor as the Bible instructs us: essential. Giving unborn children the opportunity to survive and be born: essential. Defending marriage: essential. Maintaining group (rather than individual) bathrooms for men and for women: negotiable, if alternative arrangements can preserve privacy and safety for women.

After all, the Bible does not mandate group restrooms, and in the present cultural climate they may open up businesses and organizations to needless lawsuits. May we discuss bathroom accommodation while upholding the unchangeable nature of maleness and femaleness—and without abandoning laws that allow sex-specific restrooms?

To think through the bathroom issue, we need facts. If we were to start constructing the individual bathrooms that paruretics, transgender people, and transgender supporters would prefer, what’s the price tag? Then we can discuss whether that would be a good or stupid use of money. This article attempts to provide a starting point. —Marvin Olasky

Laura Finch

Laura is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked at C-SPAN, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Indiana House, and the Illinois Senate before joining WORLD. Laura resides near Chicago, Ill., with her husband and two children.



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