Second opinion Public toilets may be out of sight but they shouldn’t be out of mind – so why so many drastic design faults?
Toilets. Lavatories. Rest rooms. Loos. Powder rooms. Comfort stations. Whatever you want to call them, you’ve gotta have ‘em.

So why is it that, even in the shiniest, brand new, most modern buildings, the toilets are filled with the same design horrors? Is it that the same design mistakes get repeated with monotonous regularity? That designers don’t pay enough attention to the “smallest room in the house”? That we don’t expect to be comfortable in toilets and making them uncomfortable improves turnover time? Or don’t designers use public toilets? These are some of my particular gripes, which are enough to keep you waiting, legs crossed, until you get home:

  • Doors that don’t close properly

  • Doors with completely incomprehensible closing mechanisms, or ones that jam, or ones that, if they do work, are supposed to indicate whether or not the cubicle is occupied, but actually always read “ANT ENG”

  • Doors that fall off their hinges at the first juvenile thump

  • Toilet-roll holders that are impossible to use or that stab you in the hip as you try to manoeuvre in too small a space

  • Cubicles that send every embarrassing sound echoing around the room

  • Cubicles that have no handy hook on the back of the door for your coat or bag, forcing you to shovel everything under your armpits while trying to remove those 10-denier tights without laddering them

  • Urinals at the wrong height, or shaped to give you unavoidable splash-back

  • Ladies’ toilets finished in pink and boys’ in blue. Now this is one of my personal all-time pet hates. It is totally unnecessary. The idea of colour-coding girls’ toilets pink and boys’ blue is outmoded and redundant, so why do designers persist in perpetuating these antiquated stereotypes?

  • Macerators – those pulping machines for sanitary disposal. Now there’s another outmoded idea. Does anyone ever use them? I’ve never seen it happen, so I doubt it. There are many different methods of sanitary disposal, and those confined to the privacy of the cubicle are infinitely preferable. Macerators add another maintenance element and are, frankly, downright ugly.

    Colour-coding girls’ toilets pink and boys’ blue is outmoded, so why do designers perpetuate antiquated stereotypes?

  • Dealing with toilet overflows is another thing that seems to get forgotten. Given that the water by-laws have always required that toilet overflows provide a “nuisance” – so that if your toilet does overflow, you are persuaded to do something about it – why do architects seem so surprised when asked to allow a visible method for discharging overflow water?

    Now, there are lots of ways of doing it (re-routing back into the pan, collection to a single point), but when they’ve left it too late to do anything else, or failed to persuade local Building Control to grant a waiver, the design team is faced with using a tundish (a funnel-type drainage fitting stuck out into the cubicle space).

    Now, tundishes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but none of them, as far as I can work out, are in the least attractive. By their very nature, these things are designed to be visible, and yet architects will try their best to make them blend into the background, which rather defeats the object of the exercise. They begging to be abused – not to mention clipping your elbow as you reach for the toilet roll.

  • Something else that clips your elbow is the ashtray. Maybe we are getting healthier and not smoking in public places, but doesn’t providing an ashtray encourage smoking in that most private of spaces? Certainly, many corporate toilets have a perceptible whiff of tobacco (or at least a suspicious overkill of air freshener).

    And if we must have ashtrays, something tidy and carefully designed would be far preferable to the lump of galvanised metal screwed crudely to the wall.

  • Taps that need two hands and a large spanner to turn them on

  • Taps that allegedly turn themselves off, but you’re so worried that they won’t that you stand and watch them for five minutes

  • Soap dispensers. You may love them, but sorry, they just annoy me.

  • The towel/dryer argument. Give people a choice of both and they tend to go for the towel (paper, preferably) over the dryer. So, a sensible waste-bin should be incorporated into the design, rather then the last-minute “bucket-in-the-corner” option.