Gender-Inclusive Design

On Friday, May 13th, the Obama administration released what the New York Times coined a “sweeping directive,” that instructs public schools throughout the nation to allow transgender students to use restrooms that match their self-identified genders. While this declaration is well-intentioned, it poses a complex set of challenges, particularly for teachers, students, parents and educational designers. The majority of Studio G’s current projects are schools and institutional buildings, so Managing Principal Gail Sullivan and her team are always thinking about how to solve complex design problems in the evolving context of gender and identity politics.

As an architect, how did the Obama directive directly impact the way you and your staff approach Studio G’s current projects?

Gail: This legal stance assumes that gender identity is static – it isn’t necessarily. While I think it is well intentioned and am very glad that civil rights seems to be near the top of the administration’s agenda, I think that this directive forces a decision and a public announcement that may make already marginalized individuals feel more uncomfortable. Not everyone is ready to identify themselves, especially in a space as intimate as a public bathroom.

Has Studio G had any recent projects where the concept of gender identification was particularly prominent?

Gail: Absolutely. Y2Y Harvard Square, a homeless shelter serving 18-to 24-year-olds, was a big labor of love that we worked on for the last 18 months. The population being served is a unique demographic that often gets lost in the mix between childhood and adulthood in a shelter setting. In particular, the Boston and Cambridge homeless community has a significant number of LGBTQ members who lack resources and support. While talking with Sam [the co-founder of Y2Y], we discovered that these young adults come from three primary situations: foster care, abusive homes and, for those who identify as LGBTQ, lack of parental support. Many have been kicked out of their homes.

Tell us more about that design process for Y2Y.

Gail: We facilitated a series of workshops, interviews and studies with homeless youth in Boston and Cambridge to better understand their experiences in shelters, and their priorities for this space to ensure they felt welcome. The priorities that emerged from these interviews were personal safety and the need for community. 

And truthfully, there was no consensus. We found that there were several distinct responses. Clients that identified as LGBTQ often wanted no gender identification in order to retain their privacy and/or process of self-identity, while other clients advocated for gender separation of bathrooms and sleeping spaces as a means to protect themselves from sexual assault. In order to satisfy both the privacy and safety concerns, we worked closely with Y2Y founders, Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz, to design a space welcoming to all, regardless of gender.

What are some examples?

Gail: One of the most unique features at Y2Y are the sleeping “pods” assigned to each client. Each pod has a semi-translucent folding door that the client can open or close, which allows for both privacy and staff oversight for the clients’ safety. Each has individual light and power sources so they can read, listen to music, and charge cell phones and laptops in privacy. Homeless individuals are often denied privacy and control over one’s environment. We wanted to give them both of those things.

The “pods” – photo by Greg Premru

We also designed gender neutral bathrooms and showers. Each is individual use, protecting privacy and supporting all residents.

Gender neutral showers -- Photo by Greg Premru

Gender neutral showers —
photo by Greg Premru

To foster community and safety, we retained an open layout for the entire space. The space is divided into different sections that mirror the rooms you would find in a conventional college dorm – an eating space, an entertainment zone with a TV, books, video games, etc. and a work area with several computer stations. We wanted to refrain from the sterile demeanor of a typical shelter, so we chose bright colors for the walls and dorm-like furnishings to promote a welcoming and communal atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Y2Y's common space evokes a college residence hall, with comfortable seating and computer workstations.

Y2Y Common Area — photo by Holly Rike

What role does design play in the shifting landscape of gender identity?
Gail: In the ever-changing climate of gender politics, designs that can adapt moment to moment and over time will better accommodate the spectrum of gender identity and be more useful to the community as a whole. It is most important to protect each individual and their needs.

At Studio G, we see design as a powerful tool for teasing out the range of needs, and, in turn, creating built solutions to meet those needs while also expanding opportunities for community and support. We consider issues of gender identity alongside all other facets of a design problem to arrive at a thoughtful and thorough design solution.

What ideas or concepts in Y2Y’s design are transferable to other communal spaces?

Certainly the gender neutral bathrooms. One school client has already requested that we add at least one. And the thinking behind the sleeping pods – how to meet apparently conflicting needs which were presented as gender separate is safer versus gender neutrality welcomes all. The sleeping pods solved for both.


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