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Poor design or lack of consideration?

Diane Hall


Graphic background image of public bathroom interior with toilet stall taped off for social distancing and covid safety measures or out of order

I wrote an article a few months ago about it being very much a man’s world that we live in. From design to leadership, men predominantly dictate what the world does.

This post centres on toilets, of all things. As someone with an over-reliance on the loo (that’s a story you don’t need to hear), I have a thorough knowledge of the subject, and I often judge/score a town or venue on its ‘facilities’.

I visited Sheffield train station a couple of weeks ago. It’s a very busy site with five separate platforms, which are each divided into sub-platforms. Though there was the odd toilet on the platforms themselves, the main ladies’ loos in the thoroughfare, which houses a café and a bar, and which you can see hundreds, if not thousands, of people milling through each day, houses just four cubicles (one of which was out of order when I went, too).

I went into them as I arrived and later in the day as I caught my return train. Both times, there were huge queues backing up into the main part of the building, which wouldn’t have reduced much had the fourth loo been functional.

This is just one example of a lack of loos for the people needing them; I could list many, many more. One company that does do things right in this respect is Wetherspoons. Yes, the joke is universal that you may have to cover a lot of ground to actually get to the toilets in the huge buildings the company typically occupies, but I’ve never yet been to a branch (and I’ve visited many of them across the UK) that doesn’t have an abundance of cubicles for their female proprietors. If they can do it, even in some of the older, architecturally challenging buildings they own, too, there’s no reason why any other architect or designer couldn’t do the same everywhere else.

Out of order toilets with yellow caution tape over them

Out of order toilets with yellow caution tape over them

I don’t think the space is the issue, though. It’s that male designers just don’t appreciate how long it can take for a woman to use the loo. Men can get in and out of the loo quickly, more so if there are urinals installed; I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a queue for the men’s. Whatever the reason, it’s there…women take more time, and therefore, the cubicles in the female loos are blocked up for longer (I don’t really think women would champion a female version of the urinal); this causes a backlog and queues form.

Too many designers think ‘one cubicle, two urinals for the men; therefore, three cubicles for the women’, even in large venues, assuming that’s fair. It may be ‘fair’, but it’s about as practical as a chocolate fireguard in daily practice. Women should have more facilities than men when it comes to building design—it’s a simple supply and demand equation.

I know people who won’t leave the house if they feel they won’t have quick access to a toilet when they go out. This does tend to be women, whose bodies take a lot of hammer from giving birth, which can leave long-lasting physical issues. The result becomes a vicious circle between mind and body, because, when you can’t access a toilet, it’s all your mind thinks about!

I know it’s unglamorous and not cost-effective to use space that could earn revenue for more ladies’ cubicles, but I don’t think designers realise how many people simply don’t visit certain places if there’s a lack of toilet facilities. After all, how can you know who’s not there because of this issue? If they’re not in sight, they won’t be in mind. Well, you can learn through articles like this one—I’m telling you this is the case.

Everyone has to go ‘potty’—even the queen. You’d consider the water supply and heating system in a new building design to be priorities, to cover basic human need—so why does this fall down when it comes to toilet facilities? Why is Wetherspoons the only major company to understand this?

And that’s before you even touch on the subjects of baby changing spaces and disabled toilets. I haven’t even mentioned the desire for more gender-neutral toilets that the trans community is campaigning for.

Personally, I don’t care who’s been on the loo before me, as long as they’ve left it clean, and I can go!

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