Codes: How to Design Outside the Code
How many times have you wanted to change the code so you can have a unique design? As a wheelchair-riding architect, I’ve seen big changes in society’s attitude toward disability. When I was young, people often assumed that unemployment or a lack of education were the inevitable result of disability. The attitude was ‘the problem is with you,’ rather than, ‘there’s a problem with this building.’
The change has been profound. In 1977, my parents had to fight for my right to go to the same high school my brothers were in, rather than the specialty school the district bussed children to. Architectural accessibility was all I needed and the school stepped up and provided it.
When did this shift in attitude start? Many point to the 1990 American with Disabilities Act (ADA), but we can look further back.
In 1959 the President’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped convened dozens of organizations such as the American Foundation for the Blind, the US Conference of Mayors, architects and others to create the first standards for architectural accessibility, ANSI A117.1. The document was just six pages long. So short that I’m including all the illustrations below. You’ll recognize many of the requirements in today’s ADA and CBC.
• Space: It established the “standard” wheelchair as 42 inches long (we still use this for minimum clear space) and the 60 inch turning circle.
• Reach: Comfortable reach to a wall-mounted element, such as a switch, was set at maximum 48 inches above the floor (same as today).
• Walks: 48 inches wide.
• Ramps: 1:12 maximum slope, with landings every 30 feet but handrails were 32 inches high (not today’s 34 to 38 inches).
• Doors: 32 inches clear with a five foot level landing. Somewhat quaintly, they say automatic doors “are very acceptable,” and that
“As much as possible, thresholds should be flush with the floor.”
• Stairs: seven inch maximum risers, with 32 inch high handrails extending 18 inches at top and bottom (today’s numbers are
different, but this acknowledged that people relying on handrails need to reach in front of themselves for support going up and down). See the diagram for the required smooth nosings.
• Floors: Nonslip and on one level per story, unless ramped (this was the origin of today’s Accessible Path of Travel).
• Toilet Rooms: At least one stall that’s three feet wide, with “handrails” on each side and a high toilet. Far from a wheelchair accessible stall, but it established grab bars and accessible toilets. Hot water pipes even required insulation.
• Water Fountains: The requirements were crude, requiring “an appropriate number” of accessible water fountains, and allowing hand or foot operation (now it’s hands only, but proximity sensors make even that unnecessary).
• Public Telephones: “An appropriate number” of phones needed reachable controls and equipment “for those with hearing
disabilities,” i.e. volume controls
• Elevators had space requirements and control height limits.
• Identification: Room signs required raised letters or numbers, mounted 5 feet high, and doors leading to hazardous areas had
to be marked with knurled handles (see image).
• Warning Signals: Warnings signals were required to be both visual and audible.
• Hazards: Cautions to avoid manholes in floors. Door closers, signs, lights and other protruding objects were required to be at a
minimum seven feet above the floor (now lowered to six feet eight inches).
• That’s everything!
My three big takeaways are:
1) I assumed that today’s requirements were based on research over time, but the basic elements of accessibility were obvious from the start.
2) Fifty-seven years should have been enough for thorough change, but it’s not. I encounter barriers every day.
3) I’m grateful that the 1959 committee recognized that the building industry needed guidance to create places that could accommodate more people.
Without those early standards, I wonder if society’s attitude would have made such progress. Andy Warhol said, “They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Thank you, fellow architects, for doing your part.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been in place since 1991 and California Accessibility Standard since the 1981 edition of the California Building Code. Even before that, the Rehabilitation Act required Federal funded projects to be accessible. Part of the fault for misguided application and enforcement is how the Law/Act is written and enforced. The ADA is only enforced by the Department of Justice, not your local building department, therefore, there is little assistance during plan review for checking for compliance with the ADA. Although most model codes, state and local codes align with the ADA, there is only a presumed compliance. In other words, complying with the local codes is only a “rebuttable defense” for compliance with the federal standards. This approach and attitude has created a lot of tension between all groups.