Inspired by transgender bathroom debate, U-M holds conference on inclusive design

The University of Michigan Taubman (U-M) College of Architecture and Urban Planning hosted a symposium on inclusive design last week, harnessing public interest in recent debates about transgender people's use of public restrooms.


The symposium, called "Stalled!," ran Feb. 7-8. Taubman College partnered with the U-M Initiative on Disability Studies, the U-M Spectrum Center, and the U-M Women’s Studies department for the symposium. Speakers from Yale; the University of California, Berkeley; and the United Kingdom were also in attendance.


Adam Smith and Lisa Sauve, designers and owners of Ann Arbor design studio Synecdoche, also attended to talk about designing a gender-neutral bathroom for Nightcap bar, a first for the city of Ann Arbor.


Jonathan Massey, dean and professor at the Taubman College, says the symposium started with controversies around gendered bathrooms and transgender individuals because they're a concrete example of how design can be inclusive or not. But he says the topic was just a launching pad to "open up bigger conversations."


Massey says people with different gender identities and especially disabled people generate knowledge about cities and architecture by the creative methods they devise to get around.


"They're hacking the city," Massey says. "They have to come up with creative workarounds just to enjoy access to things other people take for granted."


For example, speaker Joel Sanders from Yale began working with a trans activist on gender-inclusive restrooms. But the pair quickly began to understand there were other challenges and opportunities for inclusion in restrooms, such as including foot-washing stations for Muslims who need to do their daily ablutions in airport bathrooms.


Smith and Sauve talked about building a restroom for Nightcap that was both beautiful and inclusive, combining a shared washing area with sinks and a mirror and individual rooms for the toilets.


"In one way, it was no big deal, just a small shift in what we're used to," Massey says. "But they talked in the panel about how much negotiation it took to get planning approval and permits. Ultimately, the city of Ann Arbor was happy to work with them, once they all got on the same page."


Massey says building gender-neutral or accessible bathrooms in new buildings isn't difficult or particularly expensive, but retrofitting old buildings can be.


"But the Americans with Disabilities act was passed in 1991, and people have had more than 25 years to get used to this idea. It shouldn't be a surprise or a big deal," Massey says. Architects and building owners need to start thinking of accessibility requirements on the same level as other safety code upgrades like needing a better sprinkler system for a larger space, he says.


Massey says there is a social justice component to these issues, but these issues also force architects and designers to be more creative in a way that could benefit everyone. He says the best outcome of the symposium was building relationships between individuals and departments that don't often get together.


"There were lots of new faces that had never been to Taubman College, and they were learning about us and what we do here and vice versa," he says.


Massey says he hopes that in two or three years, Taubman will become the sort of place where nobody would think of building binary gender restrooms.


"Right now, there's a culture here of teaching standard practice and then adding on disability access as a second phase or afterthought," he says. "This was the beginning of a conversation that will help us to pivot the college to a condition where people start from the premise of maximizing opportunity for everyone."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.