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Understanding Accessibility: Section 504 & its Impact on Residential Development

Laws and codes governing accessibility ensure that the built environment is designed and constructed to serve its current and future occupants.

The first step in the design process is to determine which disability rights laws and building codes apply to your project. One such law is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. When does Section 504 apply and how do you ensure that your project meets all relevant requirements?

At Steven Winter Associates, our accessibility consultants help our clients comply with every regulation that applies to their project, whether it’s a new construction or a renovation. Below, we pooled our knowledge to answer the most frequently asked questions about Section 504 and how to apply it to residential projects.

What is Section 504?

Disability rights advocates protesting in front of the White House.

Disability rights advocates Judy Heumann, holding the sign, and Kitty Cone, right, protesting in front of the White House on April 26, 1977.

Section 504 is a law that prohibits federal government entities from discriminating against people based on disability in any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.

All federal agencies (and the US Post Office) have their own Section 504 regulations. For example, the US Department of Education’s (ED’s) Section 504 regulations apply to school programs and activities funded by the ED.

Similarly, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Section 504 regulations apply to programs and activities funded by HUD. If HUD funding is provided to a recipient for the purposes of housing development or alterations, then according to HUD’s Section 504 regulations, the recipient must ensure that the housing development or alterations project is accessible to people with disabilities.

Image source: The New York Times

Does Section 504 apply to my residential project?

As a matter of federal law, Section 504 applies to a housing project when HUD funding is provided. Funding can take many forms, such as assistance provided through HUD’s HOME program and funding through a Community Development Block Grant, among others.

Section 504 also applies when it is triggered by local agency requirements as a matter of local law.

For example, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in New York City and the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) in Washington D.C. and Maryland require compliance with Section 504, regardless of whether Section 504 is triggered by HUD as a matter of federal law.

It is important to note that determining whether your project is subject to Section 504 as a matter of federal and/or local law is a critical first step. Just because federal funding is not provided to a project, that does not mean that Section 504 can automatically be discounted. It is important to dig deeper into local agency requirements because many projects are subject to Section 504 under local law only.

Example: A project in Maryland receiving Low Income Housing Tax Credits

Low Income Housing Tax Credits alone do not trigger Section 504 as a matter of federal law; triggering Section 504 on a LIHTC project would require another channel of HUD assistance

However, Maryland requires compliance with Section 504 for any project in the state that receives LIHTCs. In this instance, even though Section 504 does not apply as a matter of federal law, it applies to satisfy the legal requirements of the LIHTC program in Maryland.

Similarly, HPD in New York City triggers the requirements of Section 504 for any project that moves through the local agency, regardless of whether Section 504 compliance is required under federal law.

Ascertaining whether Section 504 is triggered by a local agency and/or the federal government via HUD-funding is critical because it allows the project team to determine the technical standard used to demonstrate compliance with Section 504.

Which technical standard do I use to comply with Section 504?

Covers of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design and the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.In HUD’s Section 504 regulations at Section 8.32, the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standard (UFAS) is identified as the safe harbor document to be applied to any HUD-assisted design, construction, and/or alterations project.

UFAS is an older standard dating back to the late 1980s that includes criteria for making HUD-assisted projects accessible. Many of the criteria don’t align with those included in other accessibility standards, including the recent editions of the ICC A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities referenced by the International Building Code (IBC) and the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design referenced by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Example: A residential development in Virginia with a leasing office and public garage

The project is subject to the A117.1 Standard under the IBC and all areas serving the leasing office and parking garage are subject to the 2010 ADA Standards under the ADA.

Section 404, Doors, Doorways and Gates, in the A117.1 Standard aligns with criteria at Section 404, Door, Doorways and Gates included in the 2010 ADA Standards. Criteria that apply to doors, doorways, and gates are the same in both standards making the design of those elements simple.

Now, let’s assume that the same project receives HUD funding. On top of the A117.1 and 2010 ADA Standards, the project is subject to UFAS under HUD’s Section 504 regulations.

Criteria for doors are included at UFAS Section 4.13, but requirements are not perfectly aligned with those contained in Section 404 of the more recent standards. Toggling between the requirements in the outdated UFAS Standard and the more recent and aligned standards, i.e., A117.1 and the 2010 Standards, increases the complexity of the design process.

Can I use a more recent technical standard under Section 504?

Until HUD eventually updates its Section 504 regulations to eliminate reference to UFAS as the charging standard, UFAS still stands. However, in response to the public’s request to update the UFAS standard referenced by HUD’s Section 504 regulations to better align it with more recent accessibility standards, HUD approved use of the 2010 ADA Standards (with 10 exceptions) in lieu of UFAS to demonstrate compliance with Section 504. In a notice published in the Federal Register in 2014, HUD permits recipients of HUD funding to use either UFAS or the more recent 2010 ADA Standards.

Good news, right? Well, almost.

Because HUD has no effect on local agency program requirements, the 2010 ADA Standards cannot be used in lieu of UFAS where local agency requirements specify and require use of UFAS to demonstrate compliance with Section 504.

Back to our earlier example, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit project in Maryland is required to comply with UFAS as a matter of meeting the State’s LIHTC program requirements, regardless of whether HUD permits use of the 2010 ADA Standards as a matter of compliance with federal law. In other words, although the 2010 ADA Standards could be used to satisfy federal Section 504 requirements, local law has not yet adopted the more recent standard.

In this instance, because the 2010 ADA Standards cannot be used to comply with State’s LIHTC program, it makes the most sense to use UFAS to comply with the local and federal Section 504 requirements.

How do I choose between UFAS and the 2010 ADA Standards?

Only when the local jurisdiction specifically permits use of the 2010 ADA Standards in lieu of UFAS to demonstrate compliance with Section 504 can you choose to use the more recent 2010 ADA Standards. Once you have determined that the use of either standard is permitted, it is worth considering the following when deciding between UFAS and the 2010 ADA Standards:

Is your project subject to Chapter 11 of the IBC and the A117.1 Standard?

If yes, it may make sense to select the 2010 ADA Standards.

If no, it may make sense to select UFAS, especially if your chosen safe harbor for Fair Housing Act (FHA) compliance is the Guidelines or the Design Manual, which reference the 1986 edition of the A117.1 Standard, which aligns well with UFAS.

Example: An HPD affordable housing project in NYC

HPD in NYC permits the 2010 ADA Standards to be used to meet Section 504 requirements that are triggered by the local agency. For HPD projects, it makes sense to apply the 2010 ADA Standards to meet HPD requirements because the same standard is permitted to be applied to HPD projects that are also subject to HUD’s Section 504 requirements.

And, because the building code in New York City references a the A117.1 standard to meet the City’s code requirements contained in Chapter 11: Accessibility, of the New York City Building Code, use of the 2010 Standards is further recommended because it is closely aligned with the A117.1 Standard.

When choosing the 2010 ADA Standards, it is important to remember to consult the 10 exceptions outlined by HUD in the Federal Register.

There are several differences between UFAS and the 2010 ADA Standards that can impact your design. When choosing between the two technical standards, it is important to consider your project’s specific needs.

For more information about when the 2010 ADA Standards can be used to meet Section 504 requirements or for help understanding the differences between the standards, we’re here to help! Click here to contact us.

Peter Stratton headshot



Written by Peter Stratton, Managing Director, Accessibility Services

Accessibility Tech Notes: Trash Chute Closet Design

As an amenity provided to building occupants, hoppers—otherwise known as trash chutes—are required to be accessible. Most commonly, hoppers are included in conventional trash rooms and not located in closets like the one depicted in the image below. The hopper/closet design is uncommon, but we do see it in a fair number of projects.

Evaluating the hopper/closet design to ensure that it’s accessible is more complex than one might imagine. Let’s go through how we would conduct an evaluation of the hopper/closet design.

How to Evaluate for Accessibility Compliance

Diagram of the hopper closet design.The image on the left depicts a trash chute closet (circled in red) in a residential building that’s accessed from a common hallway. The hopper is revealed when the conventional swing door is opened.

Step 1: Isolate the swing door

First, we’d think through how the conventional swing door is operated and used. We know that the door must be opened, which triggers requirements for maneuvering clearance on the common side of the door. Ample maneuvering clearance must be provided to support its use by those who might use a wheelchair or other mobility aid. (more…)

The DC Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) Compliance Rules Are Here. Are You Ready?

This blog post was originally published on September 11, 2019. It was updated on November 18, 2021 with new guidance in response to the DOEE’s final BEPS compliance rules. Click here to learn more.

The Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 was signed into law in 2019, establishing minimum Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) for existing buildings. The law requires all private buildings over 50,000 SF to benchmark energy use and demonstrate energy performance above a median baseline beginning January 1, 2021. The law also lowers the threshold for buildings that need to benchmark; buildings between 25,000 and 49,999 SF will need to benchmark energy use beginning in 2021. Buildings between 10,000 and 24,999 square feet will need to benchmark energy use beginning in 2024.

If a building does not score above the median performance of Washington, DC buildings, it has five years to demonstrate improvement or face financial penalties. By definition, 50% of the buildings required to comply with BEPS will fall below the median—even those just a point or two under. (You can download a list of property types and their medians here.) Building owners can use this map from DOEE to check if their building meets the BEPS.

This month, DOEE released the final BEPS compliance rules. These rules cover the different compliance pathways and the documentation required for each pathway.


DC’s Green Building Requirements for Tax Credits and Funding, Explained

The District Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) recently updated their Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP), which is required by the IRS for issuance of Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), and their Request for Proposals (RFP), a companion piece that governs all other funds, both federal and local.

While there has been a large public focus on the $400 million increase in Housing Production Trust Fund announced by Mayor Bowser, another major development has been the change in green building requirements. DHCD is now requiring that all applicants for any public funding for affordable housing achieve more stringent energy efficiency targets.

New Construction (larger than 50,000 SF)

For new construction projects 50,000 square feet or larger, buildings must meet Enterprise Green Communities (EGC) Plus certification. The Plus level requires deeper levels of energy efficiency by certifying with near zero or zero energy programs such as DOE’s Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH), Passive House International (PHI), or Passive House institute US (PHIUS) among other programs. Currently ZERH applies to projects five-stories or less, with an expanded multifamily version expected to be released for public comment in early 2022. EGC Plus certification also requires dehumidification strategies to address potential humidity concerns.


Staff Profile: Michael Schmidt – Building Systems Consultant

Each day, SWA employees collaborate to create more sustainable, efficient, healthy, and accessible buildings. This holistic approach to the built environment necessitates talented teams with a wide range of specializations. (Want to join us? Check out the open positions on our Careers page!)

In this staff profile, we’re catching up with Michael Schmidt, a Building Systems Consultant on our Passive House team in New York City. Michael started his career as an intern with SWA, and upon graduation, joined the team where he has now worked for almost two years.

Inclusive Design and Building Performance: An Inclusive Approach to Improving the Built Environment

Human beings spend most of their time in or around the built environment. As we live, work, and play, the design of the spaces we occupy can have a profound impact on our wellbeing.

The way that our environments affect our physical and mental health has long been a topic of discussion in the fields of architecture, urban planning, and environmental psychology. Physical barriers to access can result in the exclusion of people with disabilities; lack of indoor air quality or access to natural light can impact cognitive development or lead to future health issues.

From a mental health perspective, studies have shown that most of our reactions to a space are on an emotional, rather than a rational level and emotional reactions can vary among the occupants of a space. [1,2] Some may feel uneasy, while others feel comfortable.

Articulating the characteristics of a space that trigger certain emotions is a challenge but by considering the people for whom a space is intended, designers can create spaces that positively impact quality of life for those who inhabit them.

With this in mind, we at SWA are developing a fresh approach to creating buildings that perform well for the occupants they serve.


Accessibility Tech Notes: Obstructed Forward Reach

Section drawing through kitchen sink with knee and toe clearance dimensioned below. A red dashed line shows faucet controls aligned with the front edge of the toe clearance.

The reach depth to controls mounted over obstructions cannot exceed the depth of the knee and toe clearance. Reaching beyond the front edge of the toe clearance is not permitted.

Operable parts designed to be used by building occupants, including but not limited to, thermostats, dispensers, light switches, fire alarm pull stations, etc., must be located so that they are accessible to everyone. Technical standards referenced by federal, state, and local laws and building codes include design criteria developed to ensure that operable parts are accessible. A 30 x 48 inch clear floor space is required to be positioned at the operable part to support one of two types of reaches: a forward (perpendicular) or a side (parallel) reach. Of the two reach types, each can be unobstructed or obstructed. Unobstructed forward and side reaches do not require reaching over an element to access an operable part. Conversely, obstructed forward and side reaches require reach over an element, such as a countertop or shelf, to access an operable part. Of all the reaches to operable parts, the obstructed forward reach is the most challenging to design and construct. As we always say, the devil is in the details, so proper detailing of the obstructed forward reach is critical to nail down in design.


Air-Source Heat Pumps in Homes: Step #2 – Pay Attention to the Envelope

This is part of a series; see the first post here.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone:  In most homes, insulation and air sealing are the most effective ways to improve comfort and reduce heating and cooling costs.

This holds true regardless of heating systems or fuels used. So why is it emphasized even more when talking about heat pumps and electrification? Four reasons.

1.  Heating System Capacity and Cost.

Say your home has a design heating load of 60,000 Btu/h.[1] If heating with fuel, you’ll need a furnace or boiler with a capacity of at least 60,000 Btu/h. These are easy to find. (In fact, you may have a hard time finding heating systems with capacities lower than this.) Air-source heat pumps, on the other hand, have smaller capacities. I don’t think you’ll find an ASHP with heating output of 60,000 Btu/h at cold winter temperatures. So to meet this load, you’ll need multiple ASHPs. And that gets pricey.

Even if you are not talking about multiple heat pumps, a 3-ton[2] heat pump is quite a bit less costly than a 5-ton heat pump. Costs of heat pumps scale more dramatically than costs of boilers and furnaces. So lower heating loads → fewer, smaller heat pumps → lower upfront costs.

Spray foam insulation

Spray foam in an attic – one of many ways to insulate and seal.


Choose Your Adventure: Constructing New vs. Adapting Old

Carbon emissions from new construction graphTo meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, we must make decisions that will result in the greatest near-term carbon savings. This means taking into account both embodied carbon—those upfront emissions associated with the extraction, manufacture, transportation, and assembly of building materials—as well as the carbon that’s emitted over the course of the building’s operational phase.

We can build a high-performance building with very low operational emissions, but if its embodied emissions are so high that even if it’s a net-zero energy building (meaning it has net-zero operational energy consumption) it would take decades for the building to reach net-zero carbon (meaning it has net zero whole-building lifetime carbon emissions), we’re not actually helping to solve the critical issue of near-term carbon.


Utilizing Enterprise Green Communities to Drive Equity in Affordable Housing

EGC logoIs Sustainability only for the wealthy? While staring at the double-digit price of organic tomatoes at the local farmers’ market I am inclined to think sustainable is synonymous with exclusive. Unfortunately, many things labeled “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” seem not to be within everyone’s budget. A society where the cost of a Tesla is the average annual income of a household easily convinces us that making sustainable choices comes with a cost many can’t afford.

The ”green” housing industry is no different. Walkable and well-connected neighborhoods, where residents can enjoy abundant services are often the pricey neighborhoods. Toxic-free natural materials, daylight, fresh air, and even living green walls fill the homes of the wealthier and healthier tenants, while high-efficient mechanical systems and solar panels provide (almost invisible) energy savings as compared to their sky-high rents.

On the other side, low-income families are often located in neighborhoods at the edges of cities where community services and fresh healthy food are out of reach except by driving, and where parks and options to catch some fresh air are far and rare. Here the apartments are more likely to be exposed to toxic materials, increasing chances to develop asthma or other diseases. Energy bills are often high with little opportunity to get any lower by using newer energy-saving appliances and equipment.