Accessibility in historic buildings

Historic commercial buildings that are open to the public such as offices, retail facilities, and restaurants need to consider the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements on access. The ADA came into force in 1990 establishing minimum accessibility requirements for all buildings.

Historic properties are not exempt from ADA requirements – they must take steps to become accessible to the greatest extent possible. One of the best ways of understanding how best to meet ADA standards is to commission an Accessibility Audit from a qualified Access Consultancy such as Direct Access. At Direct Access we understand the importance of conservation and heritage work and that any proposals put forward are sensitive to the preservation of your site, culture, and heritage for generations to come.

Minimum requirements

  • At least one accessible route exists from parking to an accessible entrance.
  • At least one publicly accessible entrance that complies with ADA.
  • Where there are restrooms providing at least one ADA-compliant restroom on an accessible route.
  • Locate displays, written information, documents, and other materials where they can be seen by a seated person. Ideally, literature should be placed vertically enabling people to reach.

If your site cannot be made accessible without impacting on the historical significance, a consultation will need to take place with local and State Government bodies. These will vary from state to state and should involve the State Historic Preservation Officer. Such bodies consider where ADA compliance can be achieved appropriately without compromising heritage and ensure that changes are made in accordance with the Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. At Direct Access our Access Consultants can help identify the most appropriate access solution.

Typical adaptations

Commercial buildings located downtown are accessed often through sidewalk-level doors. The ADA requires a 32-inch clear opening when a door is open 90 degrees. Most doors are 2 inches or less in thickness, so a 34-inch door opening would meet this requirement. Most commercial building doors are 34 to 36 inches wide and therefore would meet ADA requirements.

The interior of your building must have accessible routes to publicly used spaces and an accessible restroom. If your building has steps or different levels, you can give access to these areas either with temporary ramps or a permanent ramp. When adapting a historic house for an office, shop, or other public use, you can also provide access with a temporary or permanent ramp.

Offsetting costs

Many of our clients are surprised to find that efforts to meet ADA requirements are usually not expensive or intrusive. We analyze the interior spaces’ configuration, the access routes, and the historical significance of a building holistically to ensure building heritage and character are not adversely affected. Easy changes include adding grab bars in restrooms or modifying door handles. The ADA includes a 20% “disproportionality” rule for the cost of access improvements. Under this requirement, the costs associated with making your premises accessible are limited to 20% of the project expenses. This means that if you spend $10,000 to renovate your main space, you are not required to spend more than $2,000 on expenses related to making that space accessible to restrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains. Any costs above the 20% mark are considered disproportionate and therefore are not required.

Key areas to consider

Preserve significant features of historic buildings. Any ADA compliance starts by collecting details of the historical significance of the site. If the site is on the National Register of Historic Places list, the relevant State Historic Preservation Office will hold the original nomination documents. This will include information about the significance of the building and its character-defining architectural features. An ADA accessibility plan will need to prioritize the protection of these features, original materials, and spaces.

Minimize the impact on primary spaces by planning space to decrease the impact on the site’s historic character. Secondary spaces can also be modified without compromising a site’s historic character. We can help facilitate engagement with local disability groups and building inspectors to devise the best accessibility plan for your building. Careful planning and creative design decisions can accommodate the greatest level of accessibility with the least impact on your building.

Ensuring Compliancy

Identify with the help of an Access Consultant the site’s barriers to ADA compliance. With the help of the Consultant check the current accessibility status and develop an action plan to retrofit to meet the ADA. Access Consultants must have the knowledge and experience to complete a facilities survey that will show barriers including ground surface textures, grade, width of passageways, entrances and doors, restrooms, and parking. It is essential that they are familiar with all federal, state, and local ADA codes. These vary from place to place.

Balancing Access and Preservation

Ensure the preservation of original doors and other entrance elements. Historical doors should not normally be replaced. Most commercial building entrances can easily meet ADA requirements with minimal alterations such as a push-button or automatic opening-on approach.

If there is parking on the premises, it should be as convenient as possible for persons with disabilities. An Access Consultant can engage with the city’s planning department for parking requirements and practices for persons with disabilities to ensure suitable modifications to parking configuration and pathways can be developed.

A clear accessible path from a designated parking area to the main entrance is wide enough for wheelchair users, therefore a width of at least 36 inches is required. A path must be appropriately graded and have a non-slip surface. Existing surfaces may be enhanced with new paving materials and clear wayfinding signs.

Depending on the site’s use, restrooms may need updating for ADA compliance. Depending on the layout restroom stalls can be combined or if space is limited a single lavatory that includes grab bars and a higher seat is required along with a full-length mirror. There are a variety of combinations available. It may be possible to combine two restroom stalls to accommodate people with disabilities. If your space is limited, you may want to create a single lavatory that includes ADA features, such as grab bars and a higher toilet seat.

Wayfinding signage helps people to navigate without needing to ask for directions. Following ADA standardization enables visually impaired visitors to know where to look for signage in any building. Wayfinding signs must also include braille and a raised symbol with a contrasting background and foreground. The signs should also be centered five feet above the floor and located 6 inches away on the strike side of the door.

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