Spend enough time out in the world, and you’ll eventually have to make use of a public restroom. This is an undesirable consequence of going out in public, as the stalls may be poorly maintained, clogged, full of graffiti, or otherwise highly unpleasant.
Given that a public bathroom trip is already fraught with tension, why do these stalls compound the issue by leaving a huge gap underneath the door? In a moment of great vulnerability, why must one’s feet be displayed? Why can’t a public pooper have complete privacy?
There are actually a number of valid reasons it’s good to increase visibility inside of a stall. If the door went all the way to the floor, other occupants might not be able to notice if someone in a stall was having a problem and lost consciousness. The gap provides visibility in case a person inside is in some kind of distress. It also helps first responders, who could pull the occupant out without having to break down the door.
A gap also provides just enough of a dent in privacy to make any kind of undesirable public behavior—like sexual activity or drug use—less practical.
There are economical and logistical considerations, too. Doors that come only part of the way down are universal, meaning that suppliers and installers don’t need to custom-measure them. This saves on costs. Small doors also make cleaning floors in and around the stalls easier. This was the motivation behind the partitions famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the influential Larkin Building that stood in Buffalo, New York, from 1903 to 1950. Many of his ideas, like small bathroom doors, became a standard of business construction.
If you’re still not convinced gaps are a design win, consider that an enclosed stall is going to have only limited air circulation. The last thing you want or need in a public bathroom is to trap odors. It also helps keep loitering to a minimum. (Then again, so would the stench.)
Remember—if you’re mildly uncomfortable in a public stall, that’s the point. And if you collapse from the fumes of the previous occupant, at least someone will be able to see you.
[h/t One Point Partitions]