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…

Guest Post: The Future I’m Trying To Change

This is a guest article from Laura Moore. If you would like to write a guest post for our blog, please get in touch with Charlotte Jones, our Research Associate.

Picture this, you’re out with your beautiful kids enjoying your weekend, maybe visiting a café or having lunch in a restaurant, watching a movie at the local Imax, maybe doing some shopping, you get the idea. You’re tired, they’re whining, and at some point during the day you and they are probably going to need to visit the toilet – we all need to pee!  So you take your kids and pile into the nearest restroom. Next to you in the queue is another Mum, this Mum is also tired and fed up, she’s also had a hard day and next to her is her equally beautiful kid, but her kid is in a wheelchair.  You feel a bit sorry for her and try not to make eye contact in case she tries to talk to you. You take your kids into the cubicle, help them use the toilet, pull their pants up, make them wash their hands and then you leave.

The other Mum is still there, she’s struggling, she’s heartbroken because her son, who is the same age as yours, can’t stand up, he can’t even sit up. She needs to help him go to the toilet so she pushes his bulky wheelchair into the tiny disabled toilet you just walked past.

She shuts the door behind her and squeezes in next to it. And then, as she does every time her son needs the toilet, she tries to wrack her brains for an ingenious way to make this easier but right here in this toilet, there isn’t one.

So she braces herself to have her heart broken just a little bit more. She takes a mat out of her bag and puts it on the floor before she struggles to lift her son from his wheelchair and lower him onto the mat.

The mat that is on the toilet floor.

The toilet floor that scientists say has 77,000 germs and viruses.

The toilet floor that she can see is dirty, has pee splashed on it as well as muddy footprints and some soggy toilet roll.

The toilet floor that she wouldn’t lie on and wishes more than anything that her son didn’t have to lie on either.

But she has no choice, her son can’t stand up, he can’t even sit up. He can only lie down.  He’s 7, he doesn’t fit on a baby changing table – he’s too tall and too heavy.

So he has to lie on that toilet floor so she can remove his nappy and lift him onto the toilet. She has to kneel on that floor in her only comfy jeans, the ones she has to wash every time she takes her son out because the knees are covered in thousands of germs.

He has to lie on that floor with all those germs and viruses despite his low immune system, something that is part of his disability. The immune system the doctors are very careful with, and that has led to numerous chest infections and hospitalisations throughout his life already.

She finishes dressing him, lifts him back into his wheelchair. Her back is aching from lifting 3 ½ stone of dead weight but she’s used to it.  She knows one day she won’t be able to lift him anymore and then he won’t have the luxury of being able to use a toilet, he will have no choice but to sit in his own mess the whole time they’re out.

Not like your kids who can use any public toilet they need.

She folds the mat and puts it back in her bag, along with numerous germs and viruses that are now going to come home with her.

You’ve probably forgotten about your visit to the toilets already, it’s an irrelevant part of your day. But for that other Mum it’s been the most stressful part of their outing so far, and one she knows she will have to repeat in a few hours unless she cuts their day short and goes home.  Or decides to use the back of their van in the carpark instead, with the door open and her precious son in full view of everyone.  It’s a traumatic part of every outing which is only going to get worse as her son gets older, bigger, and heavier.

That other Mum is me.

My son is William.

He is 7, he has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and is one of the happiest and funniest boys you’ll ever meet.

He wishes he didn’t have to lie on that dirty mat on that dirty floor with soggy toilet paper at his eye level.

He’s my baby, my precious little boy who makes me smile every day and who right now I am hoping doesn’t get covered in sewage if, God forbid, the toilet started to over flow now that I’ve flushed it.

Before William was born it never occurred to me that this was an issue; that over ½ million people have this struggle every time they need the toilet. Why would it? It didn’t affect me, or anyone I loved.

Now it does.

Now I know the importance of Changing Places & Space to Change toilets and that’s why I want the law to change to provide them everywhere.

I want my son and thousands of other people to have the luxury of using a toilet wherever they are visiting, just like yours do, without having to lie on a toilet floor.

Imagine your son or daughter, they’re a teenager visiting the cinema or a pub with their friends, they need the toilet and have to lie on a toilet floor, in the clothes they picked out especially for their evening out – they’d be heartbroken and you would too.

Please sign the petition, share this information, tell people about our struggles and help us change this for all of us. We are all only one accident away from having to lie on a toilet floor ourselves.

Read and sign the petition here.

[This article was also published on the Selfish Mother site here]

 

Guest Post: Changing Places change lives

This is a guest article from Gillian Scotford and Jane Carver, Accessible Derbyshire. If you would like to write a guest post for our blog, please get in touch with Charlotte Jones, our Research Associate.

‘Champagne’, ‘caviar’ and ‘chocolate’…… there are some words in the English language that evoke images of glamour, pleasure and indulgence – and some that don’t, like ‘ironing’, ‘parking-ticket’ and ‘piles’ (but that’s enough about our weekend….) Another of these is the phrase ‘public toilet’. I mean who wants to think about some grubby, cold, echoing, ceramic cave with mucky soap, no bog roll, smelling of stale urine and adorned with muddy footprints? (Sorry local councils – I know they’re not all like that but you see our point)

Yet these ordinary, mundane, sometimes unpleasant experiences are a more common part of most of our lives than the sophisticated treats we like to think about. And for some people, having the right public toilet provision is the difference between enjoying all that Derbyshire and the Peak District has to offer and not going out at all.

Okay: toilets are boring, toilets aren’t fun and you have better things to do with your time than read about them: like unblocking the sink – but bear with us.

For some people a standard toilet, even a disabled toilet, doesn’t meet their needs. People who are unable to weight-bear, people with a learning disability or those with continence problems need something more. We speak from experience, both having a child who needs additional provision. ‘Baby changing’ facilities and the back seats of cars are soon out-grown and, as we discovered, the only alternatives are to stay at home or to change those we care for on a public toilet floor: something which is unpleasant, unhygienic, undignified and surely unacceptable in the 21st century?

But there is a solution: a Changing Places toilet is a large, hygienic space with a height-adjustable changing bench, a hoist, a loo and a sink. Thanks to local campaigning there are now a number of these toilets across Derbyshire plus a mobile Changing Place unit available to hire from Derbyshire County Council. There are also over 600 Changing Places nationwide.

Changing Places are not just toilets: they are the key to a world of opportunity for some of the most vulnerable and deserving people in our community. What matters now is that more people are made aware of the need for them, that more are provided and that the people who do need them have the knowledge and confidence to get out there and use them.

So now you’ve read this article, tell everyone! If you are a decision-maker or planner for one of our councils make Changing Places happen! If you are a local business go the extra mile and provide one of these special facilities in addition to a standard accessible toilet: don’t just settle for ‘bog standard’ and if you are the parent or carer of someone who needs to be changed when they are out then Changing Places are for YOU and the person you care for so USE THEM.

Changing Places change lives!

Okay, now you can unblock the sink………

(To find out more about Changing Places visit www.accesiblederbyshire.org, www.derbyshire.gov.uk/changingplaces  or www.changing-places.org )

Gillian Scotford and Jane Carver
Founders
Accessible Derbyshire

Accessible Derbyshire
One life: live it!
www.accessiblederbyshire.org
Twitter: @AccessibleDS
Charities no.1155675

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!