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Codes: Building Code and Spell Check

Erick Mikiten, AIA, LEED-AP

How many of you have attended a seminar on the ADA and/or California Building Code (CBC) Chapter 11 and have been bored out of your mind?

This is because a code-based approach to design is about as interesting as a spell check based approach to writing.

Think about it. We have code requirements for every element: floors, walls, roofs and everything in between. When you design those elements, do you feel satisfied with your work if it’s merely code compliant? Do you look to the building code for design inspiration Of course not.

I try to share the underlying principles of accessible design so that architects will be able to design experiences that engage and delight people, or are so seamless that people are free to focus on the wider beauty of your architecture.

Let’s talk about seamless entrance sequences. I am often called in to design or retrofit an existing building entrance. This is because when people are doing alteration to an existing building, CBC chapter 11B-Section 202.4 requires the following:

“When alterations or additions are made to existing buildings or facilities, an accessible path of travel to the specific area of alteration or addition shall be provided. The primary accessible path of travel shall include:

1. A primary entrance to the building or facility,

2. Toilet and bathing facilities serving the area,

3. Drinking fountains serving the area,

4. Public telephones serving the area, and

5. Signs”

So you start at the primary entrance. Very often, the architect or contractor is trying to connect the sidewalk level with the entrance level, so they turn to the tool prescribed by code: The Ramp. Then they start trying to carve the ramp into the stairs, along with the required landings and the whole thing quickly becomes ugly and expensive.

But wait…push the ramp out of your mind for just a minute, and look at the ground plane. Where is it closest in elevation to the building entrance? Can you connect those two points with a gentle walkway? Here’s an example where a level walkway through a former planting strip became an effortless entrance to the Berkeley YWCA, and because it wasn’t a ramp requiring handrails, the edge could become a much-used seat wall.

I can’t tell you how many times I have eliminated the need for ramps completely by constructing level or near level walkways between two points. I suspect that architects and contractors overlook these solutions so often because when one thinks about accessible level changes, our minds naturally go to the code-prescribed ramp.

So back up. Keep in mind that we’re finding architectural solutions to code accessibility, with architecture first – not the other way around. You’re better than spell check.

 

Kerwin Lee, Architect, CASp

Kerwin’s Comments – The key to using the code is not to just read the text, but to understand the  “intent” of the code. If you understand why the code wants something, you can be better in achieving what the code requires and creating a great design. Sometimes it requires bending the standard interpretation of what the code requires, but meeting the intent. Ask yourself what is the code trying to achieve here? Whether it is life safety or accessibility, it is the same. A lot of accessibility requirements are as simple as getting from point A to point B. As a design, we create the experience of getting from point A to point B. That should be no different for people with disabilities. The first thought is that the experience should be the same for all users, even if the physical aspects may be different. A child in a playground that is in a wheelchair may not be able to use every piece of play equipment, but should be able to experience what is happening. Being with other kids is a big part of the experience. This applies to all elements of the physical environment. The basic original intent of all accessibility requirements is to allow the people with disabilities to be a part of society: inclusion not exclusion.

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