Family restrooms overcome stalls

Family restrooms have started appearing in more public buildings. Will these restrooms one day lead to the elimination of gender-specific bathrooms?

Most states now require family restrooms, places where parents or caretakers can accompany members of the opposite sex who need help in the bathroom, in any new facilities, especially stadiums and parks.

At the 2006 World Toilet Expo and Forum in Bangkok, Thailand, restroom experts from far and wide gathered to discuss issues pertaining to toilet availability, safety and sanitation. With the theme “Happy Toilet, Healthy Life,” the expo showcased the latest toilet-related trends.

In addition to speeches on topics ranging from the Islamic perspective on public toilets to air hygiene in Singapore’s restrooms, there was also an update on the conditions of public restrooms in America.

Kathryn Anthony, professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed a growing public-toilet trend. Family restrooms, essentially unisex restrooms with amenities like space for doublewide strollers or an extra toilet, are becoming more popular amid concerns over child safety, an increasing elderly population and access for physically disabled people.

No one, not even the American Restroom Association, seems to have numbers for how many family restrooms there are in the U.S, but they “are finally increasing,” Anthony said.

“They are long overdue, and far more are needed.” Dollywood in Tennessee, Mall of America in St. Paul, Minnesota, and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago are just a few of the high-profile places that have installed family restrooms since 2000, she said.

Family-type restrooms are defined as facilities that more than one person can use at a time, according to Lynne Simnick, director of code development at the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials in Ontario, Calif. The IAPMO is one of three national organizations that write codes for restroom construction in the U.S. (The other two are the International Code Council and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association.)

Simnick said the Uniform Plumbing Code technically applies to unisex bathrooms. It’s up to the building owners whether to put in extra amenities like more toilets, extra sinks, changing tables and dressing areas that define the space as a family restroom.

“With most family restrooms, there are other things in that area,” Simnick said. “It’s all for the convenience of the user.”

For example, the family restrooms at the Market Place Mall in Champaign, Ill., have two toilets, one for adults and one for children, so they can use the bathroom at the same time, Anthony said. Those at O’Hare airport have only one toilet, but they have a seat attached to the wall for a parent or a caretaker to sit down, she said.

The family restrooms at the Great Lakes Crossing mall in Auburn Hills, Michigan have two baby-changing tables, multiple toilets, and sinks installed at different heights for adults and children.

“Every restroom location in the mall has next to it a family restroom,” said Becky Hopersberger, a mother of two young children who frequents the mall. “Many places may have a family restroom, but there might be only one for the entire facility.”

Hopersberger said she is more likely to go places that have a family restroom because of how much easier it makes things. “These restrooms allow me to keep my children with me, safe and supervised, without cramming them into a handicapped stall.”

Robert Brubaker, a spokesman for the American Restroom Association said family restrooms often go beyond parents’ need to assist small children in the bathroom. “I prefer the term ‘companion care,’ ” he said. “It’s not just parents and children, but husband and wives, who need assistance.”

So far, states haven’t mandated the change, although in 2000, the state of Missouri entertained the idea of writing legislation specifically calling for the construction of family restrooms.

The Missouri House of Representatives introduced legislation to require the construction of family restrooms in all new “public facilities such as sports stadiums, auditoriums, and shopping malls which are built after January 1, 2001.”

Supporters of the bill said the restrooms would make it easier for family members or caretakers to help others in the restroom and for parents or grandparents who need to take small children of the opposite sex into the bathroom.

“A constituent had a husband who was slightly incapacitated, and he needed assistance in the bathroom,” said Rep. Deleta Williams, who introduced the bill with former Rep. Chuck Graham. “He didn’t want to go in the ladies’ room, and his wife didn’t want to go in the gentlemen’s room.”

Then there’s the issue of child safety. “Kids get to the age where they are uncomfortable going into the bathroom of the opposite sex,” Williams said. “But they’re not old enough where you want to send them into a bathroom alone.”

The bill ultimately did not pass. At least, Williams said, her bill started a conversation in Missouri about the need for more family restrooms.

The nationwide popularity of family restrooms has also influenced bathroom-fixture manufacturers. Bradley Corp., of Menomonee Falls, Wis., a manufacturer and retailer of commercial plumbing fixtures and restroom accessories, has developed a multi-height “lavatory system” (also known as a sink) that accommodates users of all sizes, Bradley’s Web site said.

The setup incorporates a taller sink with a smaller one so parents and small children can wash their hands at the same sink at the same time.

The American Restroom Association’s Brubaker said he would one day like to see more unisex and fewer gender-based bathrooms. Specifically, he would like to see more family bathrooms, since most unisex bathrooms aren’t designed for more than one person.

“At most places, you get in trouble if you try to go into a single-stall unisex bathroom with another person,” he said. “Our organization tries to address the problems people face when trying to find a toilet when they go out. That’s what we’re all about.”