The average public bathroom may not seem like a political arena or a feat of engineering; however, if you were to speak with Catherine Joseph, you would quickly realize that restrooms contain untold stories of debate and design. Catherine proudly describes herself as an architect, an educator, a mentor and an advocate. This multifaceted leader has led and engaged with several campaigns that aim to create spaces that are functional and inclusive for people regardless of religion, gender, and other factors of a person’s identity. Leveraging her range of personal and professional experiences, Catherine and her colleagues are pursuing a project known as “The Bathroom Reboot.”
Such an ambitious undertaking can only come from an equally ambitious mind, which is a defining trait of Catherine’s. Excelling in math from a young age, Catherine decided to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering at Duke University. To continue exploring her interest in design, Catherine enrolled in Cornell’s graduate school of architecture after graduation. Catherine honed her problem-solving approach by combining her engineering experience and her studies in architecture. As she explains it,
“I always try to understand the fundamental causes of a problem. What are the different systems and structures involved, and how they interact with each other…From there I can amplify the good forces and oppose the bad ones.”
The “Bathroom Reboot” project definitely amplifies the good forces of architecture and engineering. At its core, this effort makes bathrooms more inclusive to people who are transgender, gender non-conforming and other identities across the spectrum. In order to adhere to laws and improve accessibility, Catherine has researched concepts such as maximizing privacy and functionality within bathrooms.
In cities such as New York, where Catherine works as an architect, building codes specifically delineate between bathrooms for men and for women. Initially, this represented a victory for women, as they previously had nowhere to use the bathroom in public. Now, these rigidly defined rules marginalize a new group of people. This creates a challenge that Catherine continues to work through.
The status quo for bathroom design remains rigid. However, Catherine sees room for progress in the broader field of design. The project currently remains in the research and advocacy phase. Catherine has presented her research at conferences and educates aspiring designers about the issue through a course she teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. Along with her colleague, Tyler Cukar, Catherine has led campaigns against spaces that are fundamentally discriminatory. This reality, known as “exclusion by design”, remains a problem that Catherine and her colleagues want to address.
Their current approach focuses on adapting old structures and designs in order to fulfill modern needs. Therefore, Catherine emphasizes working with clients to understand their backgrounds before launching into a new project. Catherine comments,
“Societies change much faster than buildings or cities, but if we work with people, we can use their experiences and identities to bring design to life.”
This story was written by Samantha Holmes, an Honorable Mention Award recipient from our previous Journalism Fellowship Application round. Connect with her on Linkedin.