Why Do Office Bathrooms Stink?

And why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

By Christopher Bonanos

Photograph by Charlie Engman

In The Mezzanine, the wise and funny novel constructed out of everyday minutiae by Nicholson Baker, one of the wisest and funniest vignettes takes place in the office bathroom. A senior manager and a visitor are having a serious discussion of a female employee’s merits in the men’s room and are interrupted by an extremely loud emission from the stall-bound narrator — “a loud, curt fart like the rap of a bongo drum.” The two executives pause, just for a moment, and then pick up exactly where they left off as the bongo player tries to stifle his laughter.

The Mezzanine was published in 1988, and in the quarter century since, offices have made efforts to become more appealing, adding Ping-Pong tables, Wi-Fi, and even farm-to-table cafés — until you hit the bathroom, where almost nothing has changed. There have been some adjustments owing to the Americans With Disabilities Act: a wheelchair-accessible toilet, some grab bars, bigger handles on the taps. Perhaps the toilets use a little less water, particularly if the building is going for LEED certification. Apart from those nearly invisible tweaks, it’s still 1988 in there, or even 1958 — those may as well be Don Draper’s feet poking under the stall door. Same bank of steel stalls, urinals for the gents, a wall of sinks, tile, overscented pinkish liquid soap. Some guy spending way too much time reading the paper as he sits. And, most of all, the same awkward interactions.

There are, to be sure, exceptions. At Derek Lam, the fashion house in New York, the showroom and atelier have sleek, all-black restrooms designed by the architecture firm SO-IL. At some of the Google satellite offices, notably Oslo’s, there are single-occupancy bathrooms with psychedelic indigo exteriors and gold-accented interiors. At Airbnb, a booming San Francisco Web startup that arranges intercity apartment shares, the women’s room is outfitted in leopard-print couches and a big, framed inspirational motto (“LIFE IS LOVELY”). And at LivingSocial, the Washington (D.C.) deals-and-promotions company, the offices sport candy colors everywhere, have nifty vintage furnishings, and were designed explicitly (says the architect, a firm called OTJ) to create a fun environment that retains employees. Some of the bathrooms are painted in those same cheery colors, and although spokesman Brendan Lewis stops short of saying employees are shoving each other out of the way to get to the toilets, he allows that the designs are “part of the inclusive nature” of LivingSocial’s culture.

These are rare deviations from the norm for one major reason. “Typically, the bathroom is the responsibility of the landlord, as opposed to the tenant, during the buildout,” says Brad Lynch, principal of the architecture firm Brininstool + Lynch. The owner of the building is getting the rent either way — meaning, Lynch adds, that “the landlord doesn’t want to do anything it doesn’t have to.” As a result, even in many rather chic offices, the bathrooms are purely functional. At One Bryant Park (the extremely glossy Bank of America Tower that opened on 42nd Street in New York last year), the bathrooms have complex water-saving plumbing but are visually unremarkable. At 4 World Trade Center, developer Larry Silverstein’s new tower, they’re nicely minimal — subtle gray tile deployed floor to ceiling, hidden paper towel dispensers — but they don’t leave you pining to return.

Outside of the office, bathrooms are actually having a moment — restaurant designers and hoteliers are obsessed with theirs, and Zagat and other sites judge them online. “It’s curious how the trend really hasn’t percolated into the corporate world,” says Carlos Martinez, a principal in the architecture firm Gensler’s Chicago office. “You’ll find more custom bathrooms in someone’s home,” agrees Florian Idenburg, the architect at SO-IL whose team designed the all-black Derek Lam bathrooms. “It’s a place where people don’t want to spend an extensive amount of money — and it’s also something that needs to be easy to clean. Some of this is driven, I think, by people wanting to spend the least time cleaning it.” (Wall-mounted toilets, for example, are easy to mop underneath.)

In addition, the durable fixtures available for commercial and office bathrooms are often less varied than those for the home market. So if you want something distinctive, it’s an expensive custom order. “When we did Derek Lam,” says Idenburg, “we wanted some gray, but it’s difficult to get all the same colors once you stray from what’s available. It’s been so standardized — you know, the biggest American company is called American Standard!”

You’d think there would be more motivation to do better. Shared bathrooms are, because of their forced intimacy, excruciating in all sorts of ways, and not just when someone interrupts things with a bit of unexpected percussion. Consider this: You’re walking toward the restroom with your boss, chatting. You both enter and walk into separate stalls. Do you keep chatting through the bodily functions? Can you look that person in the eye when you rejoin each other at the sinks? A colleague of mine once used a toilet stall right after her boss did and came out with a new secret nickname for her — one too repulsive to be printed in this magazine.

Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne, author of the book Psychology in the Bathroom, has studied the anxiety that attends restroom visits. “Bathroom visits at work are a source of stress for a lot of people,” he explains. “Being overheard can be especially troubling for women, to the point that many Japanese women carry little white-noise generators to mask incriminating sounds when they visit the bathroom.” And, he adds, “Not only is your dignity at stake when you visit the toilet in view or earshot of work colleagues, but there can also be a paranoid sense that your visits are being monitored.” So it makes sense that the few genuinely nice office bathrooms mentioned above are almost all single-occupancy facilities rather than shared areas with stalls. A little privacy goes a long way toward retaining your dignity after that bad chicken salad.

A generation earlier, of course, the boss would’ve had his own in-office bathroom. That may still be true in certain circles, but office plans have trended toward egalitarianism, and shared resources are increasingly the norm. Paul Otellini, chief executive officer of Intel, works in a cubicle — needless to say, you can’t stuff a bathroom in there. In New York the huge open floor plates that constitute desirable office space don’t have plumbing columns at their edges, so most bathrooms are in the center near the elevator core. That in turn means a corner office is the most difficult and expensive spot to equip with a bathroom, and few executives these days can justify the expense and effort.

What may finally change all this is, simply, that we all spend so much more time in the office. “In my last few projects,” says Brininstool + Lynch’s Lynch, “the bathroom has been an issue — [clients want] better fixtures, nicer finishes. Functional issues are really the ones that are coming up now: Where are people going to change if they run to work, or to shower if they’re riding their bike in? Nursing stations, as well — where to set them? You don’t want that to be a toilet area.” He suggests a generational shift may be happening, too: “I think more young people have a different attitude about office space. Facilities may not be so dollar-oriented and management-oriented. They’ll be more determined by the nature of the company. Whether it’s Google or something else, it’s not strictly a numbers game of how much you spend per square foot — it’s more tied into the company experience.” In other words, when the landlord’s instinct to save a few bucks is overtaken by the tenant’s need to keep employees, those deals may be rewritten — and maybe, just maybe, you won’t be at risk of obtaining a horrifying nickname of your own.


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