Accessible Design and Designing for Health and Wellness

What is the relationship between accessible design and designing for health and wellness?

As Lead on Accessibility for the AIA Committee on Design + Wellbeing and Senior Accessibility Consultant for Steven Winter Associates, this is a question I am often asked. The answer is threefold:

1) The six AIA Principles on AIA Design for Health PrinciplesDesigning for Health directly impact people with disabilities. For example, to help people with disabilities safely navigate the built environment and engage with their community, we must promote Safety and Social Connectedness; by addressing Environmental Quality we can mitigate the onset of certain disabilities, such as asthma, that can arise from polluted surroundings; the effective design of Sensory Environments and Access to Natural Systems can reduce stress and anxiety to enhance physical and mental health; and Physical Activity can be critical to physical therapy and rehabilitation for people with disabilities.

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Accessible Design: Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

Part 2: Dwelling Units

As promised, we’re back with Part 2 of the most common mistakes that our accessibility group encounters when assessing for compliance with regulatory requirements for accessible design and construction. This time, we’ll focus on frequent problems that we have encountered within dwelling units. Remember, in order to save time and money on costly remediation once construction begins – and reduce the risk of exposure to future litigation – it is best to tackle these issues early in the design phase.

Here are just a few of the violations frequently identified by our inspectors:

1.  Doors: Clear Width

Clear width is measured between the face of the door and the opposing stop, when the door is open 90 degrees.

Clear width is measured between the face of the door and the opposing stop, when the door is open 90 degrees.

Every door within a dwelling unit that is intended for user passage must provide the necessary clear opening to  provide access to a person with a wheelchair, or other mobility aid. The minimum clear width requirement varies (32 inches nominal or 32 inches minimum), so it is important to consult federal, state, and local codes to ensure that the specified doors will comply. This requirement applies to all doors within the unit – it does not matter whether there are multiple doors providing access to a particular room.

Specifying user passage doors that are 3’-0” or 2’-11”, including doors to closets deeper than 24 inches, will help to ensure that a compliant clear width is achieved.

2.  Kitchen Clearance

Projecting appliances often encroach into the required clearance in dwelling unit kitchens.

Projecting appliances often encroach into the required clearance in dwelling unit kitchens.

The minimum clearance between opposing elements in a kitchen depends on whether the kitchen is a galley kitchen (40 inches) or a U-shaped kitchen (60 inches). Clearance is measured between the furthest projecting element of opposing countertops, appliances (excluding handles), and base cabinets.

Often, the range and refrigerator are not aligned with the edge of the countertop, as commonly drawn on plans. These appliances frequently project beyond the edge of the countertop and often compromise the required minimum clearance. If larger appliances are selected (or substituted) after kitchen layouts have been designed, it is important that the layouts are reassessed with the updated appliance dimensions to ensure that clearances are maintained.

3. Outlets, Switches, and Environmental Controls

Switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other controls intended to be used by the resident must be located within accessible reach range. Noncompliance often occurs when reaching over an obstruction to access the controls is required (e.g., kitchen countertops). Often, electrical subcontractors install light switches and outlets at a consistent height, which while compliant for an outlet mounted on a wall in the middle of the room, will not necessarily work for an outlet mounted over a counter. We highly recommend installing all switches, outlets, and other controls no more than 44 inches above the finished floor, measured to the top of the electrical box.

Dimensioning to the top of the electrical box for outlets mounted high on the wall and the bottom of the electrical box for outlets mounted low on the wall will ensure that all operable parts are fully mounted within accessible reach range.

It is never too soon to think about accessible design requirements. The earlier these common problem areas are taken into consideration, the easier it will be to ensure compliance with accessibility laws and regulations once the construction phase of the project begins. By planning ahead, it is possible to address the most widespread issues in the design phase, significantly reducing the amount of delays in the field. A little effort now could eliminate a lot of headaches later.

The Future of Accessible Housing

Fair Housing Act Happy Fair Housing Month! This April marks the 47th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. On April 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the FHA into law, making it illegal to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing, among other transactions, based on race, religion, color, sex, and national origin. However, it wasn’t until 20 years later (1988) that the FHA was amended to include protections for people with disabilities, which instituted a host of accessibility regulations that are still the standard for multifamily housing design today.

As our country and politics evolve, I wonder how an additional 20 years will change the face of accessible housing. There are many initiatives that challenge us to look beyond the current standards written into federal laws and building codes. The Visitability Movement, for example, led by Eleanor Smith, champions a modest level of accessibility for single family homes, which currently are not required by federal law to meet any level of accessibility (see SWA staff present with Ms. Smith at the 2015 AIA National Convention). In addition, the U.S. Access Board and American National Standards Institute (ANSI), two parties responsible for writing accessibility standards, continue to expand on accessible design, particularly as the disability rights movement continues to shape public policy, allowing for increased levels of accessibility.

Equal Opportunity LogoWe are also seeing a trend in the voluntary incorporation of accessible features in design initiatives such as Universal Design, which promotes usability for all ages and abilities, as well as aging in place initiatives. SWA has been compiling an accessible product directory (to be released soon) that features a wide range of sleek and modern products that enhance accessibility without compromising style. We’ve also been on the cusp of ventures that address health and wellness through design, such as the WELL Building Standard, which promotes accessibility as a main component of a building occupant’s health and wellbeing.

We at SWA will certainly celebrate this Fair Housing Month and all the progress made towards housing that is inclusive to all; however we would be remiss if we didn’t think about what’s in store for accessible design in the future. We look forward to learning and growing with our clients and partners as we continue to bring accessibility to the built environment.

Let us know how the Fair Housing Act has made a positive impact on your life and what you hope to see in the future. Follow us on Twitter and use #FairHousingMonth to follow and contribute to the conversation!

An Insider’s Guide to Restaurant Accessibility

As a resident of Washington, D.C. for nearly ten years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time frequenting the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Much like my fellow Accessibility Consultants at SWA, even when we’re off the clock, we notice structural violations of federal accessibility laws on a daily basis. I would love to say that DC’s restaurant industry is an exception, but unfortunately there are still many challenges facing diners with disabilities in Washington.

Accessibility regulations that apply to restaurants are outlined under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Achieving compliance with the ADA can be a substantial task, but not without significant benefit. Recent statistics show that people with disabilities spend over $35 billion in restaurants a year. This is no small change for an industry with ever-increasing competition. Compliance also mitigates risk of litigation, which is particularly important as the U.S. Department of Justice and advocacy groups continue systemic investigations across the country.

Following are a few general rules of thumb to remember when providing equal access to guests with disabilities:

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Accessible Design: Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

Part 1: Public and Common-use Areas

After years of inspecting multifamily housing developments across the country for compliance with regulatory requirements for accessible design and construction, our accessibility group has compiled a list of common violations – violations that could easily have been avoided before construction even began. By addressing requirements for accessibility in the early phases of a project, designers can preempt the need for costly remediation during construction and greatly reduce the possibility of potential litigation.

Here are just a couple of examples of common violations that we come across on a regular basis:

  1. Slopes of Accessible Routes
    At least one accessible route is required to connect site arrival points, accessible building entrances, various site and building amenities, and dwelling units in the project. All too often, we arrive on site to find that the slopes of these accessible routes are not compliant (sometimes more than twice what is allowed), necessitating the ripping up of sidewalks and flooring materials – an undertaking that can quickly become expensive. When considering an accessible route, there are two important slopes to keep in mind: cross slope and running slope.

    — Cross slopes of accessible routes must be no more than 1:48 (2%). Areas where two accessible routes intersect, as well as the clearance at doors, must not exceed 2% when measured in any direction.
    — Running slopes of accessible routes must be no more than 1:20 (5%). If the running slope of an accessible route exceeds 5%, it is then considered a ramp and all ramp criteria apply, including the requirement for handrails on both sides of the ramp.

    By identifying the required accessible routes on the drawings, and providing notes and slope indicators along these routes rather than spot elevations, it is possible to greatly increase the chances of compliance once the concrete is poured and the building is constructed.

  2. Protruding Objects
    Sconces are common examples of protruding objects.

    Sconces are common examples of protruding objects.

    Accessible design isn’t just about ensuring equality for those with mobility impairments. Another important, and often missed requirement, applies to those with visual impairments. A protruding object can be something as basic as a wall sconce, bar countertop, or drinking fountain; and as seemingly innocuous as a piece of artwork on the wall. Any element that is located 27-80 inches AFF and projects more than 4 inches from a wall can prove hazardous to someone who does not have the ability to see it. The projecting objects themselves may seem small, but the cost of replacing hundreds of lighting fixtures throughout a building can be astronomical.

    While the best method of avoiding protruding objects is to specify wall-mounted sconces and other fixtures with a low profile, there will of course be situations that require other solutions. Where a protruding object exists, a cane-detectable barrier must be provided below it to ensure that a person with a visual impairment will be able to identify and avoid the potentially hazardous object. This can be as simple as positioning a planter or built-in piece of furniture below a wall sconce or piece of artwork, or installing a foot rail or knee wall below projecting bar countertops. Locating drinking fountains within alcoves is another method of achieving compliance.

By addressing these common violations in the design phase of a project, it is possible to greatly reduce the need for change orders and costly delays once construction begins. A little planning ahead can save a lot of time and money in the long run.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Dwelling Units – coming soon!