You’ve seen it happen at restaurants and bars: A long line snakes outside the women’s restroom, and an occasionally desperate and embarrassed woman profusely apologizes as she sneaks into the men’s room. This scenario led the City Council to pass in 2005 the so-called “potty parity bill,” which requires public facilities to uphold a two-to-one ratio of women’s to men’s restrooms. A lesser-known problem is how New York City’s building code requires equal numbers of bathrooms for men and women in office spaces, a law that has been detrimental in the commercial real estate industry.
The city’s older office buildings were generally designed for fewer workers. A test fit at 120 Park Avenue, for instance, found a minimum of 157 rentable square feet, or RSF, per person, with only two toilets for men on the floor, for about 65 people. But occupancy rates in many of these buildings is much higher than the test fits indicate: I’ve heard anecdotally that 110 RSF per person is common at new media companies or tech start-ups. The number of restrooms, however, rarely changes, regardless of how the space is used.
The potty parity bill assumed a 50-50 gender ratio on office floors. But that isn’t always the case. In 2013, investment bank Nomura sought to install fewer toilets for women on the lower floors of its new headquarters at Worldwide Plaza, claiming the gender ratio on its trading floors is about 75 men to 25 women. The gender ratios in the technology sector can be even more skewed, given that 18 percent of computer science graduates are women, and many of them choose not to work in traditional programming occupations. Attempts to change bathroom ratios in these workspaces have elicited a wave of protest, which can interfere with firms’ branding, recruitment and marketing efforts.
Another problem is that so-called “stall productivity,” or how often a toilet gets used on a given day, has declined. Ten years ago, only middle-aged guys on their way out would dare to bring a newspaper into a stall, as people who did so were perceived as slackers. Now, employees take advantage of quiet time in the restroom to write emails, manage their fantasy football teams and search for dates on their smartphones, despite evidence that phones used in bathrooms can get contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria. A trip that used to last no more than five minutes can now stretch to 20. This creates a burbling crisis outside the men’s room, especially after lunch. At some tech-heavy offices, stall queues can be over 15 minutes long, drastically reducing productivity and employee morale.
Some companies have attempted to deal with the issue by dedicating additional square feet to a second men’s room, but at Class A rental rates, that can often cost $15,000 per year. Others have tried, through social pressure, to encourage shorter restroom visits.
Commercial landlords and architects ultimately need to respond to the demand and make it easier for office space tenants to add more toilets. Alternatively, many universities and bars/nightclubs have begun employing unisex restrooms, with full height stall dividers. The concept is already being discussed among the city’s architects. If New York City’s commercial real estate industry is going to adapt to the needs of various businesses, these are the sorts of compromises it should consider.
Craig Roche is a pseudonym for a New York City landlord. Follow him @MrCraigRoche.