ADA today: State of the standards

What to know about current accessibility standards for campus building and renovation projects

Getting tripped up on the latest accessibility standards when planning or renovating campus buildings—and then having to make costly changes later—is hardly a project team’s idea of a good time.

The mistake may be innocent enough. Take the concept of completing a project in steps, which may have accessibility-related complexities. “There is a lot of logic to phasing a project on campus, seasonally and budget-wise,” says L. Scott Lissner, president of AHEAD, the Association on Higher Education And Disability. One part of the building gets fixed while the rest is in use.

The team might consider it all just maintenance work, but after one restroom is torn up to get at the pipes, and new fixtures and tile are needed, other restrooms eventually get the same treatment.

“By the time I’ve done every bathroom in the building, I’ve made a significant change to the building, even if each individual project didn’t kick in the standards,” says Lissner, also ADA coordinator at The Ohio State University.

With that significant change comes the need for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, the latest of which went into effect in 1994. In 2010, new guidelines were drafted, and although the Department of Justice hasn’t officially added them to the regulatory standards yet, they’re what project teams are using.

Here are six questions on the minds of campus construction project teams today as they consider accessibility.

Are the standards mainly for new buildings only?

Failing to ensure program accessibility in existing facilities is a problem that Irene Bowen, a consultant for ADA One and AHEAD member and trainer, has seen. Officials should remember the “20 percent rule” with renovations, says Bowen, the former deputy chief of the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ.

If a primary function space is altered, about 20 percent of the planned project cost must be spent on accessibility improvements.

One piece, related to “path of travel,” is a particularly challenging one, says Lissner. If a second floor office area is turned into classrooms, the team must make sure restrooms, elevators, water fountain heights and other amenities along the path are accessible.

The building in which Husson University was opening its new Southern Maine campus had curbs and door thresholds individuals had to step over when entering, says Eric B. Gordon, executive director for marketing and communications. Now there are ramps from the parking areas to doors equipped with automatic openers.

Inside, classrooms, have lever-type door hardware for ease of use and are marked with visually contrasting signage and Braille for individuals with vision impairments, Gordon explains.

While Lissner says there is very little pushback on campus about meeting standards with new construction, renovation projects, with their lower budgets, are more challenging.

What’s all the talk about accessibility in housing?

The 2010 standards have a specific category for housing at places of education, Lissner explains. So that’s something new for project teams to consider.

As Bowen points out, there are community colleges building housing for the first time or working with developers to provide housing “who may not be aware of their responsibilities.” And then fraternity and sorority houses are sometimes forgotten as part of the housing stock, Bowen adds.

One housing-related requirement is that at least two washer/dryer sets in laundry facilities are placed side by side, rather than stacked, says Holly Beal, communications coordinator at KSQ Architects, which worked with Texas Christian University on its new Marion and Clark residence halls as well as other projects. Also, payment areas and laundry supplies must be located 48 inches or less from the floor.

In Lissner’s experience, project teams sometimes miss “unique spaces” in residence halls. For example, “not every room has to be fully accessible, but if I have honors housing, I can’t have it in a place with no accessible rooms,” he says.

How does a building’s site play into accessibility?

Elevation changes are a common challenge for architects, says Levi Miller, a project manager at KSQ. Solutions require creative thinking.

At Texas Christian’s Sherley Hall, for example, a central lounge on the main floor had a two-foot drop. “We created a ramp along the sides of the lounge and instead of a basic rail, we built a half wall with cutouts and built-in lights, so that it was not only an accessible area, but celebrated as an architectural design piece,” Miller says.

At the Milton Daniel building, Miller’s team dealt with a change in elevation on the first floor by installing a two-way elevator with two doors and two stops on that floor. “One stop and door led to the first area, and the second door and stop allowed all students access to the second area of elevation,” Miller says.

Whose job is it to worry about ADA standards?

Contracts should specify it’s the architect’s responsibility, says Lissner. At OSU, additional internal standards are occasionally noted. But it’s important for all involved to grasp the reasons for accessible design.

“I think it behooves [administrators] to sit down with an architect and designer and somebody who understands how those accessibility standards work and why they’re in place,” he says.

That discussion, which could include someone from the campus disability office, opens up considerations such as whether the school may want to add further accessibility, given its student and staff population.

“You need somebody who thinks about it not as a building standard, to stay as close to regs as possible while trying to keep budget down, but who thinks about intent of the standard,” Lissner says.

As Mark Courtney, a project manager for KSQ, says, anything not covered by law or building code is the owner’s option—and “quite often what the architects will advise the client to incorporate.”

Should we go above and beyond the standards?

OSU has its own standards that anchor to the ADA, Lissner says. For example, while only fire exits and half of all entrances must be accessible, OSU makes every primary entrance accessible.

“That one is pretty accepted on campus,” he says, since the consistency in the model and make of door openers allows for easier maintenance.

The institution also goes beyond federal standards with workspaces. ADA requires that someone in a wheelchair be able get into and out of an office space. It can be adjusted if an individual needs more accommodations.

“We require five percent of all workspaces to be dimensioned to be fully accessible with furniture in place,” Lissner says. This minimizes the need to request accommodations.

“I would love to say everyone ought to be doing universal design,” says Lissner of features that go above and beyond standards. While that’s certainly not possible at all times, administrators can still be conscious of potential choices.

What’s sustainability got to do with it?

“The one place where colleges and universities could do much more about accessibility in a broad and inclusive way is to see that the principles of universal design in architecture and construction map very easily onto principles for sustainability and green design,” Lissner says. “They’re not identical but congruent with and complementary of each other.” Flexibility of a space is an ADA standard. When a space can be adjusted for different uses, a building will probably need fewer renovations in its lifetime. It will also be more accessible.

Sustainability can partner with ADA on exterior design features, too, says Miller. For example, creating more gradual slopes and a ramp network can help decrease storm water runoff. As for interiors, automatic lighting is both sustainable and accessible.

Considering the connections between sustainability and accessibility also helps ensure access isn’t an add-on or afterthought.

At Wake Forest University’s Farrell Hall, its new business school facility, officials were “intentional from the beginning that universal design allow access to all, regardless of ability,” says David Clark, chief administrative and integrative student services officer.

“It can be integrated aesthetically and beautifully as part of the building’s design.” With Farrell Hall having been created “for connections and collaboration,” he adds, “integrating these features allows all visitors to the building access to every feature on every level.”

Melissa Ezarik is managing editor of UB. 

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