Servicing Utopia: An event summary

How might prioritizing people’s experiences present new ways of thinking about the design process of toilets? With this question as our starting point, on Monday 18th April we hosted a launch event for one of our new toilet projects, Servicing Utopia. The project is a continuation of previous research undertaken by the Around the Toilet team, which focused on the safety, comfort and accessibility of toilet spaces for queer, trans and disabled people. Servicing Utopia collaborates with planners, architects and designers to critically interrogate the toilet design process. These critical discussions will inform the design of a digital Toilet Toolkit to be used by architects and designers and a short film to promote the accessible design of toilet spaces.

At our launch event at The Art House in Sheffield, researchers from Servicing Utopia were joined by interested parties from a diverse range of backgrounds, including design, animation, social enterprise, research, architecture and toilet product manufacture. Following a buffet lunch on arrival, the event hosted a series of short presentations about issues of toilet access and a creative workshop led by Tom Gayler, a designer at the Royal College of Art. Dr Lisa Procter, lead researcher on Servicing Utopia, and Dr Jenny Slater, a co-researcher on the project, opened the event with a short talk about the background, aims and outputs of the project. Procter reminded us that toilets are complex and important spaces that require consideration and innovation beyond standard design templates.

Activist and artist, Gemma Nash, joined us next to discuss her experiences as a disabled parent. She spoke of the very public and visible feel of some baby-changing facilities, and how this has contributed to her anxieties around feeling judged and in need of proving herself. Nash also noted the lack of baby (and adult) changing facilities in many accessible toilets. She emphasised the importance of being able to locate accessible, private toilets with full changing facilities to allow disabled parents, who may be with personal assistants, to relax and take care of their children without judgment. Following Nash, we watched a short film of performer and writer, Ivan Coyote, giving a talk entitled ‘We all need a safe place to pee’ about their experiences of using toilets as someone who is non-binary. Coyote argued that they shouldn’t be asked to use the men’s toilet when they are not a man; using a toilet which matches your gender is not only important for safety issues, but also for users’ identity, comfort and personal wellbeing. Coyote noted, however, that it would not only be non-binary people who would benefit from gender neutral single-stall toilets, there are many others who also need the privacy, safety and accessibility of private and inclusive designs.

 

Later on, insights from these presentations informed a workshop led by Tom Gayler. Gayler provided six ‘toilet access’ scenarios for us to consider in small groups. The fictional scenarios were written based on the stories and experiences shared with Around the Toilet researchers in our workshops with queer, trans and disabled participants last year. They included a diverse range of issues related to inadequate toilet facilities, such as baby changing, gender policing, homelessness, locked accessible toilets, noisy hand-dryers, and the unavailability of hoists. We used these scenarios to develop a ‘user experience’ approach to toilet access, and consider the kinds of social and physical obstacles preventing different people from accessing the toilet spaces they need. We drew timelines for each toilet scenario and, using coloured string, we ‘mapped’ out how much influence various aspects of the toilet journey (e.g. signage, space, facilities and culture) has at each point of the experience. The visual mapping of the toilet scenarios led to some really useful, critical debates and analysis about access and exclusion.

 

  Servicing Utopia 0    Servicing Utopia 5    Servicing Utopia 1 [Image: Photos of long white pieces of paper with annotations and coloured ribbons stuck down in lines.]

Reflecting on these scenarios, Gayler asked us to reimagine Part M of the building regulations and think of two practical ideas to be implemented in the design of toilets, as well as one general point. Our groups came up with a lot of suggestions:

  • Private, gender neutral and accessible facilities need to be provided in all spaces

  • It should be assumed that everyone, regardless of gender and dis/ability, needs access to all facilities (e.g. urinals, sanitary bins, changing facilities)

  • We should maximise the use of toilet spaces. If one exists, don’t leave it locked (unless for a good reason)

  • Worthy design impacts on upkeep – innovative/interesting/safe spaces may be less likely to be treated badly

  • Incorporate the experiences of children in the design process

  • Re-think spatial hierarchies (i.e. sometimes more/better toilets should be prioritised over other options)

  • Consider other people’s positions and experiences in the design process, and do whatever you can do understand/learn about others

  • Question and challenge the idea of a ‘standard’ toilet user

  • Re-think narrow notions of what a toilet ‘should’ be

  • We can’t design away socio-cultural values – we need change beyond the built environment

  • Advertise accessible toilets accurately (e.g. if it’s permanently locked and unavailable to disabled people or used as storage then it’s not accessible)

  • Build private options for all facilities (washing included)

  • Toilet signs should be descriptive (telling you what is in there) rather than prescriptive (telling you who can go in there)

The useful and insightful discussions that have come from this event will contribute to the design of our Toilet Toolkit, which is due to be available from July 2016. Throughout May, we will also be joining architectural practices for further discussions around the experiences of toilet users in order to encourage a more critical understanding of issues of design and accessing toilet spaces. We would like to thank Gemma Nash and Tom Gayler for their excellent contributions to this event, and The Art House for their brilliant hospitality. More from Servicing Utopia coming soon!

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