Some years ago I had a conversation with Sara Fox - who was the client representative on 30 St Mary Axe, aka The Gherkin - about the design of lavatories. Since most of the Foster design team were blokes they had little experience of ladies' loos, so Sara gave them a CPD on long dresses and wet floors, how to deal with the different sorts of clothing that women wear, that there are rarely dry flat areas for women to put their handbags/briefcases on when they wash their hands etc etc.
Sara's concern about the user is something I often think about when I use men's loos. I have to admit that I have never been a fan of the sort of open trench style urinals that you find in a lot of pubs, or even the exposed bowls - some at children's height - that are the standard fare in most public buildings and offices in the Uk these days. I prefer a bit of privacy - a glazed screen or the tall curved urinals of the Victorian lav.
I always thought I was a bit of a wimp in this regard. Indeed when you google the topic there is plenty of boasting boy's talk about confident peeing anywhere.
However I have been noticing, when I use in the loos on the floor of the NLA office, that this is not typical. We have three urinals, without screens in a fairly cosy arrangement, and one stall with WC and I notice that almost without fail, if I am standing at one of the stalls and someone also comes in they will lock themselves in the stall rather than stand next to me, shoulder to shoulder.
So it got me wondering if those designing our lavatories are really thinking about the user - as Sara Fox did - or do they just do what is usually done? Or is cheapest?
This is clearly a cultural thing. I remember years ago staying at a Swedish youth hostel where even the sit down toilets had partitions that were only waist high. In the States, screens between urinals seem to be more prevalent. Watching people as they use public lavatories is something that might be misinterpreted but in the international forum that is the airport loo at Terminal 5 I have noticed the unpopularity of screenless urinals, the stalls are almost always full of people who, time and sound would suggest, are taking a pee - and wasting water.
These days wellbeing is top of the design agenda for offices, it seems to me that designers owe us wimps the luxury of relaxed and stress free peeing. The macho aspect of all this was driven home to me years ago when I went to visit the architect Gordon Graham, the President of the RIBA, in his Nottinghamshire office. Graham was a man's man, a stalwart of the local rugby club, a rugger bugger. When I asked the way to the bathroom he showed me and stood next to me as I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pee into a single WC that sat in the middle of a bathroom the size of a normal person's living room.
From the catalogues it would seem most of the available urinal dividers are minimal in the extreme, mere tokens of modesty. Interestingly one of the more enveloping is design by Philippe Starck - a good 705mm deep - as against Armitage Shanks semi-circular design that barely does the job.
Perhaps the industry needs to do a bit of research since my simple observations would suggest we haven’t got it right.
This article first appeared in On Office magazine
Peter Murray, commenting on London, architecture, cycling and cities