Frederick Fisher and Partners Frederick Fisher and Partners

Reconsidering the Restroom: Opportunities of the Single Stall Public Restroom

Join FF&P’s own Jake Lazere at this year’s AIA Conference on Architecture in New York City on Saturday, June 23 at 4:00pm as he provides socio/political/personal context for designing today’s restrooms as well as explore projects that have utilized this strategy to make extraordinary spaces.

Location: Hilton Midtown, 1335 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10019
More information HERE

If you are not able to attend, learn about this important topic below and share it.

Reconsidering the Restroom: Opportunities of the Single Stall Public Restroom

Author: Jake Lazere, Associate AIA, Frederick Fisher and Partners

Tongva Park in Santa Monica from above.

Meandering along the curving paths nestled into the hills of Santa Monica’s Tongva Park, designed by James Corner Field Operations with Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects, one encounters various garden ‘eddies’ within the landscape.  While most offer moments of serenity and pause, one of these opens into a wide passage connecting one path to another under a landscaped hill.  This is Tongva Park’s public restroom—an eighteen-foot-wide by forty-foot-long breezeway flanked by toilet partitions and a trough sink on each side.  Though a partial-height, wooden screen divides the ‘comfort station’ into two areas, little beyond door signage and color divides this space.

The restroom at Tongva Park

The Tongva Park restroom is one of several single stall public restrooms that Frederick Fisher and Partners (FF&P) has recently completed.  Single stall restrooms are a group of individual toilet compartments available to all users, regardless of gender, with sinks either inside them or in common handwashing areas. Each of these projects explores the opportunities of single stall restrooms as an alternative to conventional sex-specific, multi-user restrooms.

In keeping with the core values of FF&P’s Southern California-based practice, the comfort station’s architecture makes little distinction between indoor and outdoor living.

A section of Tongva Park’s comfort station.

The openness of Tongva Park’s restroom was not intended to make a political statement; rather, it was an attempt to integrate the facility more fluidly into its surrounding landscape.  In keeping with the core values of FF&P’s Southern California-based practice, the restroom’s architecture makes little distinction between indoor and outdoor.  Individual toilet compartments and communal sink areas are open to nature on three sides – including a large, square opening to the sky above.  Natural light illuminates the restroom from multiple directions. The space’s porosity also takes advantage of its location one block from the Pacific Ocean, enabling the coastal breeze to provide continuous natural ventilation—an issue Project Manager John Berley notes as one of the biggest challenges in restroom design.   

A single stall restroom is an aggregation of individual toilet compartments available to all users. The sinks are either located in the toilet compartments themselves or in a common space. Traditional restrooms are two sex-specific, multi-user enclosed rooms.

The restroom’s open plan also addresses another important issue for the City of Santa Monica: security.  Karen Ginsberg, Director of Community and Cultural Services, explains that given Santa Monica’s large homeless population, people have recently come to feel that enclosed public restrooms invite loitering and other illegal activities, but “public restrooms with individual stalls and common sinks provide privacy for patrons.”  The stalls offer more privacy than a typical toilet partition; they have solid walls, are eight feet tall, and have minimal gaps at the base of the door. Outside of the private toilet stalls, the visibility of the common sinks to the rest of the park prevents illicit activities from occuring. 

The porosity of Tongva Park’s Comfort Station contributes to its daylighting, ventilation, and perceived safety.

In keeping with the core values of FF&P’s Southern California-based practice, the comfort station’s architecture makes little distinction between indoor and outdoor living.  – Karen Ginsberg

Three design iterations depict the restrooms’ transformation from traditional sex-specific, multi-user restrooms with their own respective entrances (A) to the built design’s single stall restroom with a common sink area (C).

According to Ginsberg, when the city of Santa Monica first began implementing more open designs for its public restrooms approximately fifteen years ago, the idea of single stall restrooms replacing sex-specific, multi-user toilet rooms initially faced opposition, particularly from mothers with young children who were concerned for their children’s safety.  Since then, however, general opinion in the progressive city has shifted.  Current restroom projects like Clover Park are designed as single stall restrooms, a decision that both demonstrates the shift in local public opinion and follows the lead of the State of California, which implemented Assembly Bill 1732 on March 1, 2017, requiring all single-occupancy public restrooms statewide to be all-gender.

Assembly Bill 1732 was authored by Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, who commented that with the bill’s passage, “California is charting a new course for equality. Restricting access to single-user restrooms by gender defies common sense and disproportionately burdens the LGBT community, women, and parents or caretakers of dependents of the opposite gender.” The City of Santa Monica has worked with Scott Turner Schofield, consultant and educator on transgender issues, on ensuring equal access at several of their existing facilities. The Manager of Santa Monica’s Annenberg Community Beach House, Nan Friedman, explains that “he is looking into the the current ‘policy, customer service, and signage’ for the existing facilities to get ahead of any issues, to be as prepared as we can from a customer service standpoint, as well as to consider any architectural changes.”

The showers at the Annenberg Beach House are open to the changing area.

The design of the Beach House by Frederick Fisher and Partners was initiated in 2005, before the office began exploring the benefits of the single stall restroom or looking into opportunities for making changing rooms more private for their individual users. The Beach House currently offers two restroom areas servicing the outdoor recreational spaces – one servicing the beach, playground, and café, and the other with changing rooms by the pool. Both spaces are open air and accessed from outside. Both spaces are sex-specific, multi-user rooms. Project Manager John Berley notes that at the time, “we treated the changing rooms like typical lockers rooms” – rooms with open showers connected to open changing areas. Not only has the lack of privacy in the changing rooms deterred individuals from using the public showers, the gender-designations of each room have become a customer service challenge. There have mostly been complaints about the children of opposite sex parents in changing rooms.

Plan of the sex-specific changing rooms at the Annenberg Community Beach House. The family changing room currently does not include a shower.

Scott Turner Schofield hopes to work with the city Santa Monica to “create a culture within each space where everyone is respectful of all its users.” His experience working with institutions on diversity education began in college when he transitioned from woman to man. At the time, his alma mater, Emory University, had no policies in place on how to accommodate and support Schofield’s transition and its implications on his day-to-day life on campus. His work has since contributed to policies at numerous universities and businesses. For Santa Monica’s public facilities, he is currently working on creating a policy around appropriate behavior in changing rooms, training the facility’s staff on how to implement the policy, and helping them to expand their family bathroom to include a shower for those seeking a private changing experience. Scott notes that unless the architecture is different, his work will primarily revolve around signage, policy, and training on appropriate customer service, so that occupants “can inhabit the provided spaces and not have to think too much about it.”

The restroom acts as one stop along an architectural promenade.

“ to create a culture within each space where everyone is respectful of all its users.”  – Scott Turner Schofield

Schofield previously worked with a large theater with two small, sex-specific restrooms that were overwhelmed by crowds at intermission. He suggested to remove the gender designation from the restrooms to enable a quicker flow for its users. One line for 6 plumbing fixtures moves faster than two lines for only 2-4 plumbing fixtures. The result was a change in signage. Since the men’s room had urinals, the signs on each room indicate which plumbing fixtures are inside with a new sign in between reading “all bodies welcome”. Those who do not want to use the room with urinals do not have to, but everyone is welcome to use any fixture. 

(top) before; (bottom) after. A minor renovation to the Annenberg Community Beach House’s public restrooms would convert them from sex-specific restrooms to single stall restrooms.

Despite this clever semiotic shift, Schofield’s anecdote confirms FF&P’s current intent to consider such circumstances during the initial phases of a spaces’ design. We at Frederick Fisher and Partners hope the Beach House will be able to amend its current restrooms that services the cafe, playground, and beach by removing the exterior partition between the men’s and women’s restrooms, converting the facility into single stalls. This would accommodate the large number beach-time users by offering two way of entering and exiting the restroom, more fixtures per individual, and more wheelchair accessible stalls for each user who requires one.

As opposed to sex-specific restroom rooms, single-stall restrooms present the opportunity to design more porous spaces, which helps improve circulation. Frederick Fisher and Partners has explored how single stall restrooms can improve the ‘flow’ of groups at educational and cultural institutions. Path of travel for a public restroom has individual toilet compartments on either side with a common sink area between. For the school tours that use this restroom, boys and girls form a single queue, enter the structure, use the first available toilet stall, rejoin his or her classmates at the central sinks to wash their hands together, and then proceed beyond to join a teacher or chaperone for the rest of the tour. FF&P’s work with cultural and educational institutions has taught us that sex-specific, multi-user restrooms become essentially dead-end corridors that do not support queuing. Moreover, monitoring student behavior in these rooms becomes challenging because often teachers and chaperones are women, and no one is monitoring student behavior in the men’s restroom.

One concern clients have expressed about single stall restrooms is whether they increase the size of the restroom area. These restrooms often replace what was a urinal with a toilet compartment. The International Plumbing Code, however, requires the same amount of space between urinals (thirty inches) as the width of a minimum toilet compartment. And while less space is required in front of the urinal, they most often take up the same amount of space as a toilet compartment when laid out in a men’s restroom. A comparison of two FF&P restroom projects – a single stall restroom and a traditional restroom – shows that this single stall restroom is actually a smaller footprint than the sex-specific, multi-user restroom.

In addition to increasing efficiency, single stall public restrooms provide the opportunity to create spaces that communalize private rituals and bring people together. In general, we think fewer internal separations and boundaries make better environments in all types of spaces. Frederick Fisher notes the value of moving the more communal elements of restrooms like hand-washing “out of the deep, dark, cloistered corners into light, open spaces where serendipitous encounters can occur.”  

Fisher’s embrace of spatial and inter-personal connectivity, even in sites of what are conventionally private rituals, can be traced to his involvement in the 1970s with the art publication Wet: the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, founded by Leonard Koren.  Trained as an architect, Koren wrote that the “the closest correlative” to communalizing the act of bathing “could be the tea ceremonies of the Taoist and Buddhists, in which elaborate rituals have evolved around a daily act as commonplace in Eastern cultures as bathing and shoe-tying.” Observing Koren’s celebration of friends gathering in a spa to enjoy each other’s company and the sensory pleasure of immersion in water—a commonplace activity in other cultures—Fisher came to appreciate his attempts to “demystify and destigmatize bathing,” removing the ritual’s shameful connotations through humor and delight.  

An early cover of Wet Magazine, depicting Leonard Koren’s photography celebrating bathing.

“…the tea ceremonies of the Taoist and Buddhists, in which elaborate rituals have evolved around a daily act as commonplace in Eastern cultures as bathing and shoe-tying.  – Leonard Koren

The public restrooms Frederick Fisher and Partners designs are certainly not trying to de-privatize what happens behind the toilet partition; rather, to reconsider the notion of the public restroom as a ‘cloistered’ private room that isolates people. This means respecting individuals’ needs for privacy with individual toilet compartments, while simultaneously communalizing those rituals that can help bring people together like hand washing in a common space.

An outdoor teaching facility along an exterior corridor at Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences.

FF&P completed a restroom facility in 2015 with common sinks for a new science education building at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica.  Given the area’s mild climate, circulation within the science building occurs outside.  The building’s wide exterior corridors are programmed as collaborative spaces, such as outdoor teaching facilities and flexible gathering spaces. 

The hand washing station at the restroom at Crossroads School of Arts and Sciences
Plan of the restrooms in Crossroads School of Arts and Sciences’ new science building

Located on the second floor, the building’s main restroom operates in part as just another open, exterior space.  To access the toilet compartments, students first pass through a communal hand washing area that is minimally separated from the adjacent walkway.  Past the hand washing area are two rows of full-height, private, all-gender toilet compartments.

A progressive school with an active LGBTQ student organization called the “Pride Club,” Crossroads has in fact decided as an institution to remove gender designations from all its restroom facilities.  Crossroads student Eli Offer has observed that the lack of gender designation was “originally a little weird and people thought one side would become gendered, but that wasn’t the case.” Now, he says, “after class everyone visits the restroom together.  It’s something you do with your friends—you don’t have to separate.”  Regarding the restroom in the new science building, Head of School Bob Riddle confirms that not only did the school not “face any institutional challenges to installing all-gender restrooms in the Science Education & Research Facility, but the only opinions heard have been positive.”

“After class everyone visits the restroom together.  It’s something you do with your friends—you don’t have to separate.”  – Eli Offer

These restroom projects by FF&P detail creative uses of space that are made possible by designing single-stall restrooms instead of sex-specific, multi-user restrooms. They provide opportunities to connect people with their exterior environments, improve efficiency and flow, increase safety, and communalize social rituals. These restrooms offer flexibility – both in terms of spatial design and also for different users. With them, parents with children of the opposite sex, caretakers of the elderly of the opposite sex as well as transgender and gender non-conforming individuals do not need to think about which is the appropriate room for them and their families.

Theorist Judith Butler advocates “not to celebrate difference as such, but to establish more inclusive conditions for sheltering and maintaining life that resists models of assimilation.” FF&P explores this idea through its designs.  Fisher himself often references the concept of ‘loose fit, long life.’  In other words, architecture that is flexible and allows for change—whether in terms of function, character, or plumbing—has a better chance of withstanding the test of time.  Focusing on the individual user and not specifying specific user groups, single stall restrooms provide a loose fit for our diverse and rapidly evolving culture and therefore have a better chance of having a long lifespan.

“not to celebrate difference as such but to establish more inclusive conditions for sheltering and maintaining life that resists models of assimilation”  – Judith Butler

We at Frederick Fisher and Partners believe that no space should ever cause people to feel anxiety or exclusion; rather, good design should bring people together, give them access to light and air, and embrace the functions of everyday life.  Ultimately, we believe that life should be improved through architecture – even in the restroom.