Codes: Square Dance – Accessible Doors

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Erick Mikiten, AIA LEED-AP Mikiten Architecture

Erik Says:
The California Building Code has many requirements around doors – width for accessibility and exiting, height, operability and maneuvering space, to name a few. See 1126A for privately-funded housing and 11B-404 for all other uses and all the fun configurations, but let’s focus here on three aspects of doors that affect accessibility.


Monty, what’s behind Door Number One?
Let’s start with the title of this column…what I call the Square Dance is actually a Rectangle Dance – the 30″x48″ wheelchair space you’ve seen in dozens of code diagrams, with the rectangle in various positions. These predate the ADA and the dimension is the approximate space that the average manual wheelchair occupies. (Note: For today’s scooters, wider wheelchairs and ones that tilt and recline to help people’s circulation, this space is really a bare minimum.)

Many people don’t realize that the required 18″ of clear space on the strike or pull side of the door is for positioning a wheelchair’s footrests for then reaching forward to swing the door past the wheelchair. (Fig. 2) This is just one configuration example – it depends on whether you’re working with an interior or exterior door and what the direction someone would be approaching it is; this dimension can be up to 36”). Without this space (Fig. 3), the wheelchair is forced so far back that many people can’t reach the door, or they reach so far the wheelchair tilts forward!

In older buildings this strike-side clearance is often missing. But even when it’s there, a problem occurs in about 75% of restrooms I encounter: since many people like to grab the door handle with a paper towel, maintenance staff often put a trash can by the door…right in the 18″ clearance! (Fig. 4) Most building operators I’ve asked have no idea that they are blocking a required clearance.

A friend of mine and I (both wheelchair-riding architects) presented at a recent Greenbuild conference. She got trapped in the women’s room because Greenbuild put big recycling bins everywhere, including next to bathroom doors. In her electric scooter, she couldn’t reach the handle to pull the door open. My solution (particularly great for remodels) is to specify built-in, fully-recessed waste receptacles next to the door. People get a place to toss their paper towels and maintenance won’t place a trash can there. Another solution is to lay out the bathroom so that the door occurs on a longer wall with more strike-side clearance.

Door Number Two:
The bottom 10″ of manual doors and gates are required to be smooth. People often place a kick plate here to protect the door. But the genesis of the requirement is different: most wheelchair users use their wheelchair footrest to push the door open (after all, both hands are usually pushing the wheelchair.) If a door has recessed panels lower than 10″, the footrest can get wedged in and the person can’t push all the way through the door.

Tip: Don’t get tempted to use a cool-looking full-height door handle, like you see on some commercial door systems. These create the same problem and are often missed by building inspectors (who probably don’t understand the above rationale behind this smooth area).

Door Number Three:
Doors on accessible routes are required to provide 32″ clear width when they are open 90 degrees. Once you subtract door stop and door thickness, a 36″ door gives you about 33-1/2″ clear. This works fine, but what if you are remodeling an older building with narrower doors? Even a 34″ door minus the stop and door itself leaves under 32″. Enter the swingclear hinge; this clever offset-shaped hardware positions the door outside the doorway opening. I also use this on many 36″ doors – just to get an extra margin of comfort. Bonus Idea: A pair of door stops eat about 1″ out of an opening. But if you remove the stop from about 30″ down you get an extra inch of non-knuckle-scraping width for a wheelchair.

There are many more door requirements than we have room to cover here, and lots of clever solutions for making them work in your projects. So next time you encounter a troublesome door, think about the reason behind the code requirement and a solution to the problem should come more easily.


Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp I CC – Certified Accessibility Inspector and Plan Examiner ICC – Certified Building Plan Examiner

Kerwin says:
All requirements in the codes are minimum standards, whether it is for accessibility or life safety. Many of the problems associated with accessibility are maintenance ones, after they are being built.
This is where awareness by operating staff needs to be considered in any design. Some things like the addition of recycle bins were probably not considered in the original design.

Kick Plates – All smooth surfaces will be considered to have the required kick plate; it is only panelized doors that can be a problem. Full glass doors are considered in compliance and have been tested to take the impact loading of a wheelchair.

The consideration for any and all doors is how it i s used and how one approaches and leaves the door. Everyone should experience being in a wheelchair (renting or borrowing one) and go through some doors. This will give you a firsthand experience on what is required.

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