Flush This: A discussion of bathrooms in two parts, part two.

Dateline: Two days ago.

The question was raised “Should women be designing ladies’ rooms?”

It was at that moment that I seriously considered wading in to the main conversation but decided not to risk a migraine. I bit down on my urge to say “SERIOUSLY? DID SOMEONE SERIOUSLY SUGGEST THIS?” at a volume that would make glass break and suggested politely that thoughtful design knows no gender. (This is often the case- polite response, screaming internally. It’s noisy in my head a lot.)

But since this is *my* blog, let me reiterate this:


See, even as a hypothetical question of “how does design change when x does it instead of y”, I’m not sure who this insults more, but it’s not a compliment to anyone. Let’s break this down:

1. It insults men. It says that men are obviously so lacking in basic understanding and home training (that clearly, they cannot have gained anywhere or learn anywhere) that they couldn’t possibly figure out how to thoughtfully design a ladies’ toilet. Obviously women do something in the bathroom that is so far outside the realm of understanding to men that they can’t POSSIBLY figure it out and design for it appropriately. More on this notion in a moment.

2. It insults women. It basically implies that in fact, we ARE doing something so outside the realm of understanding of men that clearly, only those of us versed in the art of oh I don’t know, not having a Y chromosome could possibly ever understand how to do it. It’s just too…girly for men to bother with and only women can do it right.

and finally, my favorite insult of all…

3. Does this mean people who are transgendered shouldn’t be able to design bathrooms? Does this become like the IOC where we should (again, realizing this was a hypothetical question but I’m showing how outrageous this entire line of thought is) test people to determine their sex? “Oh sorry, you had gender reassignment surgery so no bathroom design for you.”

Now, this question was not brought up with any of these three things in mind. Sadly it was brought up because unfortunately, it is taking far too long for a traditionally male dominated industry, PLUS those people who are responsible for building code in many places, AND lawmakers to learn some *basic facts of the universe*.

Here, let me help:

Women take slightly longer in the bathroom, on average, than men.

Not every woman, and not every time. As an overall group, yes- we do. Even sadder is the reasons ascribed to that- that we’re just primping or fussing about or whatever the fuck it is that sexists think about women in general. But that’s not really it. It’s due to two things- one- we don’t have exterior biological plumbing, and two – often our clothes are more complicated. That, folks is it. But the former is an immutable biological fact. Learn it, live it, feed it on Thursdays. The latter may not be immutable fact, but it is often true, particularly in winter months. Both of these things combine to create a situation where if you are designing a location that has male and female facilities, you *do* in fact, need more of them for women than men. A trip to ANY stadium, convention center, mall bathroom or amusement park will show you this problem in action. It can be identified by LONG lines for the womens facilities and NO line for the mens. It’s not because “men can hold it longer”, it’s not because “we’re playing with makeup or fixing our hair”. It’s because we can’t easily pee standing up, and we don’t have a way to “zip and whip”. We have to essentially partially undress every time we need to run to the bathroom and that takes a little longer.

Now, it’s a valid question to ask “WOULD a woman design toilets differently.” I contend if there’s a serious difference that cannot be ascribed to the individual designer in question, then you’re talking about *bad designers* in general. Part of our job is to understand our end users. When you can’t get the bathroom right you’ve missed this vital piece of your job. It’s one of the reasons I get so cranky when bathrooms are overlooked- when you so this you’re denying a fundamental part of *everyone’s* daily experience. You’re failing to really understand your end user. I would expect that if a male designer were designing a ladies room and wasn’t sure he’d gotten it right he’d just *ASK* a woman to look and see if there was anything he’d missed. I know I’d do the same thing if I were designing a facility for a group I wasn’t a part of- it’s called *research*. It’s what we do, isn’t it?

Yes, it is true, undeniably that building code and lawmakers need to finally and fully grasp that women do take a little longer and need more facilities than men because of it. But just as important is WHY- not some ridiculous and false notion of why that relegates women to the girly corner. A basic understanding of how people function in a real life way would do. But to suggest that there is some fundamental thing that male designers cannot and do not understand about women in regards of how they use a bathroom is insulting to everyone, and we can and should do better than that.



  1. Don’t forget the additional consideration that at any given time about one third of the female population is of the correct age to be menstruating, and about 1/4 of those women can be, so 1/12 of your female population are likely to be engaging in yet one more activity (that I don’t consider primping) that isn’t a consideration in men’s restrooms, and which by necessity makes their visit to the restroom more time consuming.

    There’s also the social convention of mothers being more likely to be helping small children in restrooms, so there’s another way our average trip time is increased.


  2. thanks for expounding on this Avril.

    When I first saw this idea on twitter, I said, crazy, no way, dont drag me in. for all the reasons you list. We can’t be open to this idea unless we dont want to design men’s rr’s. In that scenario, eventually women designers would lose.

    Then I reconsidered and said, ok, as a thought experiment, let’s try it. How would women design restrooms for women?what would be different?

    We might learn something new. We might prove similar layouts work fine. or maybe not, eg, the extra plumbing required. at least we would be more informed, ready to answer this type of question.

    In the broader picture, ppl regularly wonder if women would design buildings or cities differently. I swear we might not have skyscrapers, and then voila, Jeanne Gang does the Aqua Tower. and who does sleek, shiny ships better than Zaha Hadid? distinctly a teenage boy’s design dream. this week, someone said women would never focus on the mobile techno-city – which is my current research project. there’s no typecasting us.

    So… looking at something that is naturally gendered like public rr’s gives us a chance to explore on a specific function and scale. not some grand scheme like “cities” or towers. its small and distinct. we might learn something particular that can be theorized.

    In practice, I never want to divvy up by gender. Plus I would seriously miss hearing time and again what lousy shots men are. If I had a nickel…

  3. I’ve often thought you would enjoy the architecture of my office — including the bathrooms. Now that my phone has a better camera, I’ll attempt to get some shots for you to dissect.

    All the bathrooms at this location have these terrific cast concrete wave sinks, lovely big mirrors, and motion generated towel dispensers. The stalls have wooden slatted doors, and are built generally four to a side with solid walls far right and left, so there’s little “play” in the walls. The urinals have motion activated flushes, and all women’s rooms have dispensers with free tampons and pads.

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