Existing Spaces: Evaluating Accessibility Compliance

You’ve identified an existing space to update and you have enlisted an architect to complete a site investigation. Depending on how involved your renovation plans are, you may also consider asking your architect to evaluate the space for accessibility compliance before you finalize your plans. This separate assessment can often be completed in the same site visit and can help you determine if the space will comply with federal law and local accessibility codes; and what kinds of improvements are likely needed.

An architect knowledgeable in accessibility standards who has the skills to evaluate your property can help you understand the impact these requirements can have on your project design and construction costs. ICC A117.1 (International Code Council) is a standard set by the ICC and adopted by the IBC (International Building Code) for accessible design. ICC A117.1 is most commonly what will apply, but it’s important to confirm with the jurisdiction having authority over your project whether or not they have adopted another accessibility code. Some states have developed their own accessibility code or amended the ICC A117.1. It’s complicated, we know!

Along with the requirements of ICC A117.1 you’ll also need to comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Regardless of what local accessibility code has been adopted, you are still required to comply with ADA. While the ADA and ICC A117.1 share some requirements in the design of your facility, you must adhere to both when ICC A117.1 has been adopted.

Need an architect you can trust to complete an accessibility survey? We’d be happy to help.

So, you’ve hired an architect to complete an accessibility code and ADA assessment on your existing space. They’re likely going to complete a very thorough analysis and report back on areas that need to be updated.

But do you have to update everything? Short answer… it depends. If a specific area is altered, such as an entry or a restroom, then that area needs to comply with the ADA and accessibility code. If you’re altering or replacing any materials, fixtures, or equipment in the space, generally speaking, those will need to comply with the current accessibility requirements. The amount you are required to spend towards making accessibility improvements is capped at 20% of the cost of renovations for the area. But that 20% cost requirement takes careful study as there are caveats that apply to how it’s implemented and what accommodations should be prioritized.

Major required updates are typically found in the restrooms. Plumbing can be expensive to move. But it’s also important to provide a compliant, safe, and hospitable space for your guests to use the facilities. You should consider the stalls, coat hooks, locks, toilets, flush valves, toilet paper dispensers, handrails, sink height, clearance underneath sinks, soap dispensers, mirror height, trash cans, diaper changing stations, paper towel dispensers, hand dryers, door sizes and locations, and clearances around all these things combined. With dozens of measurements that need to be taken and compared to current codes and the ADA, this is one place you really get the bang for your buck with an accessibility compliance survey.

Other important accessibility concerns include level surfaces when transitioning from space to space, egress for entrances and exits, inclusive seating and accessible outlets, heights of counter tops and knee clearances, widths of doorways along with an appropriate turning radius in the approach, sidewalks and ramps with appropriate slopes, and even the amount of force required to open a door.

Thresholds and smooth walking surfaces are important considerations for the visually impaired. And a clear floor space is obviously important to be able to easily maneuver a wheelchair or electric scooter.

One additional complication for your space might come into play if the building is designated as historic. This could require that you establish a new accessible entrance separate from the existing stairs or entrance structure which may unable to be removed or modified. You’ll want to verify that your architect has the appropriate understanding and experience to design creative solutions to address challenges with historic buildings. They’ll also be able to advise you on allowable exceptions and work with the local municipality on compliance with the accessibility code.

Of course, you’ll also have to consider state and local specific requirements for each of your sites. This is important to keep in mind if you’re trying to design a prototype that will work for most locations. For example, California, Florida, and Texas each have their own accessibility code that varies to some degree from ICC A117.1. So, make sure the architect you enlist is licensed and experienced in the state(s) where your project(s) will be located.

Figuring out how to comply with different accessibility codes and federal laws may sound daunting but assessing a building for compliance is a standard part of a knowledgeable architect’s job and they should be able to help simplify your remodel by providing a detailed site investigation report upon your request. Accessibility compliance is not a time when it’s better to ask forgiveness instead of permission. So, for the safety and convenience of everyone who will use your building, the sooner you know exactly what doesn’t meet the current codes, the more informed you’ll be with the required accessibility modifications you’ll need to make.


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