Inconvenience: we need more loos in theatres
November 21, 2018 \ Arts & Culture
by Nicola Walls
Yesterday at lunchtime I found myself in a recording studio at BBC Scotland taking part in a discussion with radio presenter John Beattie about ladies’ toilets – or rather the lack of them – in assembly buildings. You can listen again here.
This discussion had been prompted by a takeover of the male toilets by women at Murrayfield at the rugby international match on Saturday. A single complaint had snowballed into a barrage on social media about the lack of facilities that had caught the attention of the BBC.
The term ‘pee parity’ aptly summed up the focus of the discussion, and I was there to offer a professional opinion and explanation as to how buildings are designed.
When Page\Park received the phone call about contributing to this conversation, I was very happy to oblige as this is a subject which I wrestle with constantly when working on theatre buildings and I am acutely aware that the most frequent complaint at venues is the interval queue at the ladies’ loo.
So how does this problem arise and what can we (architects and venue operators) do about it?
The Scottish building regulations and British Standard BS 6445 prescribe the calculations necessary to work out numbers of toilet facilities. Whilst the BS offers some guidance for concert halls and theatres – assuming that audiences are 60% female and 40% male – there is no guidance for sports stadia beyond calculating provision on the ‘normal ratio’ of male / female spectators. Hence architects will frequently work on the basis of a 50 / 50 split, which does not take in the factor that women take longer to use the facilities than men. Nor that there are increasing numbers of women in attendance at rugby matches!
Theatre surveys show that audiences are usually 70% female, so designing to the guidance ensures that there is an under-provision of ladies’ loos, leading to that well-known frustration of spending the interval in a queue.
In a society striving for equality and inclusivity, we need to have open discussions with our clients and user groups about our attitude towards sharing facilities which is quite common abroad. In our practice we see gender neutral toilet facilities are on the rise in our higher education and arts projects, however these do generally demand more space (and hence an increase in cost) and can raise issues around safeguarding. Certainly, many arts venues are re-badging their facilities as being available to all, using pictograms to clearly show what is provided and therefore allowing users to make their own choice.
It should be incumbent on existing venue operators to understand the make-up of their audience or spectators, which may well vary for different types of events, as having this data will then allow rational decisions to be made on toilet provision rather than just falling back on statutory guidance. This analysis is something that can be done even if physical change cannot be addressed in the short term, sending a clear message of positive commitment to improvement and change.
As architects we must give these important areas of our assembly buildings the attention they deserve – carefully thinking through all our decisions and the impact these may have. For instance, the current trend for concealed hand driers behind mirrors over a basin affects the speed of hand washing and drying and hence how quickly people can move through a facility, and I would therefore argue this detail is not appropriate for use in assembly buildings where there is concentrated usage over a short period of time.
We should push our clients to provide more toilet facilities than the current guidance, certainly within building types where we know that the 50 / 50 or even 60 / 40 split is not appropriate. We do need to acknowledge spatial challenges when working in an existing building, but when looking at refurbishing might a solution be to simply switch the male and female toilets?
The call for ‘pee parity’ is undoubtedly growing. In the theatre sector the Theatres Trust launched its ‘Spend a Penny’ fund in 2016 specifically targeted at helping theatres improve their female toilets. And just last week Joanne Lumley, amongst other celebrities, launched the ‘More Loos’ campaign to provide better female facilities at the Old Vic Theatre, to improve on its woefully inadequate 10 cubicles for this 1000 seat theatre.
Change is coming – but definitely needs to speed up. Just like that queue for the loo!
Image: Part plan of WC’s at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness.