EPFL's new gender-neutral and eco-friendly bathrooms

Work is underway at the Ecublens campus to install gender-neutral bathrooms designed to protect people’s privacy. In addition, menstrual products are now made available free of charge.
© 2021 Fehlmann Architectes

Friday, 19 November is World Toilet Day. The United Nations believes that this basic sanitation system is “underfunded, poorly managed or neglected.” It is calling for investment in sanitation so that women and girls can “play their full role in society, especially during menstruation.” For its part, EPFL has taken several steps to make washrooms more accommodating for women and gender minorities.

Starting in November of this year, the School is providing sanitary pads and tampons free of charge. As part of a joint project with the University of Lausanne, menstrual product dispensers have been installed that offer hypoallergenic products made from chlorine-free, perfume-free organic cotton. Wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are similarly equipped, so that anyone who needs these products can obtain them.

In addition, a major effort to renovate the School’s forty-year-old bathrooms is underway, with the aim of creating gender-neutral facilities in the center of the Ecublens campus.

There is growing support for gender-free bathrooms, as evidenced by a recent postulat (an initiative submitted for review to the Vaud cantonal government) that was approved by a sweeping majority of the Canton of Vaud’s legislature. EPFL’s decision to renovate was driven further by the poor condition of the bathroom facilities and drains in the CM Building, which houses a number of classrooms and lecture halls. This renovation project will allow the School to address long-standing student concerns while at the same time making its bathroom facilities more environmentally-friendly.

A gradual rollout

The first renovated toilet blocks – on Levels 0 and 1 of the CM Building – will be ready in the first quarter of 2022. After that, the building’s other blocks will be refurbished while keeping noise and disturbance to a minimum. By the start of the fall 2022 school year, ten toilet blocks will be completed on three floors in this area of campus. Efforts will then be focused on the neighboring CE Building and subsequently other venues, to be designated at a later date.

Each block will contain eight individual toilets, each with its own washbasin, a wheelchair-accessible toilet and an area at the rear, separated by a door, comprised of five urinals and two washbasins. Wide entrances at each end of the block will open onto the hallway, and the corridor wall will feature a recessed area with water fountains. On Level 0, there will also be a breastfeeding room, a cloakroom and five individual shower stalls, one of them wheelchair-accessible, each with its own dry-off area fitted with a bench, locker and hairdryer.

Catering to LGBTIQ+ individuals

This initiative is intended to respond to the needs of transgender and non-binary users, as expressed by members and supporters of the LGBTIQ+ community. In early 2021, PlanQueer and Amnesty International des Hautes Ecoles Lausannoises (Amnesty HEL), with the support of fifteen additional collectives, submitted a report to the governing bodies of EPFL and the University of Lausanne. In it, these groups stressed that when transgender and non-binary persons use non-gender-neutral bathrooms, the risks they encounter include “scornful looks, questions, remarks, verbal abuse and physical violence.”

«A number of studies have clearly shown that gendered toilets are sources of exclusion and discrimination for gender minorities.»      PlanQueer and Amnesty HEL

Addressing environmental concerns, too

This major renovation project – in which CHF 4.5 million will be invested in the CM Building alone – includes a comprehensive overhaul of the plumbing system so as to addresses environmental concerns: by using lake water in the toilet tanks, the new bathrooms will cut potable water consumption by 70%. Urine will be processed and turned into fertilizer, helping to take the pressure off wastewater treatment plants, since removing nitrogen and pharmaceutical residue from urine is energy-intensive.

Moreover, by allowing people to drink water conveniently from broad horizontal fountains without having to enter the washroom area, the hope is that more people will consume tap water instead of canned and bottled beverages. Only locally-sourced, eco-friendly materials will be used in the renovation. Work has already begun to remove asbestos from the old water mains – another milestone in terms of sustainability.
To keep disturbance to a minimum, any major disruptive work will be carried out at night, on weekends or during school holidays.

The project is being spearheaded by EPFL’s Development and Construction Department, in association with the Security and Operations Department of the Vice Presidency for Operations (VPO). The Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation was also involved, through its Sustainability Unit and the Equal Opportunities Office, as far as diversity and inclusion issues are concerned.

In the words of EPFL’s Vice President for Responsible Transformation, everyone will benefit from the inclusive approach that this decision represents:

«Above all, bathrooms are places where every individual’s privacy must be protected, regardless of their gender or sexual identity.»      Gisou van der Goot

At the University of Lausanne, work is also underway to create gender-neutral bathrooms. Efforts like these, which combine privacy concerns with respect for the environment, are a response to changes in our society and in individual lifestyles.