There are approximately 57 million Americans living with disabilities in the United States; worldwide, people with disabilities make up 15% of our population. Given this information, we must do our part to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to opportunities afforded to everyone – starting with equal access to buildings.
This week’s guest is a long-time accessibility expert who serves as the Managing Director of SWA’s Accessibility Services, Peter Stratton. Peter begins the episode with an overview of the existing accessibility requirements in the U.S. and highlights additional measures that should be taken to ensure inclusiveness for all. Join us to learn how we can foster a more accessible built environment through careful design and planning.
Episode Guest: Peter Stratton
Peter Stratton is a Senior VP and the Managing Director of Accessibility Services at SWA. Under his leadership, the firm’s Accessibility Consulting Team provides services for a variety of private and public clients nationwide, including the owner of the largest privately owned residential real estate portfolio in New York City, two of the top-ten largest housing authorities in the U.S., and the largest shelter system in the U.S. He is the author of a variety of industry publications, including A Basic Guide to Fair Housing Accessibility – Everything Architects and Builders Need to Know About the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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About Buildings and Beyond
Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit www.swinter.com.
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Air Source Heat Pumps
Guest: Robb Aldrich
Kelly: 00:06 Welcome to buildings and beyond
Robb: 00:09 the podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment
Kelly: 00:13 by focusing on efficiency, accessibility and health.
Robb: 00:16 I’m Robb Aldrich
Kelly: 00:19 and I’m Kelly Westby.
Robb: 00:20 This week I’m talking with Peter Stratton, who is the managing director of accessibility services here at Steven winter associates. And he’s been at this for quite a while. He’s been working on accessibility related topics since back in the eighties or nineties when the first accessibility legislation came out and he’s been helping people comply with the legislation. We talk a little bit about the history of accessibility requirements, how it differs from codes. They’re not always the same thing, which can be frustrating. And basically what he does, how he helps building owners, designers, developers comply with the proper accessibility requirements.
New Speaker: 01:04 Pete thanks for being here.
Peter: 01:06 Thanks for having me Robb.
Robb: 01:08 So one of my big focuses of this podcast, one of my big interests is to talk more with people in this company. I mean, the company’s not huge, 125 people or so, but we do a lot of different things. And accessibility is one of the things that I’m really not very familiar with. So when we decided to do this podcast, I said, all right, I want to interview Peter Stratton first. And I told you and you said fantastic, and then you left the country for two weeks. So what’s up with that?
Peter: 01:38 I’m back now though, I was investigating accessibility in Machu Picchu
Robb: 01:43 I look forward to the report. I guess first we’re talking about accessibility and people know what it is in a vague sense, but do you have a good working definition or an official definition?
Peter: 01:57 working definition? So when we talk about accessibility in the context of what we do here at Steven winter associates, accessibility really means, that a building, a space, a facility is in compliance with a requirement or a criteria. So when we say is the building accessible? we really mean, does it comply with the requirements that are applicable to the building?
Robb: 02:22 Okay. And the term universal design I hear a lot is that kind of a above and beyond term?
Peter: 02:31 many terms. Accessibility is what- when we talk about accessibility, again, we mean in compliance with the requirement. When we talk about universal design or inclusive design, we talk about sort of going beyond compliance and accommodating the needs of a variety of potential building users versus accessibility, which focuses mostly on accommodating the needs of people with disabilities. So that’s the distinction.
Robb: 03:02 And accessibility- The legal requirements for accessibility are a big enough stretch for some people that going above and beyond is, we don’t get into that too much
Peter: 03:12 We do get into it often enough, but universal design for the most part is not a requirement of federal, state or local law or building codes. There are universal design requirements that are out there, but not to the extent that accessibility requirements exist.
Robb: 03:31 Okay. So when did it start, when did you start working and when did accessibility requirements come on the books?
Peter: 03:38 Yeah, well, we been working on accessibility for many years. I personally celebrate my 25th anniversary here at Steven Winter associates this month. But we haven’t been working on it that long, almost that long. Many years ago we were a contractor to HUD’s office of policy development and research and OPDNR at that time had RFPs out on the street for contractors who could get involved in some early research on the fair housing amendments act.
Robb: 04:20 And that was new?
Peter: 04:21 That was new at the time. Certainly. The law fair housing amendments act of 1988 when we talk about the Fair Housing Act, subsequent to the passing of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, you know, the industry was kind of confused about having to comply with the legal use of a federal regulation and also with the requirements of a building code or criteria.
Robb: 04:50 And there wasn’t overlap? So this was, this was the legislation, not building code.
Peter: 04:53 This is federal legislation in addition to building code that that was, that applied at the time. and then architect for example, understands building code and criteria, technical standards. And at that time, little bit confused about the legally use of a federal regulation, which they at that time learned that they need to comply with. And so there was some early research on what it all sort of really meant for the industry. And we were involved in that early research and then it sort of snowballed from there. And here we are all these years later with a significant number of people on the team doing a lot of great stuff. Yeah.
Robb: 05:40 Very cool. And is it mostly with developers we’re working with? I mean, what’s the stretch?
Peter: 05:49 I mean, so our clients run the gamut. We work with a whole bunch of stakeholders, right? So architects, developers, contractors, public agencies, and lots of attorneys because it is very litigious as you can imagine. And we’ve got developers and other entities that are sued often for noncompliance with requirements. And we do a lot of that litigation consulting. So working with a lot of attorneys these days. But for the most part I’d say we work primarily with developers and architects- that sort of bread and butter. New construction. The requirements depending also cover existing construction alterations, renovations. But I think our bread and butter for the most part is new construction, multifamily housing.
Robb: 06:40 And so is that separation between legislation and codes still present? Has it gotten better or has legislation outpaced codes and codes are trying to catch up?
Peter: 06:56 You know it’s a mixed bag. So in the very beginning, we had the legal use of federal regulations to worry about when we design and construct facilities, and I’m talking about housing, but we have all the federal requirements like the ADA that apply to facilities that are non housing facilities, like public accommodations. Fair housing is obviously housing and the ADA is public accommodation and commercial facilities. Title Three of the ADA and title two of the ADA covers activities of states and local governments. So if the local government does have a housing type of a facility, like a shelter, although it is housing, it is also subject to ADA title two because it’s a activity of a state or local government, I should say. So federal regulations have to be complied with in addition to the building code in the very beginning, many years ago it was a tough kind of nut to crack.
Peter: 08:02 You know, what’s more stringent, what takes precedence over the other. I really only need to worry about the requirements of the building code when it comes to access because that’s enough to get me in compliance with federal regulation, which is not true. And so that was the sentiment at that time.
Robb: 08:22 Were talking about nineties?
Peter: 08:24 we’re talking early nineties, mid nineties. Now a lot has changed, more current additions of the building code. And I’m talking about the international building code way. When all these federal regulations came into play, we didn’t have the international building code. We had a number of different building codes like BOCA or the southern building code, that covered different jurisdictions across the country. Now, for the most part, we have the international building code. And it has chapter 11 accessibility in it.
Peter: 08:59 And it has, you know, attempted to keep up with the requirements of federal law. There are some editions of the International Building Code, for example, that are approved by HUD as safe harbors for compliance with the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, a safe harbor is a document that you can turn to, that when you comply with that document from beginning to end, you essentially comply with the requirements of fair housing.
Robb: 09:26 And so HUD will review a code and say, all right, this meets all our checklists?
Peter: 09:31 That’s right. And HUD it has done that, but they stopped at the international building code 2006, and now we’re up to 2018. So Hud is sort of lagging, building codes have progressed.
Robb: 09:44 And the accessibility requirements, the legislation also have progressed or evolved?
Peter: 09:50 No, the fair housing amendments act has remained the same. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been updated and there had been criteria that have been updated. But additions of the international building code beyond 2006 have not been approved by HUD as safe harbors for compliance.
Robb: 10:09 So presumably they didn’t backtrack on their accessibility measures?
Peter: 10:14 Thats right. I think things have gotten better and the trend is sort of improved accessibility in the building codes for sure, but still not a HUD approved safe harbor. And it’s not that, you know, there’s nothing in the legal ease of the law that tells you that you’ve got to comply with a HUD approved safe harbor.
Robb: 10:36 Thats just a service really to try to get accessibility into standard practice. Cause I mean developers, builders, have to deal with codes, architects, everybody has to deal with the codes. They know how to deal with the codes. And now you throw up a piece of legislation at them, and it’s like woah.
Peter: 10:56 I think I would have believed I would have agreed with that statement 20 years ago. But today for an industry key stakeholder to say, “hey look, I’m a little confused at this law” or “I understand my building is not compliant, but you know, I get the building code I’m not really familiar with it.” I think a little bit too late for that. It’s been around for many, many, many, many years at this point. And so, you know, you try to learn and grow and I think what has changed from now to then is that the industry I think realizes now that accessibility really is its own sort of niche practice.
Robb: 11:43 Right. You have to do it. That’s like efficiency. I mean codes didn’t use to address efficiency. It was, you know, structural safety, fire safety..
Peter: 11:51 You’ve got to do it right. And you rely on the accessibility consultant just like you would rely on any specialty consultant. The acoustics consultant, right? The landscape consultant, the mechanical consultant, you know, the architect is not developing or designing mechanical systems and is not doing acoustics probably for the most part. So how can you expect an architect to essentially be paid what they’re paid and also understand all of the nuts and bolts of a federal regulation in addition to the building code? I think it’s just way too much.
Robb: 12:25 Gotcha. So what are some of the nuts and bolts, I mean, what are some of the things that people fail to comply with? Some common things that just requires some extra thought or some extra planning?
Peter: 12:34 Yeah things people fail to comply with that? That a great question. I think what trips people up and when I see people, I think for the most part, designers or architects and interior designers, speaking as one of those professionals. Yes. And just based on the experience, you know what I see every day. All of the codes, the federal laws, the state laws, local legislation, all have what’s called scoping criteria and technical criteria. So the scoping criteria is what needs to be accessible. For example, how many building entrances are required to be accessible, how many bathrooms are required to be accessible. And then you turn to technical criteria for direction on how to make an entrance accessible. The clear width of the door, you know, maximum opening pressure, maneuvering clearance on both sides, the hardware type, closing speed, all of that. The technical criteria I think are pretty simple. You know, you go to the criteria, you open the book and you follow the steps, the door has to provide a clear with of no less than 32 inches measuring between the face of the door and the opposing stop when the door is open, 90 degrees. That’s simple. I think it’s scoping criteria in terms of how many, how much, that sort of confuses architects and designers. And that’s where we see, I think, the mistakes being made. You know, the building code for example in New York City requires that all public entrances are accessible. Americans with disabilities act requires that 60% of public entrances are accessible. The fair housing amendments act requires that at least one primary entrance be accessible. So if you have a building that is subject to a number of federal requirements, which many are, in addition to building code, you’ve got different scoping requirements and you’ve got different technical requirements to comply with. So it’s understanding what to apply and sort of what governs what rule you’ve got to follow. And so it’s mostly the scoping information. That’s what trips designers up.
Robb: 15:03 And its not necessarily getting the details right, You know, so something has to be a dimension of x and its dimension of x plus one inches
Peter: 15:11 I want to say yes, but then again, when I think about it, you know, the devil’s in the details, it’s all about the details really. I think it’s the scoping criteria that just, if you don’t iron out the scoping criteria, how many and what, right at the onset, and you can continue to design the project very difficult to correct, you’ve got yourself in a hole. When it comes to the technical criteria, you know, bevels on thresholds, maximum threshold height, clear width at doors. There’s lots that we’d need to think about in order to meet the technical requirements. So to say that a 32 inch door needs to provide a clear width of 32 inches, does a 210 door work? Should you default to a 36 inch door because you have a different or an odd hinge on a 210 door, so the devil is in the details. Certainly.
Robb: 16:15 So have the requirements, I don’t know if hinges is a good example, but has the legislation evolved to kind of make these requirements more practical, more buildable or, or I mean I think I’ve heard someone talk about like ranges and you know, used to mandate a dimension of x, now it’s a dimension of x plus or minus an inch or something to have some wiggle room
Peter: 16:44 yes, the criteria have, the requirements have, definitely progressed, not as fast as the law itself, you know, so we’ve got technical standards that change and develop every so many years. A federal regulation does not do that. The law stays in place. The technical criteria changed over time. That said though, the Americans with Disabilities Act has recently been updated, but the fair housing amendments act has not been updated and either have other federal laws. So although the laws can change, they primarily stay the same, and it’s the technical criteria that change. So what was required by a technical standard in 1998 is very different than the same technical standard, which is now dated, latest one in 2009, 2017 coming onboard. So, there are committees that develop these criteria’s, you know, they also learn as we build over time.
Peter: 17:54 And so one of the things that we often hear is, you know, is there any tolerance? you know, the requirement is 18 inches, a distance of 18 inches between the center line of a toilet and the adjacent side wall for example. It’s very tough to meet that hard line 18 and construction, right? Construction is not a perfect science. So the criteria have moved away from that hard line of 18 and now contemplate a range of between 16 and 18, which is much easier to comply with. Right. Much more builder friendly and much more practical. I’d say. And so that’s where we are with the criteria.
Robb: 18:35 So with, with projects that go well, I mean that you’re involved in, I kind of assume it’s kind of a soup to nuts process being involved with designers early on and, and through construction and verifying after construction
Peter: 18:51 So it runs the gamut. If we could have our wish of course it would be to be involved, at schematic design. So we can advise on the direction that the designer is going in terms of designing the units. Normally we provide two comprehensive reviews, but we don’t only stop at the architectural review, right. we’re reviewing all the plan sets, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and architectural. So it’s just not the spaces.
Robb: 19:26 what on mechanical? What are you have to inspect mechanical drawings for?
Peter: 19:29 So We’re looking, for example, for information on thermostats, which you usually find. We’re looking at height. Often times there are chase walls, which obstruct into maneuvering cones at doors, for example. It’s all the mechanical chases, plumbing chases, you know, there are a whole variety of things.
Robb: 19:52 Are you saying mechanical engineers might draw ducks where they might interfere with somebody?
Peter: 19:58 Sometimes, I think it’s more likely though that we might have a plumbing set that’s misaligned or that doesn’t align with the architectural set. So for example, in a bathtub, in a bathroom or a shower, we’ll see the architect has designed the control wall, whether operable parts to the shower and the top is. The plumbing set may have the same controls but on an opposing wall. And so we often find that the plan sets are not aligned.
Robb: 20:33 Alright so They’re just trying to minimize their plumbing rounds, they’re trying to make it practical for them.
Peter: 20:38 Right, well The architect put the controls on an exterior wall and then in the plumbing, they go from the exterior wall right to an interior wall. And so the building is now constructed with the plumbing on the interior wall because that’s the plumbing set. Cause they pull the plumbing set and that’s what they are building from. But there’s a reason why the architect put the plumbing controls on the exterior wall. Gotcha. And so when you bust stop plumbing controls or control locations, that’s very difficult to fix if sometimes not possible at all.
Robb: 21:09 So, so people are doing better in general? I mean people are catching on?
New Speaker: 21:14 I think people are doing better in general. Yes. You know, years ago it was difficult to convince a design team that they should have their plans reviewed and they should have construction inspected along the way during various stages of construction, which is what we do. But I think people have learned the hard way sometimes. As you know, sometimes the hard way. Yes. Certainly. I think what’s important to realize is that when we’re talking about, you know, designing and constructing multifamily housing, if the building is not built in compliance with the design and construction requirements of the fair housing amendments act, you are violating someone’s civil rights and to violate a building code is one thing to violate civil right is a different thing. And that’s why you hear about so much litigation that surrounds noncompliance with the Fair Housing Amendments Act. We used to hear years ago the developer say, we rely on the architect to get this right, they’re the design professional, why do I need to hire a separate accessibility consultant? But they have since learned that they probably shouldn’t rely only on the architect. There are certainly architects that are very great at it. But again it’s a very specialized field. it certainly is.
Robb: 22:37 So if we were to talk again in five years, what do you think we’d be talking about? What would have changed?
Peter: 22:50 Wow. Five years from now? I would say that based on the trend that we are seeing now, and you know, our group here at Steven Winter Associates has grown pretty significantly over a very short number of years. The work is certainly coming in at a good rate. I think that we might see in five years, probably less of an uptick in litigation. And hopefully that’s as a result of people retaining accessibility, the consultants that do work like us. Gatta give it the old Clark, Rob.
Robb: 23:29 Yeah, absolutely. Getting it right the first time. And I’ve gone through the hard way. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And that’s, I think you started out as a more on the litigation side and they’ve really tried to migrate more and more with builders and developers and designers to get it right.
Peter: 23:42 You got, it definitely started on the litigation side, you know, and when we started, litigation was the only way, you know, to hurt someone in the pocket is the way to get them to learn. And so that was the sort of the press, in terms of enforcement at that time. And at that time, the model of course was cases that involved, the complaints against the industry- architects, developers, and, you know, we today, our model is to work on behalf of industry and to help industry navigate litigation should it make its way into litigation. And that’s what all of our litigation projects now involve, you know, helping industry navigate litigation. And I think that starting in litigation has enabled us to have a very keen sense of how decisions are made that surround particular issues. You know, what the court might sort of be lenient on, what the court might press, what happens in New York City versus same litigation outside of New York City. What happens in a jurisdiction when attorney Xyz is involved in the case versus the same type of litigation that doesn’t involve this particular attorney. And so we’ve learned that as a result of the business. I think that’s the value that we bring.
Robb: 25:17 All right. Nice. Anything else? Any other big picture accessibility points?
Peter: 25:28 pig picture, accessibility points? Uh, not that I can think of offhand, Rob, of course, we might need to do a better job in getting this particular office a little bit more accessible, but you know, this is radio and we can’t see that.
Robb: 25:43 You could send me some notes so I’ll get right on it. Thanks Pete. Appreciate it.
Speaker 3: 25:52 Thank you for listening to buildings and beyond. For more information about the topics discussed today, visit www.swinter.com/podcast And check out the episode show notes buildings and beyond is brought to you by Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building and accessibility consulting services. Do you improve the built environment our professionals have led the way since 1972 and the development of best practices to achieve high performance buildings I production team for today’s episode includes Dylan Martello, Alex Mirabile, and myself. Heather Breslin, thank you for listening and we’ll see you next week.