Every January the Division of the State Architect – Access Compliance (DSA-AC) publishes the “Valuation Threshold”. For 2022, the value is $186,172.00. What does this all mean and how is it applied for compliance with the code? This value is based on $50,000 of 1981 dollars and adjusted annually based on the construction index as published by Engineering New Record.
This value is associated with compliance with Chapter 11B-202.4 Path of travel requirements in alterations, additions and structural repairs. This requirement, which originated in 1981 California Building Code (CBC) and later modified when the ADA Standards were published in 1991, requires any and all additions/alteration projects to include accessibility elements outside of the renovation area. This basically is an add on to a project. A tenant improvement project within a building would have to include accessibility elements outside of the area of alteration, or what the ADA calls “Primary Function Area”. This is directly associated with the path of travel to the altered area from the entrance to the altered space. Section 11B-202.4 has a list of five element that need to be considered in addition to the actual path:
- A primary entrance to the building and facility,
- Toilet and bathing facilities serving the area,
- Drinking fountains erving the area,
- Public telephones serving the area, and
The basic intent of the code is to include elements that serve the altered area. At some point all existing buildings would be accessible.
Historic Note: There are very few places in the building code that require alterations of existing elements that are not in the primary area of alteration. Today that would include smoke detectors, plumbing fixtures and accessibility to name a few. There was a time (decades ago) that the code required bringing an entire building up to code when more that 50% of the building value was being spent in an alteration. In order words, if the building is valued at $1,000,000 and over $500,000 were being considered in the alteration of the building, the entire building was required to comply with the current code. This became an enforcement nightmare and a creative accounting game for building owners. This no longer exists in the code.
So what if you had a small alteration project, what needs to be included? Under the CBC the definition and term “Unreasonable Hardship” comes into play. Under this term, the following need to be considered:
- The cost of providing access.
- The cost of all construction contemplated
- The impact of proposed improvements on the financial feasibility of the project.
- The nature of the accessibility which would be gained or lost.
- The nature of the use of the facility under construction and its availability to persons with disabilities.
This is where the valuation threshold comes into play. For projects less than the annual amount, a consideration for “Unreasonable Hardship” would be considered. Although this may alleviate some elements based on cost, it does not remove all requirements from compliance. Let’s say there is no elevator in a building and the alteration is on the third floor of an existing building. The cost of an elevator would surpass the proposed alteration project and make it “infeasible”. In this case providing an elevator would be considered an unreasonable hardship, but there may be other small accessibility elements that are feasible. A request for unreasonable hardship would have to be filed with the local building department, which may or may not grant the request. Even if the cost of the project exceeds the value threshold, a request for unreasonable hardship may be used. Check with each building department for their policy regarding unreasonable hardships.
ADA NOTE: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act there are similar but different requirements associated with the path of travel to primary function areas. Terms like “maximum extent feasible”, “disproportionate” cost and a 20% maximum of the construction or what is known as 20% rule are used. The State chose not to adopt and use these terms. Remember that the ADA is enforced by the Department of Justice through law suits/complaints. The DOJ does not provide plan review services. It is unknown if compliance with the CBC deems a “Safe Harbor” for compliance with the ADA. To my knowledge there have been no cases testing this, but there are thousands of cases associated with the ADA..
Under Section 202.4, there are a lot of exceptions that do not trigger path of travel compliance, such as alteration work/projects that are directly associated with accessibility. This would include altering the building entrance or existing elevator. There are currently 9 exceptions and each with a long list of elements that are addressed.
This is all very confusing not only for the Architect to understand and address, but for the building official who is given the authority to enforce this. Much of what needs or can be done comes from direction from the client or building owner. A tenant improvement project may not have the authority to do any work outside of the area of alteration, but yet the code requires it. This may put the project team in the middle as to what to do. This needs to be discussed with the client, building owner and building department to have the project completed.
Kerwin Lee, AIA and CASp (Retired)