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It’s all in the Details: Designing for Passive House & Accessibility Compliance

The number of multifamily residential projects targeting Passive House certification has been rising steadily over the past several years, bringing along many exciting challenges. This has been especially prevalent in New York City, where increasingly stringent energy standards and a desire for innovation have made designing to Passive House standards an attractive goal. As the number of these projects passing through our office continues to grow, we have discovered some important overlaps with one of our other consulting services – Accessibility Compliance.

In the United States, multifamily new construction projects consisting of four or more dwelling units are subject to the Fair Housing Act, as well as state, city, and local accessibility laws and codes. For the purposes of this blog we will focus on projects in NYC, although the majority of newly constructed residential projects across the country will be subject to some variation of the criteria discussed below, for both Passive House and Accessibility standards. With this in mind, we have chosen a couple of common problem areas that require particularly close attention. Read more

Shifting Perspectives: Experiencing Accessibility Challenges

Katie negotiating a curb ramp and crosswalk with the aid of a cane while wearing vision-altering goggles.

Written by Katie Chevalier, Accessibility Specialist

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend a training session entitled “Shifting Your Perspective: Experience and Plan for Accessibility Challenges,” which was hosted by the Dutchess County Planning Federation. The course syllabus was broken down into two components: experiential and site planning. The goal of the experiential portion of the course was to provide attendees with a variety of simulated sensory and ambulatory challenges and have them navigate the built environment. While the course was primarily geared toward local municipal planning boards, there were valuable lessons to take with me, both in my role as an Accessibility Specialist and as a county resident interested in learning first-hand the challenges that people with disabilities face every day.

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Tech Notes: Universal Design v. Accessible Design

“Isn’t Universal Design just a different term for Accessible Design?” We hear this from architects and designers a lot. While similarities exist, Accessible Design and Universal Design are actually quite different.

outlets, switches, env controls

This image depicts the prescriptive Accessible Design requirements for light switches and operable parts under the Fair Housing Act. Unlike Universal Design, Accessible Design is not intended to be flexible, with little or no room for tolerance.

The term “Accessible Design” typically refers to compliance with Federal accessibility laws and state and local building codes; including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, among others. Accessible Design requirements are based on anthropometric research – or the study of the human body – and are intended to address people with disabilities. Laws and codes that require compliance with Accessible Design requirements include little or no room for tolerance.

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Why the Whole Building Approach Matters

At Steven Winter Associates, Inc., we support the whole building approach to design and construction by doing our best to ensure that projects meet sustainability, energy efficiency, and accessibility requirements, among other design strategies and goals. From our perspective, accessibility compliance is a key factor in determining whether a project is truly sustainable and efficient.

The Whole Building Approach to Design (from the Whole Building Design Guide, “Design Objectives”)

As an example, I was recently contacted by a New York City-based housing developer. They received a letter from an attorney stating that three of their recently constructed projects in New York City were “tested” and found to be noncompliant with the accessible design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the New York City Building Code. SWA toured the buildings and confirmed that the allegations were in fact true. We identified issues such as excessive cross slopes along the concrete entrance walk, the presence of steps between dwelling units and their associated terraces, the lack of properly sized kitchens and bathrooms, the lack of compliant clear width provided by all user passage doors, etc. It quickly became apparent to us and to the developer that the cost of the remediation required to bring the projects into full compliance would be astronomical.

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60 Minutes on ‘Drive-by’ ADA Lawsuits: On Point or Missed Opportunity?

60 Minutes recently aired a story on what it referred to as “drive-by lawsuits” filed against businesses for failing to comply with the design and constructioninsiders-guide-ada-image requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The piece showcased stories of people who essentially “drive” around on the hunt to find ADA violations, including ramps that are look like they’re steeper than what’s permitted by the ADA, parking spaces that are not designated by required signs, missing pool lifts, etc. Before you know it, the attorney files a case against a business for design and construction violations of the ADA. What results? The establishment that is sued typically settles out of court and has to fork over thousands in court fees, which are theoretically divvyed up by the attorney and the plaintiff all in an effort to make money. Can this be possible? Yes, it can – and these “drive by” lawsuits happen all the time. So, in this instance, the 60 Minutes story was on point – people take advantage of “the system” for personal gain all of the time and in many different ways.

Here’s the missed opportunity – the 60 Minutes piece did nothing to highlight the incredible opportunities that have been opened up to people with disabilities as a result of the passing of the ADA. The story failed to mention that there are an estimated 53 million Americans with disabilities who, as a result of the ADA, now have the ability to work, shop, live, and play on the same terms as everyone else. The ADA leveled out the playing field and provides equal access to the built environment – equality; isn’t that what we’re all about?

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