The art of loo design

A restroom (above) in the Abeno Harukas building in Osaka, Japan. Solo toilets remain a dream.
A restroom (above) in the Abeno Harukas building in Osaka, Japan. Solo toilets remain a dream.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Many restrooms in offices lack privacy, but employers can improve the situation by providing amenities or decorating the space with art

Is there any 9-to-5 indignity greater than using the bathroom at work? Out of necessity, office workers have learnt survival mechanisms such as pre-flushing (to mask any embarrassing noises), avoiding the post-lunch rush and using that closely held secret bathroom on the eighth floor.

The anxieties that surround using the restroom at work are well documented and the most common complaints involve privacy.

Some office bathrooms rise above the rest, but most stink. The solution simply comes down to bathroom design which, unfortunately, is an afterthought in many offices.

Here is what people want - and why most offices have not obliged.

The holy grail of a single- occupancy restroom 

Oh, the perfect mathematics of the one-toilet, one-room scenario. How many awkward situations could be avoided if offices ditched the rooms filled with rows of thrones separated only by metal barriers?

It is also a better deal for transgender workers who might prefer gender-neutral options.

But single-occupancy restrooms are an impractical and unworkable set-up for most offices. Larger companies would need a whole floor or two to accommodate enough of them.

Plus, the solo toilet comes with its set of social frustrations, such as a lack of anonymity. It is hard to blame any unfortunate smells or noises on the person next door.

What about floor-to-ceiling stall doors and walls?

George Costanza made a convincing appeal for the seemingly simple design tweak in an episode of Seinfeld 20 years ago.

Unfortunately for him, the partitions do not meet the floor for a reason.

"There is mopping and cleaning and sanitising things that you want to be able to do in a public restroom," says Ms Debbie Birchback, a part-owner of All Partitions, a Michigan-based stall distributor.

Not that people should give up hope. While higher stall doors are more prevalent in Europe, architects in the United States have started requesting them more often, according to manufacturers and distributors.

Ultimate-privacy partitions, available up to 1.8m tall, sit lower to the ground and go higher towards the ceiling than do standard doors.

"It makes that area almost like a semi-private room," says Mr Cyrus Boatwalla, director of marketing at ASI Group, the parent company of Accurate Partitions, a stall manufacturer.

What about sound - can people do anything about that?

Short of having fully enclosed stalls, there has been no acoustic innovation in bathroom design to naturally muffle sounds, says Mr Boatwalla, who suspects that taller partitions may help. "This is not a tested, scientific fact - just a layperson's opinion."

There are some do-it-yourself options, however. You could place a piece of toilet paper in the bowl. A regularly used hand dryer could also provide enough white noise to mask any unfortunate noises.

Finally, if all else fails, little amenities such as mini-mouthwash can make all the difference for bathroom-goers. Or the creativity- focused office might add plants, toys or art projects.

Then again, things can go too far in the contemporary office, where every space is designed for maximising productivity.

Experience design company Adaptive Path also has "collaborative" and "participative" work in its office restrooms.

Some spaces should stay sacred.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2015, with the headline 'The art of loo design'. Print Edition | Subscribe