Important Design Considerations with Accessibility in Mind

Posted by Elizabeth Bauman on 6/5/15 11:45 AM  |  4 min read time

Each year at the AIA National Convention, a select number of architects who are making outstanding contributions to the industry through design excellence, furthering the field of architectural education, or advancing the profession are elevated as Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. It’s a tremendous honor that has been bestowed on a select few AIA members, including Janis Kent, architect, CASp. We recently sat down with Kent to learn more about what makes her stand out in her field and pick up a few tips on accessibility planning. Here's what we learned:

Kent has made a powerful niche for herself within the architecture industry as an expert in all things related to accessibility. Since the mid-80s, California-based Kent has worked as an architect, consultant, and speaker, focusing much of her energy on surveying facilities for accessibility compliance and providing quality control expertise throughout the United States.

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Kent’s position as a thought leader within the industry was solidified by the publication of Stepping Thru Accessibility Details, now in its second edition. Her ability to guide readers through the many complexities of securing compliance with the standards set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in both her book and seminars, made Kent a standout choice for the AIA Fellowship.

“Elevation to the College of Fellows resonates with me on a number of levels,” says Kent. “It’s been a long time since someone was recognized for their work with accessibility. This is such an important topic, yet often it is not acknowledged nor fully grasped and implemented. Being elected represents a big step for access in the built environment.”

Accessibility is a topic of increasing importance. Kent implores that it's a growing cultural imperative, especially with an aging Baby Boomer generation making up a significant demographic in the United States, requiring spaces to be more accommodating.

According to Kent, there are a few key things to keep in mind when you’re designing for accessibility:

1. Remember the answer to all accessibility questions is often, “It depends.”

When you’re designing spaces for commercial purposes, things are rarely cut and dry. Instead, there are federal, state, and local laws and guidelines that can affect your accessibility considerations. Take, for example, whether you must include an elevator in an older two-story commercial building. “The answer to this, of course, is it depends,” says Kent.

The size, function, location, and type of construction determine whether you are required to include an elevator. If a building has less than 3,000 square feet per floor or only has two stories, an elevator is not generally required. However, if it contains retail spaces, medical facilities, or public agencies, vertical accessibility must be provided.Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 2.02.49 PM

2. Accessibility considerations are like a jigsaw puzzle.

Designing for people with disabilities adds a layer of complexity to even the most thorough BIM workflows. With each requirement from the ADA, state law, and city guideline, each corner and room you’re virtually constructing becomes a more complicated riddle.

Kent remarks that restrooms are one of the more difficult spaces to design because they have “so many different requirements. It’s like a large jigsaw puzzle that changes every time you find a piece that fits. You’re constantly working to make everything align properly.”

To avoid frustration, be sure that you’re educated about each law and guideline that will affect your building in advance – and employ BIM workflows to minimize excessive redrawing of existing plans.

3. Understand that permits don’t always mean ADA compliance.

“Many owners, developers, architects, and other design professionals believe that their building permits or certificates of occupancy signify compliance with ADA requirements and local guidelines” says Kent. “However, there’s no single agency that can provide approval for your project or product across the federal, state, and local levels.”

As such, do your research, know your field, and communicate openly with the would-be owner of your project as it is ultimately their responsibility to assure ADA and other accessibility compliance.

Have accessibility questions? Head on over to Kent’s blog to learn more.

Topics: AIA, Architecture, FAIA, Janis Kent, Stepping Thru Accessibility, accessibility, BIM, Community, Notable User

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