The Last Space Designed

By Larry Lander

We love workplaces. The workplace, like a computer network, a desk, a pencil, or a phone, is a tool that helps a business deliver superior performance. Superior performance happens when people are engaged, energized and actually want to be there. And frankly, if the workplace doesn’t actually work, it really doesn’t matter how beautiful the space is. 

We define the workplace as all the individual spaces where people might work. People meet in meeting rooms or at stand-up counters or in a training room, or over a coffee. We spend a lot of time thinking about the effectiveness of all these spaces.

But clients don’t spend much time thinking about one particular space that everyone uses every day: The toilet room.  These days it’s getting a lot more attention with articles about bathroom debates and social media opinions that cover a broad spectrum. So now it’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind. This used to be someone else’s problem: the facilities department, the office manager, the landlord. And we’ve become so accustomed to this sad state, that the toilet rooms are often some of the most neglected spaces from an effectiveness perspective. They are designed with mops in mind, not people. They are not great spaces and they don’t contribute to the whole idea of A Great Place to Work. Or do they?

I once had a client who asked, only half-kiddingly, “Why do Americans feel the need to share so much about going to the bathroom?” He was complaining about the lack of privacy—particularly the (over)use of thin toilet partitions that never touch the ceiling or the floor. Or rickety stall doors that don’t afford much privacy and may not even close securely or privately. And privacy isn’t limited to what we see. We also have ears that can hear, we have hands that can touch, and we have a nose that smells. Why is our model so poor?

Maybe we ought to think about individual toilet rooms with four walls and door that can securely close. Maybe materials and colors that evoke a nicer environment. We have all experienced restrooms at a club, or a nice restaurant or a hotel.  Our bathrooms at home don’t look anything like what we have come to expect in an office building. So why not raise the bar?

A European model worth emulating is a series of private rooms that open into a common sink area. These can even be for either gender, with a common area for hand washing. Any surfaces we touch are rich materials. Valves, faucets, soap and towel dispensers can all be hands-free. Lighting should light faces not tops of heads. Individual framed mirrors can create a more residential or hospitality feel. And everyone likes a full-height mirror. Doors push open, not pull, and are part of a vestibule. Entrances are never off a primary corridor, but rather off a secondary corridor that leaves just a bit of mystery as to why anyone is walking that way. No personal workspace should be anywhere near a toilet room door and understand sightlines, how they work and where mirrors should be placed.

The goal is to bring the design of the lowly toilet room up to a standard of thoughtfulness that other spaces enjoy. Then we’ll truly be designing from the Inside Out.

Larry Lander

As a Principal with PDR, Larry is an expert in workplace strategy, programming and concept design. Since 1991, he has led design, planning and strategy teams on many of PDR’s most challenging and significant projects around the world including ExxonMobil’s new Houston campus, ConocoPhillips’ Houston headquarters, the redevelopment of Chevron’s Bellaire, Texas campus, and Eaton Corporation’s headquarters in Cleveland. His international assignments include significant workplace solutions for clients in Europe, South America and the Middle East.