It’s definitely getting to be that time of year: the second I open my door I’m hit with a blast of cold air that makes me squint as I rush to get inside and pour myself a cup of coffee. I usually park on the west side of the Village Court building on my way into the office and make my way up the steps and past the winding ramp into the courtyard. Sometimes, it takes seeing someone with a chair or walker using the ramp to remind me that I take my mobility for granted, especially on the coldest winter days. I move over stairs and curbs and through doors without a second thought; not everyone has this luxury.
I’m a firm believer that paying attention to these details will only make designs more thoughtful and useful. However, in the United States, designing with accessibility in mind isn’t just a thoughtful gesture or a nice sentiment: it’s a part of the building code and required by law. I think plenty of people have heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990 to combat discrimination based on disability. What many people don’t know is how often architects have to consider accessibility in the course of our everyday practice. Even seasoned developers or owner’s representatives often have misconceptions when assessing the impact of accessible design standards on their projects.
Here are some of the key misunderstandings, misconceptions, and pitfalls that I’ve seen impact project goals and leave clients surprised or confused.
Misconception: The ADA is the only accessibility code I need to worry about.
Reality: A cluster of codes and guidelines will be relevant depending on your project and location.
The ADA is one of the most recognizable accessibility codes out there for a few reasons. For one, it’s a federal law, which means it applies everywhere in the United States. By contrast, most building codes are adopted at the state and local level. It also impacts areas outside of architecture and construction, such as transportation and employment discrimination. Throw in the fact that it has a useful and recognizable acronym, and it becomes an easy shorthand for architects to use when we want to communicate that we’re talking about accessibility issues.
These characteristics can obscure the fact that, in reality, a variety of codes, laws, and standards can impact your project. Local building codes, often based on the International Building Code (IBC) framework, impact the design of exit elements like hallways, stairs, and ramps. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is the place to look if you want to know more about things like kitchens and bathrooms within dwelling units. And if you’re looking for clear details and diagrams, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) codes have plenty of examples with dimensions and explanations.
An experienced architect will provide value here in two main ways. For one, we know where to start looking depending on the question at hand. With every new design challenge, we develop a better roadmap that allows us to navigate these different documents efficiently and get you the answers you need. The other way we’re most useful here is our design tendencies and habits: many of the details are baked into the way we draw and design at this point, which means less time, money, and headaches spent figuring out what you need to do to get a permit, finish your project, and use your newly finished space.
Misconception: Accessibility codes only apply to new buildings or spaces.
Reality: New areas of existing buildings need to comply with code, and the law may make you update areas that you weren’t initially considering.
When you’re designing a new building, it’s a bit easier to make everything code-compliant; you don’t have to work around any existing conditions from decades ago when considerations were different. However, Allume primarily deals with renovations and additions to existing buildings, a trend that has seen a steady increase since the early 2000s. According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2020 Firm Survey Report, the percentage of architectural renovation and addition projects by fee grew from 34% in 2005 to almost 50% today. The report cites a glut of underutilized buildings and a focus on sustainability as potential factors. I’ll add another: it’s often cheaper to renovate an existing building than build new. But how does the challenge of conforming to modern accessibility standards impact that assessment?
After all, the AIA report notes that an estimated 40% of the national building stock is over 50 years old. Meanwhile, the ADA was only passed 30 years ago and the other codes mentioned above often weren’t adopted until the turn of the century in many states and cities. Fortunately, the ADA takes this fact into account with its clause on disproportionality. The code recognizes that requiring a complete and immediate overhaul of so much noncompliant building stock would be infeasible. Instead, a review is triggered whenever an application for new work is completed and the cost of this work is taken into account. Specifically, building owners are on the hook for ADA upgrades for up to 20% of the total cost of work for a project.
Again, a good architect will be able to optimize the process. Architects, as project managers, should facilitate regular communication between the client and the contractor to develop an up-to-date rough budget for the project. Then, this number can be used to estimate the cost of various accessibility upgrades. From the other side, the architect’s rapport with plan reviewers and inspectors can help the project team understand the municipality’s priorities and code interpretations. With this information, the client and design team can establish a strategy to make sure that a balance of equity, budget, schedule, and project goals is attained. At Allume, we know how crucial this project management lens is to the success of a project: founder Andrea Nemecek spent years as Facilities Architect for the Medical College of Wisconsin where she developed a deep understanding of client-side concerns that informs how we manage the entire project process.
Misconception: Accessible design won’t affect the design or layout that much.
Reality: Accessible elements can bey key drivers of space planning and impact designs in ways that clients or contractors don’t expect
While experienced developers or project managers can be more aware of how codes impact design strategies, I think new and seasoned building owners alike continue to be surprised by code requirements. Sometimes, the ADA elements of a project actually needs to be established first to avoid extensive design changes late in the game. Architects divide up design into several phases: programming, schematic design, design development, and construction document detailing. The later into this process that major changes are needed, the more costly and time consuming it is for the client.
One example that I consistently see cause surprise and rework for any project type is accessible ramp design. Ramps need to be constructed at a no greater slope that 1:12 per IBC Chapter 10. This means that, for every inch of difference in floor height, a code-compliant ramp needs to be one foot long. Think about it this way: one step of a standard commercial staircase is often 7” tall. Seven feet of ramp length for every step can obviously eat up a serious amount of space in your building very quickly. When we add in the required landing space at top and bottom, even minimum width ramps (36”) can quickly take up hundreds of square feet of floor area in your building.
Of course, ramps are not required at every staircase. They’re mainly required to provide access to the building and all areas of the building within a given floor level, loosely speaking. Still, this can be very impactful when dealing with existing buildings. Many older buildings have split levels or monumental steps. For smaller renovations, adding ramps in these situations can be avoided. Harder to avoid is access to the building itself. I once had a client that was converting an old house into a bed and breakfast. Changing from a single-family residence to a commercial use meant that a ramp was required to reach the front door. And because it was an older house, it had a front porch that was almost six feet above grade. Some quick math made it clear that we were going to need to build a ramp that took up most of the front yard in order to meet code. And while the 20% rule was still applicable, access to the building from the street was a big priority for local building officials, so we had to focus our efforts there first.
Again, the earlier clients can engage the design team, the better off any project will be. Smaller projects may seem to have a greater chance of being derailed by changes and incomplete information, but the 20% rule can limit the impacts. The larger a project gets, the more costly changes become. Additionally, larger institutional clients often have specific processes for funding allocation that make it harder to change course later in the game. At Allume, we will look at the code early, have it on our minds often, and communicate frequently with each client as the project evolves.