When Nature Calls, Good Design Responds

Beach 44th Street Project, Location: Queens NY, Architect: WXY // Albert Vecerka, Esto

One commonality that equalizes all of us here on earth is using the bathroom. Whether we sit, stand, need assistance, or need a break, everyone should be able to use the bathroom with dignity. Public bathrooms bring the challenges of designing for dignity into sharp focus. The words bathroom and restroom are often used interchangeably, with the former implying a place of respite, while the latter you may use quickly and exit. Some countries approach restroom design with careful attention to the overall design and details, while others apply bare minimum requirements. In Japan, many public bathrooms are designed and detailed to be aesthetically pleasing while keeping the user’s dignity intact, and some even introduce elements of whimsy. Refer to Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows” (pages 5–6) for an entertaining read about toilets in Japan. England has “superloos,” used in places where space may not allow for larger restrooms; they provide both privacy and the hygiene capacities of a full washroom. How can architects in America embrace public restroom designs for all people while ensuring dignity and safety are prime design drivers?

Programmatically, the Arverne East Multi-Purpose Building could have been a conventional NYC Department of Parks and Recreation building with a bathroom. It could have been a rectangular building that met program needs minimally, with materials that evoked nothing in the user—but it went beyond that. The brief required the facility to be floodproof and stormproof to meet the demands of a marine environment. Per Claire Weisz, FAIA, founding partner at WXY, the design response from WXY was to create a resilient facility that acts as a community hub for the neighborhood and a connection to the adjacent Nature Preserve and Farm. Because the building is embedded in the existing ecology of the site, minimal disruption to the natural landscape was critical. Based on community and user feedback, the building has met and exceeded the brief as both a landmark and lookout point.

Claire approaches dignity as part of the design process as an evolving set of questions and argues for post-occupancy evaluation as a tool of evidence-based design. In this interview, we explore how a public restroom can create a community center and serve the needs of a New York City department.

What does a dignified design process mean to you? 

Some key elements mean a lot to how WXY works and how I model architectural practice internally and externally, most notably mutual respect for each person’s contribution to making change. In practice, this means defining lived experience as expertise and an asset to the design process. When creating the program, site goals, evaluation methods, and so on, maintain an environment where everyone feels safe contributing and consider those not in the room. Setting shared goals and objectives collectively and having regular check-ins where we make time to rate the design process and interim results against those goals embeds respect for everyone’s perspective throughout the process. 

Albert Vecerka/Esto

When initiating this project, did dignity come up as a design driver? 

Analysis is not neutral; it is driven by a shared set of questions discussed internally and externally and can inform how data is looked at and possibly refuted. When we aim to create dignified design processes informed by multiple scales and points of view, we always start with questions like “Who will benefit from this?” and “Who is this for?”

With this method, the Arverne East Multi-Purpose Building had to start with collecting data and doing research around questions like “What do the Parks staff need to make their jobs easier?” while also considering “What does a volunteer or staff member of RISE or Campaign for Hunger need to make their work, learning, or time easier?” Having to develop design solutions that accommodate multiple needs means that dignity is always driving the design.

From the basis of dignity for all users, one can start gauging the validity of the program and its access assumptions. Then, one can move forward with longer-term questions like “What is the lowest embodied carbon way to accommodate these needs?” and “How do we create the most comfortable and appealing conditions while encouraging lower energy use and connecting to the natural setting?”

Albert Vecerka/Esto
Albert Vecerka/Esto

How did the design marry dignity for humans with considerations for ecological protection and restoration? 

Establishing the purpose of this project from the start was important. It was our priority to balance public access with protecting the surrounding ecology. Not only did we want ease of access with minimal footprint, but we also wanted to inform and educate people about natural habitats and the need to build resiliency landscapes. We exemplify the design ethos of people with a place in the very architecture of the building. Hence, everything from circulation to scenic views encourages connection between users and appreciation of the expansive landscape.

Albert Vecerka/Esto

Why were gender neutral bathrooms important for this design, and how is the user’s privacy addressed? 

The gender-neutral bathrooms were not originally in the program description; this is where the question “Who is not at the table?” comes into the conversation about future users such as beachgoers, visitors to the preserve, neighborhood skateboarders, disabled visitors and staff, families with more than one child that need assistance, etc. Discussing how to achieve varying levels of privacy and preference is how we decided to avoid gender labels on the doors. Instead of separating by gender designations, we separate by a more private experience and a more shared experience. People can choose between family washrooms, with a toilet, sink, mirror, and diaper-changing station, or stalls with access to a central waiting area and a large trough sink.

Many people do not fear using public restrooms. The real issue is that many public restrooms are not safe and appealing; there is not a lack of service, necessarily, but a lack of good service for all genders. For a visitor’s sense of safety, the stall doors are high enough that you can see the feet of the user, but not so high that they lose a sense of safety. Additionally, during open hours, staff from the Department of Parks can view users’ comings and goings, and at night, there is a roll-down grille to prevent entry.

Albert Vecerka/Esto
Albert Vecerka/Esto

 What other design expression contributes to a dignified experience in the restrooms?

Lighting. How can we light the space to make the user feel good and contribute to someone not defacing the building and bathroom? Another aspect of dignity is whether the design treats people like customers of architecture or the clients for whom the building was made. There’s a reason why certain kinds of buildings get defaced sooner than others: they look like they’re institutionalized buildings. 

Albert Vecerka/Esto

What feedback have you received post-occupancy? 

The building opened in August of 2023, so we are gathering our post-occupancy data early. We hope to have robust information by the end of this year. We are in the process of soliciting information from the teens from RISE who use the community/meeting room, the visitors using the restrooms, and of course the Department of Parks and Recreation rangers who use the offices.

Examples of questions we plan to ask are “How is this different from other comfort stations along the boardwalk?” and “What doesn’t work about the building for you?” The post-occupancy evaluation will be placed on our website so other architects will benefit from what we are starting to hear about these sorts of basic parks buildings.

Albert Vecerka/Esto

Secondly, the building is net-zero; it uses the energy it needs, and any unused energy goes back to the grid. However, since security and safety are essential to the users, the building and surrounding grounds are brightly lit. The post-occupancy evaluation will allow us to determine if users feel the area is too bright or dim and requires adjustment. This ties back to my comment earlier about lighting—what can my team and I do to ensure that people do not feel like we walked away after we took the final architectural photograph?

Evidenced-based design and post-occupancy evaluations give you the evidence. We tend to do it more in our planning and engagement work, but we have brought it into our architecture over the last couple of years. As we make our design processes more efficient and make fewer mistakes, we can continue to share our process to have a real, more evidence-based conversation about urban design.

Albert Vecerka/Esto

Lastly, what has been your favorite moment at the facility since it was completed?

I think a measure of a successful engagement process is seeing people feel welcome in a public space and having ideas about how to use it.

There was a moment when the public washrooms and building were not open yet, but we were photographing the space, and a woman from the neighborhood walked up from the beach and asked, “What is that building?” She came right up the ramp and said, “It’s really beautiful. Is it someone’s house?” I explained that it would be open soon and that it has a community room, but it’s really a public restroom. She responded, “Oh my God, that’s unbelievable. I’m a chef; I want to propose to use that room to do some classes or even host an event with RISE.”

That was the whole point. The building is not supposed to look like a public washroom. It is a celebration of the beach house—but it is a beach house for the people. Everyone should experience stunning oceanfront design. Her reaction, coupled with the space’s purpose, was a testament to the center’s need and potential.

Albert Vecerka/Esto

This article is part of the Dignity in Design series. Editorial review provided by Lauren Neefe.


Learn more about the Arverne East Multi-Purpose Building, RISE, and the work of WXY Studio:

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