SALT LAKE CITY — Renovation plans for the historic Sprague Library in Sugar House include a modern feature that might be a first for a public building in Utah: a restroom for anyone and everyone.
Called an all-gender, multiuser restroom or universal washroom, the design does not include urinals, but private toilet rooms that are accessible from a shared sink space.
While gender neutral, single-user bathrooms have emerged on Utah college and high school campuses and other buildings, restrooms with a common area and floor-to-ceiling enclosed stalls haven’t found their way to the state.
"We’re at square one,” said Terry Kogan, a University of Utah law professor and one of the two or three leading scholars on public restroom law.
"Hopefully over the next while we will be seeing more examples of all-gender, multiuser restrooms, and when that happens and people begin to use them and see that they are safe places that are respectful of privacy, then the stereotype notions and prejudices will begin to collapse."
Potties are a serious issue for people like Kogan, who belongs to a group called Stalled! that takes as its point of departure the national debates around transgender access to public restrooms. The University of Utah formed a working group to look at "inclusive" restrooms after attending a Stalled! presentation.
The Sprague Library design — which some say is the wave of the future — might resolve gender identity concerns, but the bathroom issue overall is not without controversy.
States, cities, schools and other government entities have wrestled the past few years with how to accommodate everyone.
The Obama administration tried to ensure transgender people have access to the restroom of their choice. Utah was among 11 states that sued the administration over the directive. The Trump administration rescinded the guideline.
States have passed laws requiring people to use the bathroom matching the sex on their birth certificates and not their gender identity. Those laws were challenged in court. A bill in the Utah Legislature in 2014 aimed at ensuring students use the restroom assigned to the gender on their birth certificate didn't get a committee hearing.
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka called the Sprague restroom an interesting idea, but wonders how people would receive it.
"A lot of people wouldn't be comfortable going in there if they don't want to be in there with men and women together washing their hands and things," she said.
Ruzicka said the restroom could work if the library still has single-use private stalls for patrons, which it does according to the plans.
"For me personally, I'd probably feel uncomfortable," she said. "I'd rather find something more private (than) coming into a common area with men and women. That's not the toilet area, but you're still in the restroom."
'New and different'
The Sprague Library has moved to a design that, while common in Europe and emerging in the U.S., will apparently be novel in Utah.
"It’s nothing really new, but it is new and different to a lot of people who will be using it," said Jeff Davis, an architect with Arch Nexus, the firm working on the Sprague project.
The new restroom design is part of the $5 million renovation of the English Tudor-style building that opened in 1928. Flooding from heavy rainfail in the summer of 2017 that caused more than a $1 million in damage accelerated the remodeling. The project is scheduled go out for bids and take about a year to complete.
Salt Lake City library officials held public meetings, including with the Sugar House Community Council, about the renovation plans. A couple of questions about the bathroom design came up but "barely anybody blinked at it," said Peter Bromberg, Salt Lake City Public Library System executive director.
Bromberg listed cost savings, space limitations, inclusiveness, safety and privacy among the reasons for going to a universal washroom.
"We're making what should be private more private and what doesn't need to be private more public," he said. "By having more people and getting better sight lines in that area, that promotes safety and it promotes better access."
Bromberg said it's also legitimate that some library patrons might be uncomfortable and that's why the building will have other bathroom options.
"I don't think we're used to that mental model," he said of men and women sharing sinks. "Our minds tell us that's a private space because that's what we're used to."
The common area might also make the restroom more suitable for parents with young children. Rather than taking a child into the opposite gender bathroom or letting them go alone to a men's or women's room, a parent could wait next to or accompany a child in a private stall, Bromberg said.
Sprague lists a number for reasons for going to the new design:
• More open areas adjacent to stalls promote visibility and safety.
• Universal multistall designs meet a higher standard of privacy and comfort.
• Is inclusive and provides access for all, including families, caregivers, people with disabilities, and trans and nonbinary people.
• Eliminates the need for women’s stalls to outnumber men’s at certain ratios, to achieve "potty parity" — the equitable provision of toilet facilities for women and men within a public space.
• Traditional bathroom designs increase costs while reducing usable public space.
Wave of the future
The Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City, opposed the Obama mandate to schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identities.
But Derek Monson, Sutherland vice president for policy, applauded the Sprague Library for taking a community-driven approach.
"Whether it will work or not, I don't know. We'll wait and see," he said. "If it does work, that's great because it's an individual library trying to find a solution that works for its people and that's exactly how resolving issues of bathroom access and gender should happen."
Monson said he hopes the library's decision starts a "different kind of conversation" where government doesn't impose solutions but allows communities and organizations to figure out what works for the people they serve.
Davis, the architect, said those discussions are taking place as people work through changes in society.
"There are definite shifts in culture that are affecting the way we are looking at these things, he said.
Some clients, Davis said, want to move quickly, while others are taking it slowly by converting men's or women's single-occupancy restrooms to use for anyone.
"I think this is a shift and I think that more people are amenable to it because of the cultural changes in our society," he said. "But I know there are many concerns about it as well."
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said the trend toward gender-neutral, single-occupancy public restrooms helps transgender people. He said there's no need designate them as men's or women's.
But the Sprague design is the "wave of the future" that solves lots of problems, he said.
"Some advocates have used bathroom panic as way to really push back against recognizing and honoring transgender people in our state," Williams said. "With this kind of design, it kind of neutralizes their arguments against the trans community."
Laws in the U.S. did not address the issue of separating public restrooms by sex until the end of the 19th century, when Massachusetts became the first state to enact such a statute, according to Kogan's research. By 1920, more than 40 states had adopted similar legislation requiring that public restrooms be separated by sex.
Most states now adopt the International Building Code, a set of rules that govern construction in the U.S. The International Code Council — a group of about 900 building officials, architects, municipal leaders and construction executives — puts out model codes for various aspects of construction, including plumbing. The rules are updated every three years.
In 2016, the International Code Council adopted an amendment that single user restrooms be designated for use by either sex.
"That was the first major change,” Kogan said.
Last October, the council adopted a proposal by the American Institute of Architects allowing a building owner to put in all-gender, multiuser restrooms without having to get a variance from a building compliance officer.
“This is a major, major change,” Kogan said.
That provision will be included in the 2021 plumbing code. Utah just adopted the 2018 code in the most recent legislative session.
Utah government buildings currently require separate sex and unisex or family restrooms. Most restroom remodels don't require the state to add unisex restrooms, but they would be required for new construction and in larger renovations that include restrooms, according to Marilee Richins, Utah Department of Administrative Services director of operations.
Kogan said it's time for lawmakers to reconsider how public restrooms should be configured and designated. Maybe the time has come to consider a design in which no one will either feel or be made to feel out of place, he said.
"People don't have the sort of imagination or are not committed to the imagination of thinking about how could it be different," he said.
Kogan is a founding member of Stalled!, which, according to its website, formed in 2015 as a response to the "moral panic" triggered by lawsuits seeking to overturn the Obama administration's directive to public schools to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice.
In March 2018, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era guidelines and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Gavin Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board. The case is now headed to trial in the district court.
Grimm, a transgender boy in Virginia, challenged a policy from the Gloucester County School Board ordering him to use a single-stall restroom rather than the boys' restrooms at school. Grimm was born female but identifies as male.
In addition to Kogan, the Stalled! founders are Joel Saunders, a New York-based architect and Yale School of Architecture professor, and Susan Stryker, a trans activist and gender and women's studies professor at the University of Arizona. Kogan handles the legal work for the group, including writing a friend-of-the-court brief in the Grimm case.
Saunders has designed prototypes for Gallaudet University’s field house renovation and airports.
University of Utah
The University of Utah formed an "inclusive restroom planning group" after Stalled! made a presentation to the architecture school, which Robin Burr, U. chief design and construction officer,and her staff attended.
"We started to think about what can we do and what should we do, with the goal that all students feel safe and comfortable going to the restroom," she said.
That led to taking inventory and redesignating single-stall restrooms in campus buildings from men's or women's to all-gender. The LGBT resource center at the U. lists the locations on its website.
But all-gender, multiuser restrooms like the one planned for the Sprague Library are still down the road. Burr said a strict interpretation of the state building code would not allow the U. to build those kinds of bathrooms.
"We're not sure if it's time to do that," she said
The U., however, is planning for the future as buildings are remodeled and new ones are constructed.94 comments on this story
The school is asking that bathrooms be designed in a way that they could be converted to all-gender, multiuser restrooms. Architects would draw men's and women's bathrooms side by side with floor-to-ceiling stalls around an open area.
"If the world changed, and we were ready to try an all-gender, multistall restroom, we could simply remove a partition in the middle and we would have the continuous flow," Burr said.
"I think it would be a huge step for us," she said. "I'm not sure it's a step we're prepared to take in the near future."