Codes: The View From Here
Ever wonder about the practical reasons behind the various accessibility heights in the CBC and ADA? As a wheelchair-riding architect, one of the most pervasive access problems I encounter is elements at the wrong height. Let’s explore.
Recognition that standards were needed for people with disabilities to have fair access to buildings first arrived in 1961 (yes, a full 55 years ago), with the first edition of ANSI A117.1. (Actually, the group was then called the American Standards Association, so the document was “ASA A117.1 1961.” Something to trot out at your next AIA wine and cheese event).
Some of the fascinating details of this ancient yet seminal document will be the focus of an upcoming article, but it addressed one area that’s frequently executed wrong even today: Heights for mirrors, shelves and towel dispensers in restrooms. The height for these and other elements was simply set at 40” above the floor in 1961. Today we have maximums, minimums and ranges, but the idea is still that a middle height is better because it is easily reached by more people.
Let’s look at a bathroom vanity. Illustration (I) shows an obviously crazy vanity design on the left.
The controls are too far away to reach, the cabinet is too high, and you wouldn’t be able to see yourself in the mirror. And reaching across the countertop at armpit level would get your sleeves wet. That’s why the vanity sketch on the right is “standard.” It doesn’t have any of these problems…for an average-height standing person.
Illustration (II) shows that same supposedly “sane” vanity drawn on the left.
But for someone who’s shorter or in a wheelchair, the same problems exist as for the “crazy” vanity in Illustration (I). Approach and reach are poor, you’re working at armpit level, and here’s what I see from my seated position: That’s the top of my head in the mirror. This photo is of a recently-remodeled high-end hotel in Boston.
All these issues are just at a vanity. Put on your code glasses and look at the built environment. Things get mounted at the wrong height everywhere, like this seat dispenser in a convention center that’s not only too high, but access is blocked by the toilet.
So beyond making sure that your projects meet the code, here are my top five height items you can keep in mind as you’re designing your next project:
1. Consider the heights of window sills, which can make a dramatic difference for enjoying the view out for seated people and for kids. This makes for better Egress Windows as well.
2. The code’s 40” max. to the bottom of the reflecting surface (remember – it’s not to the mirror frame) is marginally functional for many wheelchair riders. So specify large mirrors that come all the way down to the countertop or sink, not small ones that might get installed too high.
3. Add a full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door so that even if the vanity mirror gets mounted wrong, everyone still has a mirror that works.
4. Draw every bathroom accessory on every wall. Many architects skip this and just show them in plan or provide a list for the contractor to install. Once you actually draw the elevations, you realize that getting the pieces to work together isn’t so easy and is certainly better done by an architect who’s more knowledgeable about the code than the general contractor’s laborer. The “crazy” bathroom sketch above is getting built every day but we can prevent it.
5. Beyond function, think about the overall architectural experiences that people of different heights have in your buildings. Sitting and looking up at the world all my life tuned me to volumes of spaces and interesting ceilings. That prompted me to sculpt and play more with these elements. Incorporate a diversity of viewpoints in your work and I guarantee it will be more fun for you and more engaging for others.