With all of the moving parts during the design and construction of a building project, one wrong move can compromise accessibility compliance. Unintentional oversights are commonplace when project teams don’t realize the importance of accessibility compliance and how it can make or break a project’s success. In the end, the devil’s in the details.
On this episode, we welcome back SWA’s Managing Director of Accessibility Services, Peter Stratton. Peter describes the top ten oversights made by project teams during the design and construction phases that typically lead to noncompliance with accessibility requirements. Learn why they happen, and how they can be identified and avoided in your project!
Follow along with Peter’s list of accessibility oversights below:
- Appropriate details are not referenced on the floor plans
- The appropriate level of detail is not provided on the plan set
- Plan sets are not coordinated
- Designs do not incorporate tolerance
- Plan sets include details copied from past projects
- Trades don’t follow the plans
- Not considering finished dimensions during rough-in
- Specifications/products are not coordinated with the details
- Compliance is not checked when things change
- Things aren’t level
Episode Guest: Peter Stratton
Peter Stratton is the Managing Director of Accessibility Services at Steven Winter Associates. He has nearly 30 years of experience working with project teams to design and construct buildings to comply with laws and regulations governing accessible design and construction, improving the lives of ALL people occupying those buildings. Under Peter’s leadership, the accessibility team provides services to public and private sector clients nationwide that are designed to ensure compliance with the accessible design and construction requirements of federal, state, and local laws and building codes.
Episode Information & Resources
- Podcast: ‘All-Access’ with Peter Stratton
- SWA Party Walls Blog posts on Accessibility: https://www.swinter.com/author/peter-stratton/
- Publication: A Basic Guide to Fair Housing Accessibility: Everything Architects and Builders Need to Know About the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines
- More information on SWA’s Accessibility Services: https://www.swinter.com/accessibility-services/
- Sign up to be on the mailing list for our quarterly Accessibility Newsletter, SWA Access: https://www.swinter.com/resource-center/newsletters/
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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.
Welcome to buildings and beyond the podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment By focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health. I’m Robb Aldrich and I’m Kelly Westby.
We had a few requests for a podcast episode focused on accessibility and really focused on what goes wrong. What are the common screw ups when trying to make buildings accessible. We reached out to Peter Stratton here at Steven Winter Associates. Who’s in charge of our accessibility group. He chatted to folks on his team and came up with a list of about 10 things. And this list was well, maybe different than what some people expected. It wasn’t a list of clearances or slopes that often get screwed up. It was a list about the process of design and construction. What often goes wrong in this process. And really, I think this is a lot more interesting and probably way more useful. Overall, he came up with about five things that go wrong in the design stage and five things that go wrong in the construction stage. And your list starts with details. The first thing on your list was details are provided by the designers, but they’re not referenced in the floor plans.
That’s right. And that’s a big one. And when I do these kinds of presentations, we always sort of launch the presentation with exactly this topic. And before we get into it, the more common oversights that are made in design, we’ll discuss five, but as you might know, there are many more than five. And we’ll talk about pretty much the most common that we see, it’s not uncommon that architects include at the top of the plan set generic details. When we see generic details provided at the top of the plans, that it sort of informs us. And I think right at the jump, we’ve really got to take a look at the plan set to confirm that the generic details that are often included at the top of the plan set actually fit the context of the design.
And when they don’t, that’s when we get into problems. So, often an architect, a designer might reference the technical criteria or the accessibility requirements of a local code and sort of copy and paste details, the criteria, for example, into the plan set. And so, we might receive a plan set for a multifamily residential development. And up at the top of the plan set are sort of these generic bathroom details, which are perfectly compliant. But then, when we sort of dig into the plan set and take a look at the design, we realize that we can’t align those generic details with the actual design. And it would be unrealistic to expect that a contractor would design a project off a generic detail when what they’re actually working on is sort of later on in the plan set very unrelated to those generic details.
So, yeah, it seems like they didn’t really do their due diligence and designing.
It could be that they didn’t do their due diligence, but it also could be that there was good intention. But the process of design really sort of doesn’t align with the good intention. We’ve got to do a little bit more than just copy and paste generic details up at the plan set. I think one of the first things to do is to ensure that those details included at the top of the plants that are not generic, that they actually fit the context of the design.
Okay, how about an example? I mean, clearances or ramps or so.
Yeah, all of the above. We often see elevations, for example, that include dimensions for the installation of grab bar reinforcement in bathrooms. When we take a look at the bathrooms in the plan set, you know, elevation a included in the generic detail that shows the elevation, for example, of the grab bar reinforcement for the later installation of the grab bar on the side wall next to the toilet, doesn’t align with the sidewall that is shown in the context of the design. And so, another example of a generic detail might be, often in the plan set, we see a generic detail for a U shaped kitchen, a generic detail for a galley style kitchen, but the kitchens in the floor plans are not U shape or galley. And so that’s a really good example of something that’s pretty common.
Okay. Interesting. And next on your list is, the appropriate level of detail is not provided at all. Is this where a designer just doesn’t know or doesn’t try?
It’s interesting and that pans out a whole host of different ways. I think when it comes to accessibility compliance, the level of detail and the scrutiny is so much more intense than we might imagine. It’s often unrealistic almost to expect that an architect or a designer, as a matter of normal course, would over detail a plan set to ensure that compliance is met. So, we do see what the architect might think is an appropriate level of detail, but we understand that when the design translates into the field, that the detail just isn’t enough. And so, for example, we often see, you know, partitioned details and threshold details, but the details don’t include what we need to see to ensure that the threshold, when installed, is compliant in the field. Sometimes the detailed doesn’t include a specification. So, it may include the height of a threshold, but what’s missing is the slope of the bevel on either side of the threshold, which is an important component of compliance when it comes to thresholds. So, we often want to see a higher level of detail in the plan set, but we also understand that may not be realistic, but it’s important to provide and to ensure that compliance is achieved in the field.
And that’s why you get brought in, I assume, when an architect just doesn’t have all that knowledge of all those details, the nitty gritty.
Right. We have to focus on the pinch points. We know the common busts in the field, and so we’re reviewing plan sets with the result in mind. In other words, we might identify the detail and think, well, looks good in the plan set, and we understand the design, but we’ve got to include some added dimensions to ensure that what’s constructed in the field is actually constructed in the correct way.
We don’t typically get pushback. It’s appreciated I think that we have that knowledge, and can sort of transfer that knowledge to the client.
So for this bullet point, which was that the appropriate level of detail is just not provided in the plans, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a clueless designer. It’s just that the level of detail is so deep that it’s…
That’s right. That’s exactly right.
The next one, I can appreciate, plan sets are not coordinated. So the architect may know all the right details and the architectural drawings may look perfect, but the MEP may or may not, or others may not.
That’s right. And I think that it really comes down to communication. Communication among the team. It’s not uncommon to see a set of architecturals that include compliant design. So, we will see that the control wall at the bathtub is correct. When plans, well, when the architecture set is not aligned, for example, in this case with the plumbing set, the plumbing may show the control on a wall that is different from the architectural set. And so, you know, the plumbing shops are going to be done from the plumbing plans and the engineer or the contractor who’s working on plumbing is going to look at the plumbing shops, and if they’re not coordinated, the result can be a major bust in the field. In fact, in our experience, we have come up against projects where the architecturals are perfectly compliant and the case of the location of the control wall at a bathtub. And then when we arrived in the field, the control wall had changed somewhere in the design process, but only in the architectural set, it was not modified and corrected in the plumbing set.
One wall was thicker and there wasn’t enough clearance?
Well, the location of the controls was on a completely different wall, which can really affect compliance in a negative way.
Yeah. And as a mechanical engineer, there’s tension between architects and engineers, as you’re familiar. And this is just one added flavor of that tension, I guess.
Similarly, in that bucket of plans sets that are not coordinated, it’s not uncommon that certain things happen in the field that aren’t addressed in the plants. We may see key fob locations or door fobs; I don’t know, I always get that wrong. You know, that little thing that you wave at the door so it opens? Yep. We’ll see, they are added on exit doors, fire, exit doors. So, adding a fob on a fire exit door makes that door an entrance. We might see security cameras installed, not addressed in the plan set, not part of the design, happens later on, and depending on where they are installed, how far they project from walls, they can violate some of the requirements. And some of the criteria that speak to protruding objects. Intercoms might be installed later on, and we assess for operable parts.
And so if we don’t have the opportunity to take a look at these things that are all part of the process, all part of the final product, but somewhere along the way, as a result of the communication, the accessibility consultant, for example, may not have been looped in. And so, everything that happens in design and construction really should involve communication with someone who knows accessibility, and it might not be an accessibility consultant. It might very well be the architect. So always some level of review is needed when it comes to the installation of things.
Interior design often happens later.
And another example and a really good one, often things happen or the interior is modified, or the interior design side is produced perhaps at a later time, may not have been part of the review. And so, we then troubleshoot these missteps in the field, which has its own level of problem, you know, problems associated with, with troubleshooting in the field. And you know, the interior design often drives the project. And so, the interior design set is very important. That is part of the review. It’s sort of critical.
How about external? Like how about the bridge between inside and outside with landscape?
Yep. When a project includes everything, which is an architectural civil landscape interior MEP, all of those trades and sets affect compliance of the final product. So, it’s important that a review not only include a review of the architecturals, which you might think, you know, that might be the only thing that an accessibility consultant might want to take a look at, which is not correct. Your design team should have all of the different sets, coordinated and reviewed into your exterior.
Yeah, that’s a big one. Coordination between the whole design team as well.
And it’s tricky, especially when you have a design architect, the executive architect, tons of design managers, tons of construction managers. Yeah, no, it becomes, a very big thing to manage and organize.
That’s their job too, on all aspects. The accessibility piece is one of the key pieces. Right?
So, this was interesting to me next on your list that designs do not incorporate tolerance. Does that just mean that designers are leaving no room for error? Or what does that mean?
Yeah, that is what that means. And it’s not uncommon for example, that we’ll see a ramp slope designed to one in 12, which is the maximum slope permitted for a ramp. We would recommend that the designers consider reducing the slope of a ramp to less than 8.3, three or less than the maximum, to allow tolerance in the field. We never want to design to the max or to the min – shooting from mid range is always best if we can do it, but working some level of tolerance into the design is key.
That makes tons of sense. Height. Like height of switches, height of…
That’s right. So, switch heights, let’s just talk in general – unobstructed forward reach in the more recent criteria, the maximum height above the finished floor, 48 inches. Now, if we specify 48 inches and show that dimension right at the light switch, chances are in the field without working in some tolerance, there’s a high level of certainty that designing to the max will result in non-compliance in the field. So, in the case of a light switch, for example, we recommend that design teams consider specifying 48 inches to the top of the electrical box. In that case, when we specify top of the electrical box, high degree of certainty, that the switch itself will be less than 48 inches. Okay. So that’s an example of working in tolerance.
Cool, cool. And one of the issues that comes up during design more is copying and pasting details from previous projects, I believe, right?
So, copying and pasting details from previous projects means we may be working on a commercial project in New York city. Okay. For example, we went through the review process and we submitted recommendations and eventually the plans are compliant. Well, the same design team now designs a residential project in Florida, and they have submitted that residential project in Florida for review. And we see that they copy and pasted the details from a commercial project in New York city that may have received some amount of federal funding on different overlays that apply to that commercial project in New York city that do not translate to a residential project in Florida. And so, that copy and pasting of the information would result in a design that may not be compliant. As you know, depending on where a project is constructed, there are different requirements that apply. Building codes change based on jurisdiction, funding triggers, for example, federal funding on our project will trigger an overlay of an additional accessibility requirement. A residential project is different than commercial project, so on and so forth. So, we really need to detail based on the jurisdiction, the project type and the various overlays of requirements.
Yep. Yeah, it makes sense. I mean, copying and pasting is so common in all the trades, you know, I look at mechanicals and I see copy and paste errors all the time. So, yeah, that makes sense. It doesn’t surprise me that this is a challenge.
That’s right. Those are some of the more common oversights made in design. Of course we can talk for hours and hours about the rest that we see, but those are the more common ones.
So, before we move on to the kind of construction phase, when you get brought on by a design team, are you able to mitigate these issue pretty well?
Yes we can. Our level of involvement changes based on how we are contracted. We may work for the developer. We may work directly for the architect. We may work for a city agency. That contractual relationship really does affect how much we can affect the entirety of the design. We may not be able to affect the civil design as much as we’d like, if we’re contracted, let’s say with the architect directly, but contracting with the developer gives us sort of a greater level of control over the project. So, it varies. But, we do focus on everything that I just mentioned of course, and more.
Cool. Cool. So on the construction side, top of the list did not surprise me. Trades don’t follow the plans. In many cases, I think that, back in the day, how long ago was back in the day, uh, 10 years ago, maybe, the focus on accessibility compliance, I think was much less than it is today
Peter: (23:05). I think project teams understand today that accessibility compliance really does drive the project. Everything that happens in design and everything that happens on construction will affect accessibility compliance. And so, we see more of a focus on it today. Not as much as we’d liked though, but I think it’s getting better. And so what do we mean when we say that trades may not follow the plans? We review design and we’ve gotten, let’s say electrical to be perfectly compliant and elect requirements for the location of electrical outlets, which can be very complex.
And so we’ve worked with the designer to achieve a compliant design. Now the design is finished and we move into construction. Well, the electrical contractor involved in the job can be very knowledgeable or not so knowledgeable. And knowledge varies, right? So, if a contractor was not knowledgeable or doesn’t understand that accessibility drives the project, or hasn’t been trained or informed, it could be that the electrical contractor will install the electrical as they have been over the last 30 years without understanding that the installation of electrical is critical and changes depending on a lot of things. And so we’ve got to drive the trades to the plans. We want to incorporate training of the trades. If that’s possible to do, it’s always a key to closing the gap on compliance in the field. And you know, that’s not something that we want to troubleshoot in the field, right?
Yeah. I mean, it’s such a range. I didn’t want to sound harsh on trades. I mean, there are some mechanical contractors who I just kind of want to follow around for weeks just watching what they do. They’re so knowledgeable. I learned so much. And then there’s others that do what they’ve done for decades, regardless. They don’t want to hear anything else.
It’s a whole gamut, and it’s not only electrical as you know. One of the more common things that we see, and it involves the plumbing side of things, bathroom walls are required to be reinforced. Let’s say for the later installation of grab bars, when it comes to residential, some residential projects are required to have grab bars installed at the time of the design and construction. When it comes to commercial or non-residential projects, grab bars are required to be installed at the time of design and construction. We inspect in the field for the location of the grab bar reinforcing. And so, we’ve nailed it down because we’re coming in and we’re taking a look during framing. What we find sometimes is that the plumbing contractor is installing mixing valves or installing plumbing at showers or bathtubs and installs the plumbing smack in the middle of the grab bar reinforcing, which is a problem because you cannot install grab bars in the area of the reinforcing anymore. And so that’s an example of communication. You know, the plumbing contractor needs to understand that reinforcing cannot be removed and they have to understand how to install the plumbing accordingly.
Yeah. Makes sense. Related to that, next on your list, and it can be plumbing, can be electrical, can be HVAC, can be a lot of different things, when roughing things in, people aren’t taking into account levels of the finished material.
That’s right, levels of finished material, It’s not uncommon that a design, is going to include stud to stud dimensioning without, you know, when compliance is measured at, we always say between finished material or at the finished material, finished wall, for example, not stud to stud.
So next on your list, the specific products or specifications that are not coordinated with the details.
Right. And so how does that pan out.
Yeah, I’m not sure exactly what you meant by that.
We may have reviewed a design and, you know, the title of the category specifications slash products, not coordinated with the details. You know, like I mentioned, at the onset, it sort of pans out in a number of ways, let’s say handrail, the design of handrails, we have reviewed exterior accessible routes, ramps, stairs, walks, we’ve reviewed handrail details, height, radius, elevation, cross-section so on and so forth. Compliance is achieved. Now the project is being constructed. The hand rail contractor is onsite welding hand rails onsite, but does not coordinate that activity with the plants. And so, you may have seen on handrails on ramps or sloped surfaces, there are extensions beyond the top and the bottom of the sloped surface, handrail, extensions, horizontal extensions, which are important. There are specific criteria that apply to those extensions. For example, 12 inch horizontal extension, the 12 inches must be level with the landing surface and the 12 inch horizontal extension cannot include the radius of the handrail return.
And so the detail is very specific, but welding those extensions on site often results in noncompliant extensions, just because the contractor just didn’t coordinate that action or that effort with the plan set. It could also be that we reviewed details of a threshold or even threshold specifications. The plan set is compliant. Now we go out into the field and a contractor says, I worked on a project in the past that was accessible or ADA compliant. I’m doing air quotes, ADA compliant. And so, in that project, we used this threshold. And so, they purchase thresholds based on what they think is compliant based on a past project when they actually were not compliant because they were not reviewed. And so, installation occurs. We get out in the field, the threshold that we see is not what we reviewed, or the contractor says, it’s sloped on both sides. It’s ADA compliant. It’s what we’ve used in the past. And so yeah. Often problems.
Yeah. I mean the plans don’t usually get into the specific threshold product they use, or do they?
They can, you will see specified thresholds specs on plant sets, you will see them submitted separately, and you might see details in the plan set.
So there may or may not be a submittal phase for that threshold product that may or may not have gotten missed or gotten caught. Okay. gotcha.
Yes. And thresholds, as you can imagine, are the one thing you’ve got to get, right. Start there. And one of the things that’s very apparent, what can be very apparent when someone is snooping around your project trying to identify problems.
Oh I see. So that’s a thing.
That can be a thing. And as you can imagine, a high unbeveled threshold is easy to see with the naked eye. You don’t need to get down on the floor and measure the height or, you know, to see that it doesn’t have a sloped edge.
Okay. Interesting. Yeah that’s an important one. Interesting. So, things change during projects.
Things change. Things constantly change on projects.
Yeah. exchange orders, quote of value engineering. And also now, this is one you put on the list, product availability is a big issue, especially now after COVID where availaility is an issue for anything and everything. So when things change during the course of construction, those don’t always get checked?
They often don’t get checked. And as I mentioned, everything that happens, accessibility drives the project. If something changes, accessibility is affected. And, you know, I make that statement very confidently, you know, it could be that it changes unrelated to accessibility, but it’s important to communicate with whomever is working on the compliance side of things. It’s important to communicate that a change has been made. Let’s take a look to see if accessibility is affected. We’ve specified a refrigerator. The plans were reviewed the clearance between the face of the refrigerator and the opposing countertop is perfectly compliant, but the project team can’t get the refrigerator because of the delay. The refrigerators won’t be in for months, project team decides we can’t wait for months, we’re going to change the refrigerator. And so, they changed the refrigerator, but don’t have that reviewed. And what gets installed is a deeper refrigerator that affects that compliant clearance negatively. We want to take a look at everything that changes, especially the value engineering.
Yeah. And you mentioned floor, changing the floor height, going from a hardwood floor to, what was your example? Vinyl. Much thinner.
I experienced that situation in the building that I live in. The project was designed with ceramic tile and hallways. During the process of construction, ceramic tile changed to vinyl tile in some areas. Changing to vinyl tile, which in my case my building was much thinner than the ceramic tile, effected level changes below thresholds at all the entry doors.
Okay. Yeah. So we’d have to change the threshold or we’d have to do something to bring it back in. Yeah.
One thing leads to the other, leads to the next, on and on, and it becomes a very expensive fix.
Yeah, makes sense. And last but not least on your list, things are not always square and level in the real world.
Yeah. So, we understand construction is not a perfect science and there will be things that occur during construction that don’t perfectly align with what was designed, which is why we need to build tolerance into the design first. And when we do, we sort of reduce what happens in the field when designs don’t incorporate tolerance. And level, keeping things as level as possible is critical. Again, that pans out in a number of ways. Contractors often measure heights like countertop height at the wall, but when countertops are installed, we are really taking a look, for the most part, at the height of the front edge of the countertop, which is 25 and a half inches away from the wall. If the slab sort of transitions from the wall to the center of the room and slopes, that can affect the height of the front edge of the countertop in that case. Maneuvering clearance at doors is required to be perfectly level and no more than 2% max slope for the entirety of the maneuvering clearance.
Slabs, if the level is not controlled, and the slab slopes too much, then that throws off the compliance of the maneuvering clearance at a door, for example. And leveling, interestingly enough, how we measure level is important. For the most part slopes of floor surfaces, ground surfaces are measured with a two foot digital level, not a four foot non-digital contractors level. Although interestingly enough, the criteria doesn’t specify the tool required. It has become commonplace to use a two foot digital level. The department of justice uses a two foot digital level when they investigate properties. Okay. The department of housing and urban development uses a two foot digital level. And the thinking is that a two foot level is closer to the width of a wheelchair than a four foot level. And so we’ll pick up convex concave and that sort of non-compliant slope that a wheelchair will pick up as it travels along the road.
These are really well, I would think mostly, these are really subtle effects. But going back to your previous point, if you don’t really include any tolerances in your designs, I can see where very subtle, kind of minor changes could actually become a deal-breaker.
You know, it’s subtle Robb, but it’s, it’s really important and it’s critical and it’s important to nail down. And it’s not often that we do, but when we have the opportunity to hear from someone who experiences life in a compliant project, you begin to understand, you know, how life-changing the details are.
Okay. That’s cool. Yeah, it must be gratifying to hear from people where it really makes a difference.
It’s not often that we do Robb, but we have. And you know, that’s when it makes it all worth it as far as I’m concerned.
Cool. So, looking ahead, those were your list of some of the most common, snafoos. Are our design and construction teams getting better if we talk again and in five or 10 years, do you think we’ll be talking about the same issues. Do you think there are some things that will really become pretty well understood?
I think they are getting better, Robb. Why are they getting better? I think that, you know, the design of construction industry is very well aware of the importance of accessibility at this stage of the game. I think that the codes that the design teams are working with are better aligned with federal laws, and criteria referenced by federal laws, are very closely aligned now with the criteria reference by building codes, which is very important. To speak to compliance with the fair housing amendments act, when it comes to the design and construction of multi-family residential projects, HUD has now approved effective March 8th, 2021, additional HUD approved safe harbors for compliance with the design and construction requirements of the fair housing amendments act. And those additional safe harbors include the recent additions of the international building code, which is critical.
Yeah. So things are just getting more aligned it sounds like.
Things are getting more aligned. We are seeing improvements. But you know, I think personal opinion, that an architect really can’t be expected to incorporate the level of detail that’s required to ensure that a project is designed in compliance with requirements. I think it really will always be a separate consultant that is retained by the project team, just like the acoustical consultant, just like the landscape consultant, the accessibility consultant is just as critical to ensure that projects comply in the end.
Are you seeing design firms develop or get that expertise in-house more or not yet?
I think that the designers and the architects themselves are getting much better at compliance. But I don’t see firms retaining or developing in-house compliance shops. They certainly may have employees that they may rely on to review designs to ensure that they are compliant. But whether that employee just does accessibility every day, day in, day out, I doubt it. But improvements are being made, certainly.
Awesome. Yeah. Thanks Peter. I have a much better feel for, well, I have much better feel for how things can get screwed up, and therefore a better feel for how not to screw it up.
Thanks to Peter. He was on the podcast three years ago talking about some background and history of accessibility and accessibility requirements. This is not my wheelhouse. I really learned a lot from both episodes. So go back and check that one out if this was an interesting topic. Buildings and Beyond is produced by Steven Winter Associates, you can find us at swinter.com. That’s swinter.com. We are focused on making better buildings by making buildings more accessible, healthier, more sustainable, efficient, resilient, comfortable, affordable, etc. It’s a long list. It goes on and on. swinter.com/podcast is where you go to find the show notes and other episodes. And check out our careers page. If you are looking for opportunities, we have openings in most, if not all, of our offices, Washington, D.C., Manhattan, Norwalk, Connecticut, and Boston, Massachusetts. I counted 19 openings today, late June, 2021. People are starting to filter back into all our offices now after COVID, or at least after COVID has eased a bit, which is pretty nice. Thanks to the podcast team here. Heather Breslin, Alex Mirabile, Dylan Martello, Jayd Alvarez, and Kelly Westby. I’m Robb Aldrich. Thank you for listening.