Accessibility in the Designed Environment

Accessibility in the Designed Environment

ADA or IBC Chapter 11– What to Follow & Why…

(Do You Need an Accessibility Review?)

As an architect, I hear clients use the term “ADA” interchangeably with “Accessibility”, much the same as “Kleenex” is used for “facial tissue”.

Not that I’m the word police, but they are NOT the same thing.

To start with, “accessibility” is a term referring to making the facilities of a building accessible to all inhabitants, regardless of physical or mental abilities, to the extent that it can be accomplished, based upon certain reference standards. It applies, not only to the most visible and commonly thought of group of people, those using wheelchairs, but to those with other ambulatory, visual, hearing, cognitive and developmental disabilities, for which impediments may exist in a built environment.

So why is it mistakenly referred to as “ADA” requirements instead of accessibility requirements? Because the Federal Government has done a good job of making us all aware that the portion of our population with disabilities needs to be given the opportunity to function along side the rest of us without undue impediments within the built environment.

The “Americans with Disabilities Act” was passed in 1990 and required, among other things, that (publicly used) buildings be made accessible to everyone equally, within reasonable limitations.

To be clear, the ADA is a Federal law, not a model building code. The ADA would be the basis for a civil lawsuit, regarding accessibility impediments, on any publicly used building (with specific exceptions), regardless of when it was built or what building code was enforced at the time of construction. The triggering mechanism is that an individual must make a claim to an employer, business or building owner, asserting that they were unable to make use of the facility or some portion thereof, due to an impediment to their disability, within the building or property. The employer, business owner or building owner is then obligated to respond with a proposed remediation or provide reasoning that such remediation is technically infeasible or would be an undue hardship upon the business or building ownership. An unsatisfactory response could then lead to a civil case being initiated.

Where does the building code enter the picture? The International Building Code (IBC) also requires that buildings be designed for accessibility, in Chapter 11. However, the building code works differently, in that it is enforced during the plan review (application for permits) and during the inspection of the constructed building.

This not only applies to new construction, but any portion of a building to be remodeled might possibly need to be brought into compliance with the current code, as well. As you may have guessed, there are a number of other requirements and exceptions, too lengthy to cover here.

Suffice it to say, that applying for a construction permit is likely to trigger a review of the accessibility requirements for a building.

But what are the actual standards to follow?

The ADA design standards are set by APPENDIX A TO PART 36 — STANDARDS FOR ACCESSIBLE DESIGN (ADASAD). While the original statute referenced the ANSI – A117.1-1986, the current ADASAD is standalone and separate from any ICC/ANSI – A117.1 edition. (The current version of ICC/ANSI – A117.1 is the 2017 edition.) The current IBC (2018) references the ICC/ANSI – A117.1-2009 edition as the design standard for accessibility.

I know, that’s all a bit wonky, but effectively, the ADA and the building code are requiring similar, if not the same accessibility standards, but for different reasons. The building code is enforced each time construction takes place, whereas, the ADA statute is enforceable in civil cases, and only if a complaint is lodged.

It is incumbent upon the architect to review the accessibility requirements for each new project, as a requirement of the building code. However, an accessibility review for compliance with the ADA can be and is regularly initiated for reasons unrelated to any construction project, for protection against civil lawsuits.

We at Henty+Pfaff & Associates, Architects can help you review your building for accessibility issues and compliance with the design requirement of the ADA.

Contact us at for a further discussion of this or other accessibility related topics.

The content of this discussion is not meant to be legal advice, but rather a layman’s analysis of these issues. Please consult an attorney if you have legal matters arising from any accessibility issues.