My topic this week is a little controversial and likely to generate some comments, but it’s a conversation that’s worth discussing. For those that don’t know, ADA is the acronym for the American with Disabilities Act. The ADA ensures equal opportunity for those with physical disabilities but for today’s discussion I am focusing on building design and its effects.
Design standards have changed significantly since the first ADA regulations, mostly for the better. Drinking fountains, bathrooms, countertop heights, hallway widths, door arrangement all have been changed to allow people with physical disabilities better use and access to the built environment. The most noticeable by those who aren’t in the design/construction industry is bathrooms. When you go into a single bathroom at a restaurant or office you probably think the bathrooms are unnecessarily large. Why do we need this much space? The size allows someone in a wheelchair to maneuver and transfer from their wheelchair to the toilet seat, which requires more space than one would expect.
I am going to oversimplify this for today’s discussion, but all buildings new and old are required to meet these ADA regulations. This can put a substantial burden, financially and spatially, on building projects. For example, we just renovated a historic fire station for our new offices. We decided to add a shower for the staff in case they get dirty at a job site or exercise during the day and need to freshen up. We installed the shower on our second floor, which is not wheelchair accessible because our building is small enough, we are not required to install an elevator, part of the oversimplification I mentioned above. My preference was to use a shower with a curb to ensure water does not run out of the shower onto the floor. However, the ADA requires if you have one shower it must be accessible, which meant it needed to be flush with the floor for wheelchair access. The cost of an accessible shower costs more and takes up more space. The logic of requiring a wheelchair accessible shower on the second floor of a building where you can’t get the wheelchair is an example of where I question has the ADA gone too far. I could list dozens of examples, like this, where compliance with the ADA appears overburdensome on buildings.
Compliance with the ADA for new construction is generally not a problem but for existing buildings, it can be extremely challenging and very costly. In my opinion, public buildings like hospitals, shopping malls, libraries, and doctor’s offices absolutely should comply with the ADA. Steven Holl Architects just completed the Hunters Point Library and did not provide accessibility to all their spaces and are now in a lawsuit over the design. A library is a building that serves the public and should have complied with the ADA regulations. Below is the article.
The ADA should allow for more exceptions for private businesses or facilities that don’t serve the public. Approximate 2% of the population is wheelchair-bound, which is the basis of most of the ADA building design requirements. The design/construction industry spends a lot of money on non-public buildings for an extremely small percentage of the population. I am not suggesting that everyone doesn’t deserve equal treatment but full compliance with the ADA can be disproportionately expensive at times. It’s not possible to make all buildings accessible so wouldn’t it be better to spend more money on wheelchair innovation or other ways to improve the mobility for those with disabilities. I believe this would ultimately cost the industry less and give access to all buildings for those with disabilities.