BDP Podcast

Design for Inclusion: Exploring gender equity through our buildings and places

Episode Summary

The design of buildings and spaces can shape our behaviour and perceptions of the world in subtle yet powerful ways. How then, have public spaces come to impact people of different genders and reinforced narrow stereotypes and assumptions? For the debut podcast in our Design for Inclusion series, we invited four guests to share their experiences of designing for gender equity. From wayfinding and lighting intensity to residential development layouts, this week’s design experts debate what truly matters when creating a more inclusive world.

Episode Notes

The design of buildings and spaces can shape our behaviour and perceptions of the world in subtle yet powerful ways. How then, have public spaces come to impact people of different genders and reinforced narrow stereotypes and assumptions? For the debut podcast in our Design for Inclusion series, we invited four guests to share their experiences of designing for gender equity. From wayfinding and lighting intensity to residential development layouts, this week’s design experts debate what truly matters when creating a more inclusive world. 


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Meet the speakers


Episode Transcription

Haley Rae Hello. Welcome to the second BDP podcast series called ‘Design for Inclusion’.  


My name is Haley Rae Dinnall-Atkinson and my pronouns are she/ her. I identify as a biracial, mixed, black and white, abled, cisgender woman. I'm an accessibility specialist working with human space, an inclusive design consultancy, of BDP’s Toronto studio.  


The BDP podcast highlights and debates the biggest challenges facing designers today from designing for a more inclusive world, each episode welcomes international experts from architecture, engineering and urbanism professions to discuss prominent issues in the industry. The BDP podcast aims to use inclusive language. However, some terminology for inclusion may vary across different cultures and regions.  


In this series, we discuss topics related to designing for a more inclusive world from exploring gender equity through our buildings and public spaces to design that reflects race, colour and culture in the built environment and how to design a hybrid and inclusive workplace.


Why build barriers to accessibility when you can design for inclusion?  


Welcome to the conversation.


Hello and welcome to Design for Inclusion Podcast, where this week we are exploring gender equity and gender expression through the buildings and public spaces we design. This week we will discuss if we can move from generic equal spaces towards places that truly promote inclusivity and a world where gender is being redefined. And we will also dip into the experiences of our panel and ask if the common solutions for LGBTQIA2S+ inclusive spaces are led by communities, clients, or governments.  


Joining me for today's conversation is Colin Ball, lighting director from BDP's London studio.

Colin: Hi!

Haley Rae: Heather Rolleston, design director at BDP, Toronto's studio.  

Heather:  Hi everyone, happy to be here!

Haley Rae: And Romulus Sim, an architect in BDP's Manchester studio.  

Romulus: Hello!

Haley Rae: I'd like to start by asking each of you the question, how have your projects helped to overcome gender equity?

Romulus: I don't think I can say for certain that any of my projects overcame gender equality, but I think, you know, we are definitely taking a step in the right direction through all of our projects, you know, as a start, you know, the provision of gender neutral toilets and shower facilities, for instance, it's a great way that we address that.


And it really is our… I think I guess it's our default position now moving forward on a lot of projects. I do have to say it's only been in the last year or two really when it's really come to the fore. You know, I mean, even in the early stages of our projects now, even without client input or a brief, you know, we have completely moved away from the traditional male / female provision, and of course, gender inclusion goes, you know, much further than just toilets.


And it's, you know, it's about providing, equal access to all areas, to all resources, you know, opportunities. And I think it requires quite a holistic approach.

Colin: Yeah. I would completely agree. It's interesting to me the whole thing of, as you say, gender access is not just within the building industry, let's say, but for design and architecture itself. I've been around long enough…my first interview to go into the degree course for Manchester Uni, at the architecture school. I'm pleased to say I got an unconditional offer and I remember the presentation they gave us as a group of eighteen year old students. Their that proud announcement was that the previous year they'd installed women's toilets in the building and I'm not going to say what year that was, but this was before 1990. So exactly just as Rom has said we're seeing a lot of even gender parity between toilet suites. I think everyone knows quite famously if you go out to a cinema or a sports event or any large crowd event, where's the queue for the toilets?


You know, there is a massive disparity. But, but in actual fact where we're looking at standardized data for many of our buildings or heights, counter heights, any of us selling our flats or installing a kitchen, what's the counter high you've put your kitchen at, you know there's all these things of the standardized data that we use are all based on an average male so it's interesting that we have that. The other thing I wanted to add as well is just how we work within BDP, we've been working on this for a long time, gender parity, and an event that we had two and a half years ago about this, was we had a stage full of men that much of what we wanted to talk about was if men have equal paternity leave and you know, childcare is no longer seen as a female thing that there has, there is as much masculine contribution to this.


You then start seeing that the pressure for childcare is pushed onto the woman and that even goes into architecture and the spaces that we're providing, are baby changing facilities provided in male toilet suites? But again, just as Rom said, we removed gender from toilet suites. That's no longer an issue.

Heather: I would say just to add in here, I like the way this conversation is expanding from toilets to architecture. I recently was involved in a project that sort of took on gender equality head on, and it was from the development lens.  


So I had a female client who was reading an article here in Toronto, in Toronto Life, and the article was about the Condo Kings, and it was an article about, you know, like Toronto has exploded with respect to development and it was like the top eight or ten developers and they were all men and she thought to herself, you know, I've been working in this industry tirelessly for I think it was 17 or 18 years. So now ten years and not getting any kind of recognition. So she decided that she was going to team up with another developer and they were going to endeavour to have an all women team. So women engineers, women architects, women civil engineers, every person on the team be a woman. So, I brought this to the other principals at Quadrangle and their reaction was I thought so progressive that they said, Oh Heather, I don't know about that. That sounds like reverse discrimination. I'm not sure we should touch on that project. And then I said, well, yes, I guess you could view it that way. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I said, you know, if there's a conversation to be had in this regard, I think we want to be at the table having this conversation.


And so eventually everyone agreed we would take on the project and the articles and the press about this all women development team was everyone wanted to talk about it. I couldn't believe it. I didn't think it would be so topical. But obviously, people still want to talk about this idea and it's still a huge matter of public interest.


And then the interviews and questions, what are you doing differently in this condo? What's different about the process? Because you're all women. And then one of the most interesting things that happened actually a highlight, the projects being built now so that's where we are on the process. But I think it was like our second or third meeting with City Hall, like the kind of approvals body of planners and urban designers. They all came into the room and they had replaced all the men with women and they said, we want to join this party. Essentially, we've decided that we'll only respond with all women from the approval. So it was actually just really fun, I have to say.

Colin: I once about 15 years ago, doing a corporate executive suite for a major new office building here in London as Time-Warner headquarters. So it's basically a where well, at that time they were called IPC Media, but they're the sort of publishers behind all the different magazines and different sort of publications. And they recognized that they had a majority female office.

So they said straight off their brief to us and it was an all-women team that briefed us as a design group, but they said they didn't want the City of London corporate banking masculine hard edged interior. So they forced everyone to look at things in a different way. And the end result of that was it was almost like a space that had increased flexibility, mode to privacy.


Looking back, I can see that she had increased acoustic properties in terms of this idea of softening a quieter space. We put more indirect and warmer lighting in, and it was one of those things that we weren't necessarily conscious of that trying to be feminine. We were just trying to look at what a more comfortable space is.


And now I'd say we're actually doing that in every office that we look at. Breakout spaces, a general softening, but it comes under the banner these days under neurodiversity probably. And just that whole thing of everyone's recognized as a unique individual. So spaces are tailored to how they may want to work. So I think gender feeds into that along with a number of other different strands that we're looking at.

Heather: I agree. Exactly. And it's funny because the number of interviews that I've done about this project, it's called Raina, the all-female team, the word soft has come up quite a bit. And I think, you know, some of the unique as far as mixed use, condominium living, unique features that we put in that building are, you know, a messy room for kids downstairs, a music room, someplace for people to be very loud, a high degree of transparency to the building's courtyard, and benches and things where you can charge your phones, you can do work while you're looking after your kids, stroller storage on every floor so that you don't have the inconvenience of parking a stroller downstairs and then carrying your child and all your groceries up in the elevator.  


But all of these things, yeah, maybe they stemmed from women. But you're absolutely right, Colin. You know, paternity leave is alive and well. There's tons of men in our office taking it now. And really, this is this is really just about the base need of being able to do two things at once.


You're looking after your child and you have to work or you're looking after your child, keeping them safe and you’re doing whatever. And that applies to everyone. It doesn't matter about gender, right? It's someone having to look after a young one and it's very challenging. Right?  


Haley Rae: Thanks for sharing that, everyone. I think what I'm hearing is these very specific design elements that may have initially started to contribute to gender equity proved to extend far beyond the original intent to truly be inclusive to everyone.

Colin: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it's is that's the thing that we've seen is we may have started a number of years ago looking at different forms of inclusion for different minority groups, but the level of overlap that we're now able to employ. So just as you said about accessibility, we might talk about wheelchairs, but actually that completely transforms access for prams, for childcare, etc. So it's actually about whole sections, community once you implement it for one group, you surprisingly see benefits for others.

Heather: Yeah, exactly. I'm fond of seeing like when I had my first child and I had the stroller and I'm trying to take transit or get here and there, it's like I now know what it's like. Well, not entirely, but I now have an appreciation of like someone in a wheelchair. It's insane. Like very few of our transit stations were accessible at the time. Like, you have to preplan your trip like crazy when you have a mobility issue like that. It really gave me a big appreciation for how people have to navigate the world. I never had to think about it before.  

Haley Rae: I'd like to circle back to Romulus just for a moment. Early on, I heard you say beginning maybe about a year and a half ago, two years ago is when perhaps awareness and conversations related to these design elements were really starting to catalyse. Can you speak to a particular moment or event to just to bring context to what that may have been?

Romulus: I don't I don't think there's a particular time, but I remember about a year and a half ago, one of our clients actually brought it up and said, you know, why are we not providing gender neutral toilets, for instance? And it's a starting point where you know, at the time it wasn't the norm. And if you look at design guides at the moment, I'm designing a building at the moment where we're just looking at, you know, shower provision toilet provisions. All the guidance out there tells you if you've got X number of people in a building, you provide X number of female toilets, X number of male urinals and toilets.


There is no guidance that talks about the provision of gender neutral toilets. So we’re having to sort of take all of that existing quite traditional information and try and process that for our current way of thinking. And I do think that, you know, changes need to happen at policy level. That starts to address some of these things. Because we've got guidelines for designing accessible spaces, but we've not got guidelines for designing for a gender inclusive workplace, for instance.

Colin: I suppose there's an opportunity there that we could actually write or contribute to that, and like say through your own human space team, we can actually get these things written as a standard or via promotion. But I think it feeds into where we currently have probably an under provision for women at the moment. It be interesting to know from when those standards were written and are those standards actually contributing to the large queues for women and not for men? And then when we provide a unisex or omnisex sort of suite, is that something that actually needs to increase against the standards because women are so underrepresented already?

Rom: I think you're right. I think it's an opportunity for, I guess, the design community to input into that because you know, we sit down with a piece of paper and start drawing X number of toilets, male and female. And I think if we think there's a problem there, we can be at the forefront of building something that's going to inform policy.

Heather: And I think we're in an interesting time now where the pendulum is sort of coming back. I might be wrong in this, but I remember, I was just trying to think back, I think it was around 12 or 14 years ago I did a public meeting. And so that's one of those meetings where I'm presenting. I was presenting a residential tower, mixed use. It had an office component in the base and anyway, it was on a project on Church Street in Toronto, which is in the gay town of Toronto. I don't even know if it's proper for me to say that anymore, but I'll just, I'll just say that.

Colin: The village, haha.

Heather: I remember I got there and, people generally don't like height and they don't like new buildings. So I was nervous I was giving the presentation and I got everything set up. All the chairs are arranged. And then I went to go to the bathroom right before I give the presentation, obviously. So I went up to the person downstairs and I said, Can you tell me where the bathroom is? And he asked me, I should say they asked me what kind of bathroom I wanted and rhymed off about eight different options for me.


And I just really wanted to use the bathroom. Like, I don't want to say that I didn't care, but in that moment and I'm not picky either. So I kind of wonder if we're going from what might have been eight options 14 years ago to more of an option of, you know, just your level of comfort, again, to use that word, like how private you want to be.


You want to be in your own room. I remember I heard one client that called it like an Ally McBeil bathroom. I think that was like the tv show that had men and women sharing the bathroom. Like it's just about your level of comfort and just being able to have like, I don't know, two or three options to be able to choose that and how do you communicate what bathroom offers that level of comfort yet?

Colin: I think privacy comes into it, which again is and then there's an added cultural aspect to this as well. I first noticed when I worked in the Middle East that the option for a toilet or a cubicle that's completely separate and sealed away. It doesn't matter if it's male or female, that the level of privacy and dignity is something that's actually a factor. So that could be one way of actually dealing with this is branding them in a different way, as you say, via privacy.

Rom: Yeah, and I think in designing and sort of welfare facilities as well, I think we've got to be you know, I guess you've got to be careful that we don't kind of create spaces that people get overwhelmed with. Like you Heather you said, you know, you've been presented with eight options and for someone who just wants to use a toilet, you know, you don't want to offend someone by saying, I want to use that one, but not this one. You know, you want it you want a facility that will feel and make people feel welcome and not sort of, I guess, alienated and nervous to say, I want to go to this toilet because I might present myself in a negative way.

Colin: That is which is currently you know, this is the position that we're in at the moment is that the standard unisex toilet in most buildings is labelled disabled. So just changing that label and maybe putting that facility or looking at what that facility entails can be a very quick change. That actually, you know, like you are changing the labelling, let's say.

Haley Rae: On the topic of labelling and perhaps how we're identifying these spaces is I want to ask how can we use signage in wayfinding to help create inclusive spaces for all?

Romulus: I think I think that's a really good question. Well, we're working on a project at the moment, and I think in terms of signage and wayfinding, I think we need to move away from the sort of traditional male/female icons for toilets. And because I think, you know, I feel that, in time there should be an international standard for WC and changing facility that are gender inclusive.


So for instance, I mentioned earlier on, there is very specific guidance about, you know, around the kind of iconography for, you know, that represents disabled access. I remember drawing a wheelchair logo for a project and the accessibility consultants say, no, you can't use that because there is an international wheelchair logo that every designer will have to use so that it you know, a disabled person won't get confused by a slightly stylized disabled logo.


So I think you know, there is some way to go, but we definitely do need some kind of a standard for that. And, you know, as designers, you know, it might be that you start from the bottom up. You know, you see more and more gender neutral iconography being developed and then that can then make its way into the design guides into British standard and sort of internationally apply. So when you look at a sign, you know, that's a toilet, that's a, you know, gender inclusive toilet, there's no kind of slight confusion and you don't draw something that might potentially be too offensive.  


I remember I remember seeing an icon where it was, you know, and it's the stick man or stick woman with like half, half dressed and half in like traditional male costume, which I thought was how offensive is that?

Colin: There is a Thai restaurant in London where the toilets, the clue you've got to the which toilet is which is engraved in the wood is the position in which you urinate.

Heather: Now I thought you were going to go somewhere to do with Braille for a minute, but this is taking it to a whole other level.

Colin:  I suppose. You know, you could say bladders are genderless.

Haley Rae:  I'd like to also ask the group and maybe this plays in to the cultural sort of context of how we think about queer spaces and maybe specific design elements that may be common to ‘the village’, for example. But how can we preserve queer heritage in buildings and public spaces?

Colin: Yep. It feeds on with the graphics from my last question. Trafalgar Square. Ever since Trafalgar Square hosted the end of the Gay Pride March, they changed all the traffic lights to different combinations of gender coming together, and they still have that. So all year long, Trafalgar Square, the traffic lights, they're so different depending on where you cross the road is a whole different gender conversation.

Heather: My answer to this question would be, I don't think that's something that we need to worry about at all in society. Personally, I think all these areas are flourishing and spreading and growing and becoming so widely accepted by everyone and encouraged. I mean, I love watching my children grow up in where we are and in time in history right now. They are free thinking about everything and the smaller, the more rainbows, like it's all expected and encouraged and everyone is just hungry for more. I don't think these spaces are in jeopardy. I think they're just exploding with action.

Colin: There are two things to that which is minority groups are almost retreating into technologies. And I'm talking here not just as a gay person of London but also as an old goth from the 1980s you know that there is sort of a lot of the let's say the villages or the you know the specific areas they developed around a certain club or especially for Soho is 24 hour community and good coffee so where do you get good coffee at three in the morning after a club.


So that 24 hour economy creates that zone and there's the one thing that the actual the need for a gay bar is no longer there it's now based so some of those are quite threatened but we're getting in London developer pressure on the desirable places to live, lots of apartments appear, the values of the properties go up, the community can no longer afford to stay there.  


And parallels for this are in Chinatown as well. But we're actually there are sort of moderately successful campaigns to protect the night time economy of London. And recognizing that certain skateboarder parks or certain nightclubs are more important than the new millionaire apartments, you know, so the actual noise level at two in the morning is protected in planning.


Heather: Yeah, that's a very good point. You have to make sure that you don't get rid of the reason for it being there.

Colin:  Yes, yes, yes. I mean, Manhattan, you know, Manhattan and central London are both becoming as exciting as Geneva, sort of the old London life is now in a sort of like a ring around the city centre. And but then, you know, cities do they evolve, areas move on. But that we really are at risk now that the creative community of London is actually at 50 mile or 70 mile radius. Is the same thing happening in Manchester, Rom?

Rom: We've got you know, in Manchester I'd say it's it is quite a similar situation happening but in, you know where we've got Canal Street, a gay village, you know I think is another question further down. But we talk about the idea of this of Gayborhood and whether or not the gay village should be contained in one place or if it's if it should be everywhere. I think the whole concept of this gay village, you know, I think I think is probably a hangover from a time when, you know, gay people will congregate in specific places in a city where they felt safe.


You know, for me personally, there are you know, there are times I felt unsure, you know, venturing into certain parts of city where, you know, if I didn't and if I didn't tone down the gay, I might get treated differently. You know, and even as an architect in the construction industry, you know, we're in a very hetero dominated industry, you know, when visiting, you know, construction sites, you know, you know, often I have to be, you know, super conscious about not being too camp. I've got to say. Turn down the dial.

Colin: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I invert that when I go to a site, I wear fur, I wear Cuban heels and I terrify them.

Romulus: That's the way to do it!

Heather: It's probably how you get everything that you want, every single site instruction.

Colin: But this is also I know women do this as well. You know, it's like you use your, you know, your rarity to intimidate. But yes, but you're absolutely right, Rom, there is that threshold that you have to cross and I think and in my own experience, yeah, I was I was a strange asexual creature of the eighties. You know, this dialog that we're having now just as you said, Heather, it's fascinating for me to see that all of us, you know, the club kids and strange creatures of London, New York, we're seeing now the generation of the kids that have been brought up by us as the parents. And so this sense of definition has you know, it was about sexuality and equal rights for us in our time. But to move into gender is beyond me. It's a shock to me. I did a gender specific art installation, lighting installation for a festival in Cambridge and the first time I heard about this multiple gender issue coming up was, yes, sure enough, we had people who could, you know, respond to the lighting by dialling in on their phone and just registering. Yes, I'm a man, I'm a woman. And when I presented this to them, boom. Yeah. So how many genders are you representing? And that's the first I've heard of it, actually. It's like we do have eight colours there, don't you?


So we know that that's happening in education, et cetera. But I think just as you said, I think it's fascinating that when you look at this over a 30 year or 40 year period, it is absolutely stunning what's going on now.  


And yes, I think it is enshrined in local authorities and also planning. One thing I was going to say as well was leasing. I'm not sure if in Manchester Canal Street is protected by the leases, as in a company has to say it is actually oriented to the community because I think Soho is a bit more freewheeling and it's just developers are encouraged to follow the pink pound, as we call it here, because there's actually more money to be made in it. But it's also mean we can extend that to San Francisco and again, whether there's actually a local authority preservation placed on Castro.

Heather: Well, I find this conversation super interesting because also together with the kind of I'll just say gay village, when you're in Toronto, but part of that that crowd is artists, right? And so sort of travel as one branch and finding the kind of new areas of the city, making them cool, making them valuable, then everyone wants to live there, you know, then the prices go up and then there's the next generation of artists and very creative, adventurous people move to the next area.


And that's the way it goes. And you're right. I think some developers and just in general entrepreneurs that turn their mind to what the kind of… reason for being of those neighbourhoods, stand to gain a little bit more because that's why people are going there. It's like the real roots and the grittiness and that particular club or cafe or concert venue, that's what makes all these beautiful, rich layers of our cities. And you don't want it to be washed clean.  

Haley Rae: So I think that we've got time for just one more question here. And I'd like to ask going back to thinking about thresholds and how we bring our lived experiences into the spaces that we occupy and I think we see in some instances many queer folks code switch or hide their identities to feel a sense of safety and security.


So how can we create safety and security in our buildings and public spaces? What are those specific design elements that we can take away?

Romulus: I'm very aware of code switching, and I think I just mentioned it earlier when on a construction site, I probably behave completely differently to how I would on a Friday night in a bar, for instance, but think education of the workforce is key. You know, I think we've got to ensure that inhabitants of buildings, public spaces, don't feel alienated.


I think we already see this. We're seeing this happening already with you know, many companies investing in initiatives and training for staff. You know, I think, for example, with BDP, you know, the EDI efforts, you know, BDP belonging for instance, has had, I think, had a massive impact on, you know, how I feel as a gay man in the company, you know, knowing very well that, you know, there's very strong support and there is, you know, is this the effort to create more awareness.


And I think this makes you, I guess, more brave to be yourself and not code switch as much, you know, speak the way it speaks to you to your partner as your friend. And you don't feel like you're constantly sort of shielding yourself.

Colin: Hmm. Well, yeah, it is. Yeah. If you're shutting down, then we're losing a part of you. And as a creative office, you want people to, you know, spread out as such and, you know, you want the full person at the full steam. And I think having that environment is. Yeah, it comes down to a very simple thing.


I think in public spaces, holding hands. And it's just a thing where, you know, like, yep, maybe we should be protecting these spaces because they could evolve away just as they evolved and appeared because there is that sense of just being a majority, you know, any minority group if you can just have a few spaces where you're temporarily the majority, just that crowd that that can engender that comfort.


But I think, yeah, it is a challenge to designing, you know is yes, some would say, you know, filling a space with rainbow flag so et cetera, is that really the way to go?

Heather: I think we use the words comfort, privacy, softness. I absolutely agree. The last thing that you want is someone shutting down or holding back. And no one likes to feel that or be around someone where it's apparent that that's happening. So really getting good and sensitive people in positions of authority to kind of listen and learn and guide us on these issues of male, female signage and all of that stuff. I mean, we're going to be learning constantly. This is something that will continue to evolve and I think we've made a lot of progress, but who knows what's next?

Colin: Certainly, none of us thought we'd be where we are here now. I mean, you know, like I say, I'll never forget standing in that. And the Cambridge College being asked how many genders are allowed for us. It hit me like a train.

Haley Rae: Well, Colin, Heather, Romulus, I think it's safe to say that this is an evolving topic, that we greatly appreciate your time and contribution towards this conversation. Thank you again for sharing your experiences related to this and I can't wait to share what we've learned here today in studio and with our collaborators. Thank you to you all and be well.