Servicing Utopia’s first architect workshop: reflections, questions & ways forward

The team delivered its first workshop aimed at architects in professional practices, visiting Bond Bryan at their Church Studio offices in Sheffield. The workshop title was Toilets: Rethinking Accessible Architecture and was open to architects as part of their CPD (Continual Professional Development) training. We had four architects on the day: two architectural technicians, a Part One student at the firm, and a Part Two architectural assistant. All four were involved in some way in the design of educational buildings (from secondary schools to university buildings), housing and retail. One of our attendees admitted to a slight trepidation at going to anything with ‘toilets’ in the title, although this person cheerfully added that CPDs were usually about ‘boring wall partitions’ and at least this one sounded more ‘interesting’.

Lisa began by giving a brief overview of the ‘Servicing Utopia’ project, and its central aim of rethinking accessible toilet architecture as part of a broadening of ideas around access. What happens, she asked, if you put people’s experience before design standards? Lisa then outlined the ongoing development of the digital ‘toilet toolkit’ and invited the architects to help in the design by responding to the question: ‘What are some of the obstacles facing you in the design process when it comes to issues of accessibility?’

workshop3

[Image: A large table covered with sheets of paper, toilet drawings, magazines, drinks. People sitting at the table fit into the edges of the image.]

We then divided into two smaller groups, led by Jessica from Sheffield’s Live Project, and MA Architecture student Niki, both of whom are in the process of designing the toolkit. Each group looked at two of the project launch ‘scenario’ cards, which raise questions of access in relation to issues of disability, gender and caring, and were asked to sketch a design response to these ‘case-studies’. Many of them sketched floor plans, for the most part taking a pragmatic approach to issues of safety and security.

An animated and wide-ranging discussion followed which highlighted the possibilities and constraints of architectural design as seen from the perspective of those who plan the built environment. What follows are some bullet-points or key insights from the lively discussion.

** Please note: the following bullet points are comments or questions raised by participant architects at the meeting and do not necessarily reflect the views of the project team and its participants. **

  • Disabled toilets are generally taken into account as being more broadly accessible spaces by architects, even if they are just labelled ‘disabled’. As one participant put it: ‘There’s a misconception that disabled toilets are just for disabled people. But “Disabled” caters for everyone’. Another person added that they viewed it as being a little bit like Priority Seating on a bus: disabled toilets cater for everyone, but there should be priority access for those who need it most.

  • A recurring feature of the conversation was a distinct pragmatism about space and money. ‘We get space allocation for things and then it has to be done that way’, was a typical response. The financial implications of designing for ‘utopia’ was another common theme. One response to an innovative design proposal was: ‘That’s great in an ideal world. But we are never afforded the luxury of enough space.’ In relation to the matter of school toilets, another participant commented: ‘Toilets [in school settings] are usually made to the absolute minimum and you do it to the lowest cost’.

  • School toilets were something of a recurring theme across the course of the hour. And it seemed that this was not just because of the architects’ experiences designing for these settings, but because – as so often is the case – school toilets emerged as a charged environment where many of the anxieties, dangers and problems regarding toilet provision are seen to intersect. One architect had designed a unisex toilet for a school, but this had to be retrofitted – that is altered, or parts added – following parental complaints.  The participant added, however, that there were other, relevant issues perceived to be relevant to this decision, including so-called ‘antisocial behaviour’ within the school. We learned that architects have to plan around ‘dark zones’ (places which can’t be surveilled, and are therefore areas in which bullying can take place) and a new-ish and very twenty-first century problem: camera phones. The latter was said to be the biggest single issue facing architects in school toilet design where, as one of them put it, the absolute priority ‘would always be safeguarding the children’. Hence the increasing popularity of full-height cubicle partitions with reduced gaps at the bottom to prevent phones from being slipped under or over the partitions. The overall impression was that designing for school toilets involves an intrepid negotiation between providing open spaces and visibility – to prevent bullying – as well ensuring means of invisibility and privacy. Small wonder that the school toilet continues to provide a memorable setting for teen angst in film, from Carrie, to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to last year’s The Falling… One participant summed it up by saying: ‘School toilets – they’re a minefield!’

  • A distinct pragmatism underscored the discussions. From this hour-long session, we learned that architects are inspired by innovation and willing to adapt designs as long as these provisions are communicated to them early on in the design process. But the general advice was that they follow British Standard guidelines on building regulations and signage: ‘These are the people you need to be talking to if you want to see any form of change’. If briefs don’t conform to building regs, they told us, architects won’t do it.

  • Another recurring theme was the idea that, ‘You can’t cater for everyone…you just can’t.’ Participants were particularly vocal about this in relation to questions of cultural difference (including faith and religion), and also perceived ‘anti-social’ uses of toilets. In relation to a scenario card concerning a homeless person’s use of public toilets, the response was that these things ‘can’t be dealt with through toilet design’ – they are about wider issues of welfare, housing and public health. The implication was that the public toilet – that touchstone of cultural concerns and anxieties since Victorian times – might well flag up key social problems, but these can’t be effectively remedied through architectural design. Which brings us back to a wider research question: does the built environment reflect or produce social tensions?

In all, it was a lively, interesting discussion, proving yet again how what Barbara Penner terms ‘humble things’ and places can provoke musings on emotions, bully

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[Image: Five people sitting at a table and one person standing near a door. Some people are using pens to draw on paper, others look thoughtful.]

ing, parenting, economics, childhoods, social justice. I wonder how many CPDs manage that in an hour? The written feedback we received suggests that the architects found the workshop enlightening and useful, particularly in highlighting the range of questions involved and the importance of thinking more about the ‘flexibility of the toilet to cater for a wide range of needs’.  One participant wrote: ‘It’s opened my mind to the fact that toilets should have just as much thoughtful design as the other spaces in a building.’

For our part, we continue to explore and interrogate the role of creativity, utopia and design in a world of regulations, briefs, deadlines and existing protocols. How to make these co-exist in meaningful and accessible ways continues to drive the project forwards…

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