The Right to Maneuver

At the crossroads where building codes meet civil rights, it's not too difficult for specifying engineers to lose their sense of direction. The panelists of this month's M/E Roundtable testify to the fact that each building system relates to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in different ways.

By Mindi Zissman, Assistant Editor December 1, 2001

At the crossroads where building codes meet civil rights, it’s not too difficult for specifying engineers to lose their sense of direction. The panelists of this month’s M/E Roundtable testify to the fact that each building system relates to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in different ways. The panel also addresses how new and changing regulations affect specifying building systems.

CONSULTING SPECIFYING ENGINEER (CSE): Since the passage of the ADA in 1990, many buildings required upgrades to make them at least minimally accessible to the disabled. Much of this included improvements to bathrooms and better egress in and out of buildings. What are the latest changes affe cting designs of bathrooms and exits? RYAN: It is not the standards that change, but the interpretations of the standards by the courts and by local officials. For example, a state official recently interpreted that the turning diameter in a private bathroom cannot overlap into a roll-in shower stall. This has an obvious impact on the space requirements. Interpretation of exit standards also tends to change. The model building codes now address accessibility, but their provisions are often pared down to a single chapter of the code, which often excludes many of the exceptions that the ADA affords.

GEORGE: As far as upgrades go for existing buildings, architectural barriers should be removed if they are ‘readily achievable’ in other words, easy to do at low costs. The ADA provided some exceptions for existing businesses if the cost of removing these barriers would cause a financial burden. However, churches and private clubs are not required to meet ADA Requirements.

CSE: Are more ergonomic products being developed in the spirit of ADA, such as handrails with grips and visual and audio alarm systems?

GEORGE: I am seeing more and more manufacturers come out with special catalogs that highlight their barrier-free products. For example, one faucet company published an separate ‘ADA Plumbing Products’ brochure. The company also came out with hands-free or infrared operated faucets that allow ease of use for persons with a disability. Some manufacturers even go so far as to list the ADA or wheelchair symbols next to the barrier-free fixtures to indicate accessibility.

RYAN: In my opinion, product development hasn’t been as prolific as one would have hoped. It took many years for manufacturers to retool as necessary to produce ADA-compliant handrail brackets. There are prefabricated bathing fixtures with integral grab bars and compliant curbs. On the other hand, we are only now beginning to see 34-in.-high base cabinets, but finding an affordable appliance to place beneath the 34-in.-high counters is still a challenge. Regarding audio/visual alarm systems, ADA requires strobe devices for the majority of occupiable spaces in most building types. In addition, The ADA has mandated an increase in the intensity of strobe devices, as well as an increase in the decibel level for audio alarm.

CSE: What are the major ADA guidelines specific to your individual disciplines?

GEORGE: In the plumbing industry, ADA basically made the existing barrier-free standard (ANSI A-117.1) a federal act enforceable by law. In fact, an attorney at an ADA seminar I once attended called the legislation the Attorney Employment Act. He said, at that time, only the courts could enforce ADA because many of the requirements were not in the building codes. The good news is that some of the requirements from ANSI A-117.1 are slowly making their way into current building and plumbing codes so that inspectors can enforce the requirements themselves. Unfortunately, if the requirements of ADA are not in the codes, only the courts can enforce barrier-free requirements.

DAVID: The ADA guidelines for fire/life-safety systems in buildings relate to visual and audible alarms and maximum mounting heights for manual fire-alarm stations. The ADA requires manual fire-alarm stations to be located in accessible spaces and should be located no higher than 48 inches above the finished floor. ADA also requires that audible alarms produce a sound 15 decibels above the ambient sound level in the space and that visual alarms be integrated into the building alarm, with a minimum of 75 candelas mounted 80 in. above the floor or 6 in. below the ceiling, whichever option is lower.

CSE: How do firms stay abreast of ADA guidelines?

RYAN: We have found the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) website to be the best source. In addition, the Department of Education’s ADA Technical Assistance Program web site has practical information for the end user (see links, p.18).

DAVID: Most information can be obtained through publications, seminars, committees, workshops and often through engineering firms themselves, since they may propose changes to current ADA guidelines that could be adopted in future ADA guidelines.

CSE: Are the builders/developers who often commission projects knowledgeable about ADA requirements?

RYAN: It varies. Some are very knowledgeable; others need to be brought up to speed. By now, most of our clients are well aware of how ADA affects their daily operations. However, many clients don’t want to go beyond the absolute minimum requirements because, let’s face it, responding to accessibility has its costs.

DAVID: Most builders/developers are aware of some ADA requirements, and they know that ADA has an impact on their project. However, they usually rely on the architect/engineer for the details.

CSE: How is a facility inspected for ADA compliance? Who exactly is responsible for doing this?

GEORGE: Generally, new construction falls under the duties of the architect when laying out a new facility. In a pre-existing facility, the owner should check to see if it is already in compliance with ADA. Often, owners will hire an architect to perform an evaluation of their facilities for compliance with ADA requirements, as the simple act of hiring an architect shows a good-faith effort, which in many cases has gotten owners off the hook when litigation was later filed. If an owner can prove they are in the process of having an architect review their facility for conformance, the complaint holds less weight.

DAVID: It’s been my experience that a facility is only inspected when a complaint has been made. When one alleges that a building is non-compliant with ADA requirements, the DOJ is responsible for investigating the allegations.

CSE: What are some of the legal ADA-related issues facing your field today?

GEORGE: If a lawsuit were to be filed, the owner would have to open his or her accounting books to the courts to prove that it would truely be a financial hardship or burden to make the required corrections. In most cases, companies with deep pockets must comply, while mom and pop retailers may be able to prove that the cost of renovations could bankrupt them. Most courts will not find an owner guilty of ignoring ADA requirements if they have an ADA conformance survey done. However, that only buys the client some time. Eventually, the owner must take the recommendations and either implement them or show it is not ‘readily achievable.’ That means the owner of an existing building must be prepared to prove to a court he cannot afford to make the changes.

RYAN: Subsequent legal interpretation of specific requirements of the ADA is a challenge for architects. For example, after a facility has been built, design professionals have previously been held liable for non-compliance. Many of these non-compliance rulings were made despite the designer having met the prescribed quantitative requirements. For example, a stadium built to the prescribed sight-line standards of ADA was ruled non-compliant because it did not address occurrences when spectators stand. At the same time, a water closet mounted at the required height in a kindergarten washroom is compliant with ADA, but obviously doesn’t meet the inclusive intent of the Act. The Act’s inconsistencies put design professionals in the perilous position of interpreting the law during the design process, without knowing if they will be held liable for subsequent interpretations after the building is occupied. But perhaps the tide is turning in this respect, because one U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that designers couldn’t be sued under the ADA. (See “ADA and the Law that Supports It,” p. 17) In the future, the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately decide the topic.

DAVID: There are many city fire departments that will say they do not enforce ADA. Therefore, it is left to the owner or developer working with a fire-alarm system designer to provide an ADA-compliant fire-alarm system. All code-compliant fire-alarm systems are designed based on already established nationally recognized standards. The standards incorporate specific requirements that are intended to meet ADA requirements. Fire-alarm systems not only comply with the ADA, but also with the building, fire, mechanical, electrical and plumbing codes for most states. This multitude of codes requires very specific requirements for fire-alarm systems, which minimizes any legal issues.

CSE: How is the ADA requirement of “pro-active barrier removal” affecting today’s projects?

DAVID: Most building owners are taking the initiative to upgrade their fire-alarm systems requirements, and they have budgeted dollars to meet those requirements. They have taken a voluntary approach to meet the ADA, rather than being required to do so. In doing so, it protects owners from possible lawsuits, as well as providing tenants with an optimum fire-alarm system.

RYAN: At this point in time, barrier removal should be a forgone conclusion, although this is not always the case. The language of the Act itself creates a great deal of room for interpretation when it comes to building alterations.

CSE: How will the new ADA guidelines, due out in 2003, change the face of building systems?

RYAN: From what I’ve seen thus far, many of the proposed revisions will affect the scope beyond the basic building and immediate site. Components such as play lots, zero-depth pools and accessible beaches have thus far been discussed in the draft.

DAVID: For fire-alarm systems, there will not be a major impact on the design layout, except for some additional strobe locations. However, fire-alarm technology will continue to develop better ADA devices and equipment such as lower-current and modular strobes and smaller power supplies will meet ADA guidelines more cost effectively.

CSE: Is meeting minimum ADA standards sufficient for developing high-quality buildings designed to meet the needs of people who are disabled? RYAN: With respect to total social inclusiveness, I contend that simply meeting the minimum standards falls short. Case in point, our firm once rented a wheelchair for a few days and encouraged our colleagues to spend some time in it. Most, if not all of the young to middle-aged individuals were hard pressed to spin around within a 60-in. diameter, not to mention pull doors open. The minimum standards really only get handicapped individuals into the general arena, which obviously is an improvement, however it is not the ultimate goal. It seems to me that the Act’s intent of total inclusiveness is not always met by the ADA Accessibility Guidelines’ prescribed quantitative requirements. And, as the courts have rendered since the Act went into effect, it is possible for a building to physically meet all the guidelines and yet still be deemed inaccessible by those who use it.

M/E Roundtable Participants

Ron George , CIPE, plumbing/fire protection designer, SmithGroup, Detroit

Manny David , P.E., Schirmer Engineering Corp., San Francisco

Dennis Ryan , AIA, senior associate, OWP&P, Chicago

Mindi Zissman , moderator

ADA and the Law that Supports It

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has not seen any significant changes since its inception in 1990, except for the adoption of ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). The ADAAG, which covers the construction and alteration of private and public facilities, were written in 1994 with the intent of making ADA guidelines more consistent with model building codes and industry standards as well as facilitating compliance with the law.

Currently, additional revisions and updates to the ADAAG, which may have an impact on the engineering community, are in the proposal stage. According to attorney Don L’Abbate, a partner at Gordon City, N.Y.-based L’Abbate, Balkan, Colovita & Contini, LLP, if these proposals are adopted, they will become applicable and will be the new Standards of Acceptable Design.

“Thus far, the question of the impact of the ADA design has been the liability of architects,” says L’Abbate. “The courts have split on the issue of whether an architect should be held liable for a facility in violation of the ADA”

For example, L’Abbate cites the leading case insulating the architects from liability: Paralyzed Veterans of American v. Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers . In this case, the court found that architects could not be held liable for non-compliant with ADA at the MCI Center, a multi-purpose arena in Washington, D.C.

According to L’Abbate, the court focused on two questions: First, whether the architect was a “person who owns, leases or operates a place of public accommodation or [a person who] failed to design and construct facilities that are readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.” The court found that the architects fell into neither category and therefore could not be charged as such.

“We also remind clients that the ADA is not a building code, but rather a civil rights act whose interpretation and enforcement falls to the [U.S.] Department of Justice,” says L’Abbate. “Compliance with the guidelines does not, in and of itself, insure against discrimination claims under the ADA. However, in all practicality, following the guidelines is the best defense.”

For review of ADAAG visit: