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.

As I was ending the inspection of the last building, the developer mentioned that each of the three buildings cited for noncompliance with accessibility requirements was also carefully designed and constructed to be “super energy efficient.”  It occurred to me, as it does each time I encounter this scenario, that there was a missed opportunity to practice whole building design and construction. In other words, while a great deal of care was taken to make the building energy efficient, too little effort was focused on achieving compliance with accessible design and construction requirements.

We in the industry know – if you fail to comply with accessibility requirements, it does not matter how green and energy efficient your building may be. Chances are, it’s just a matter of time before remediation to bring the building into compliance will be required. If noncompliance has to be corrected through extensive renovations in a recently constructed, energy efficient building, then how truly energy efficient can it be? For example, one can locally source concrete to earn points toward green building certification, but if the concrete is poured without regard for accessibility requirements governing maximum cross and running slopes along routes, then eventually that concrete walk may have to be ripped out and re-poured to correct noncompliance. I think we can all agree that ripping up and re-pouring a concrete walk essentially negates any energy efficiency rating achieved as a result of local sourcing efforts.

In this case, the developer has to increase the size of bathrooms; replace all doors in all dwelling units; and reconfigure access from dwelling units to their terraces, among many other required corrections. Had the developer been more focused on the whole building approach to design and construction and employed an integrated design process focused on being energy efficient AND accessible, then the high cost of remediation due to noncompliance with accessible design and construction requirements would have been avoided altogether. In our eyes, a project that is not accessible will never truly be sustainable, regardless of how many green building benchmarks have been achieved.

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    Deborah Stadler says:

    It still surprises me that buildings like this can be designed by Architects, receive permits, be constructed, and receive occupancy permits without being ADA compliant. In my experience, the New York City area is one of the worst complying areas of the country. Something needs to change with the current process and all involved.


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