But regular old bathroom-goers are probably not keen on familiarizing themselves with the intricacies of plumbing-code development. “The average person wouldn’t understand these ratios and understand which codes apply, so they don’t really know where to complain—they’re just miserable,” says Dufresne, of the Institute for Human Centered Design.
The last objection to fixating on codes is a more philosophical one, about the limits of thinking numerically. As I spoke with architects, plumbing engineers, and design scholars for this piece, it became clear that building codes are looked to as a neutral, value-free lodestar, even though they have a strongly gendered history. As Greed has written, when it comes to restroom design, “an obsession with structural and technical issues predominates over social, ergonomic, health, equality, accessibility, and livability issues, with women’s needs peripheral.”
Reflecting on the progress that has and hasn’t been made, Dufresne said, “I think the ratios are a good try at improving things … but the main thing we’re looking to focus on is equal speed of access to the restrooms.” “Equal speed of access” is a standard of fairness that points to a solution that now, unfortunately, often leads to political flare-ups: gender-neutral bathrooms. That is, one way to guarantee that men and women wait the same amount of time for a toilet is to make them wait for the same toilets.
Potty parity is just one salutary outcome of gender-neutral bathrooms. As Joel Sanders, a New York City–based architect who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture, explained to me, they don’t force people into a gender binary and they are safer, particularly for trans women and trans women of color, who tend to suffer disproportionately from violence in bathrooms. Sanders favors an arrangement, common in Europe, in which rows of unisex stalls (partitioned more fully than standard American stalls, without all those “peekaboo cracks”) are accompanied by a bank of sinks for “communal grooming and washing.”
In buildings with lower occupancies, single-user gender-neutral bathrooms—lockable rooms open to anyone—would be similarly helpful. As Anthony, the Illinois professor, notes in her book Defined by Design, these bathrooms are particularly helpful to families. She writes of single fathers who “may have no choice but to bring their young daughters into the men’s room” and of an elderly woman who “worries about her husband who has Alzheimer’s disease” when he enters a larger men-only restroom. (The 2018 edition of the ICC’s plumbing code is the first to include guidelines for such single-user gender-neutral restrooms, and the 2021 code will establish standards for the layout Sanders likes.)
These approaches are promising, but they might be too expensive an undertaking for existing buildings. Banzhaf, the George Washington law professor, has a suggestion for when that’s the case. He told me about a campus building that recently converted a men’s room into an “all-gender room,” simply by changing the sign. Most of the time, he says, it functions as it used to, as a men’s room. But when demand surges—for instance, right after a mock-trial session ends—women are able to use the stalls there as well as those in the nearby women’s room, whose sign remains the same.