Over the last few months, one of the most banal architectural spaces—the public restroom—has been at the forefront of a national civil rights debate. In late March, North Carolina passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (also known as House Bill 2) requiring that in public buildings, people use restroom and changing facilities that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificate, not their gender identity. The bill was approved in fewer than 12 hours.

The backlash was just as swift. PayPal abandoned plans for an expansion into North Carolina. Companies including Apple, Google, and American Express followed. Bruce Springsteen canceled a Greensboro performance. The Justice Department sued the State of North Carolina. Even the AIA South Atlantic Region—comprising Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina—jumped into the fray, relocating its triennial conference from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Savannah.

“This action by the North Carolina legislature was in direct opposition to the values we as a professional organization have adopted,” says AIA regional representative Steven Schuster.

Conservative lawmakers cited restroom safety as the rationale behind HB2. But opponents to the measure say such rulings put the LGBT community—a group that already suffers a disproportionate amount of physical and sexual violence—at serious risk. And after the massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando this month, the issue is sure to be the object of renewed focus.

Architects have a critical role in the future of this discussion. While design can never entirely address the pervasive societal biases LGBT individuals face, designers can employ strategic solutions to help ensure access to equal and safe facilities.

One good example of this approach is a new house of worship for Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in Midtown Manhattan (RECORD, May 2016,). “The design of restrooms is something we take for granted. It’s just sort of automatic—you lay it out and you do it,” says the architect, Stephen Cassell, one of the principals of the firm Architecture Research Office (ARO). It was important to the rabbi and the congregation that the facilities have gender-neutral restrooms. The design of such a restroom was a new undertaking for ARO. But, says Cassell, “Like everything else, it was really about engaging a specific community.” Through dis­cussions with congregants, the architects executed a design with separate stalls, full floor-to-ceiling partitions, acoustically sound doors, and a shared sink space. 

But building codes can be a roadblock for these sorts of designs. Most states and municipalities adopt regulations based on those put forth by the International Code Council (ICC). New York’s plumbing code, for instance, says that “where plumbing fixtures are required, separate facilities shall be provided for each sex” and in equal number, save structures where the total number of employees or customers is 30 or fewer. Designs that deviate from this set of guidelines must get approval from the Department of Buildings. Though ARO’s variance received a stamp of approval from a city inspector, Cassell said the process was time-­consuming.

Some say providing “family-style” auxiliary restrooms that have single-user stalls and their own sink alongside multistall restrooms for men and women could bridge both sides of the gender-neutral restroom debate. But this design solution is only a stopgap, argues David Cordell, a technical coordinator and sustainability leader at Perkins + Will. Writing on the firm’s blog, Cordell said the strategy “potentially singles transgender people out, increasing the likelihood of harassment.” He cites Perkins + Will’s Whitman-Walker health center in Washington, D.C., a clinic that provides HIV care. The team incorporated all-single-occupant restrooms across the seven-story facility, while still managing to achieve the fixture counts required by the code.

Advocates are proposing changes to the plumbing code to make such modifications easier. Last year, the AIA successfully introduced a change to the ICC that would allow the specification of single-user restrooms to satisfy all of a building’s required toilet facilities, in lieu of separate-sex restrooms. This will be implemented as part of the 2018 International Plumbing Code (which is updated every three years). While it would expedite the process, it would ultimately be up to individual states and municipalities whether or not to adopt them. The development process for the 2021 codes begins in January 2018.

In the meantime, says Cassell, architects need to begin actively reconsidering the way they design restrooms. “When you fall into a series of defaults, you don’t question the underlying assumptions,” he says. “Good design comes from questioning those assumptions.”