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Know the Code

When designing and building multifamily housing units, many federal laws and building codes have requirements that must be met to ensure accessibility. Knowing what these requirements are and abiding by them can save you time and money and protect you from potential future lawsuits.

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When designing and building multifamily housing units, many federal laws and building codes have requirements that must be met to ensure accessibility. Knowing what these requirements are and abiding by them can save you time and money and protect you from potential future lawsuits.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

What standards need to be met?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, passed in 1990 and revised in 2012) and Fair Housing Act (passed in 1968) are civil rights laws that guarantee accessibility for the disabled community. As federal law, they can be enforced in every state. Some states have made these requirements part of their building codes.

American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A117.1 gives technical guidelines on how to make elements accessible to people with disabilities. Examples include corridor and aisle widths, door widths, floor slopes and countertop heights. It is more rigorous than ADA requirements.

Chapter 11 of the International Building Code (IBC) is the most stringent of the requirements; if you build to this standard, you can feel comfortable that you are then in compliance with the civil rights laws and ANSI code. It references the ANSI requirements while giving specifics on the scope of accessibility; for example, two percent of residential living units have to be ANSI “A” accessible (description below) at the time that the building is leased. Other units that are “accessible” (such as those on the ground floor or that can be reached via an elevator) need to meet ANSI “B” requirements.

Cities can enforce ANSI/IBC building codes and not allow an owner to occupy a building until accessibility requirements are met. Fair Housing and ADA laws are usually enforced after a tenant occupies a dwelling and feels their civil rights have been violated.

What are the different types of units?

There are five types of residential living units that deal with accessibility. Units that do not have any of these features are considered non-accessible. These units can be included in buildings that have two or more floors and do not have an elevator.

There are two basic types of residential living units that new-construction apartment building designers and developers must be aware of: ANSI “A” and ANSI “B” units.

Five types of residential living units that deal with accessibility:

Fully Accessible Unit: Fully accessible units are not typically necessary for apartment buildings. They are usually included when the demographic of your tenants has a higher percentage chance of a person using a wheelchair or has accessibility issues such as a retirement home.

– The unit must include accommodations such as grab bars and low storage

– Comply with ADA’s “reach range” requirements for anything a tenant may use. For example, the location of controls for ranges and cooktops shall not require reaching across burners.

ANSI “A” Unit: Two percent of the apartments in the development must be ANSI “A” units.

– Clear floor space around doors, beds, bathroom fixtures and appliances are required.

– A clear path around the apartment is required to ensure a wheelchair user has free access to their home.

– Rooms must provide enough space that person who uses a wheelchair can enter, turn around and exit the room.

– Knee space under countertops is required at sinks and at a workspace in the kitchen.

– Kitchen and closet storage must allow a wheelchair user to reach into them within pre-determined heights.

–  Appliances, including ranges and range hoods, require controls that are also within reach.

ANSI “B” Unit: All apartments at ground level must be either ANSI “A” or ANSI “B.”

– If the apartment building has an elevator, then all non-ANSI “A” units must be designed to meet ANSI “B” requirements. These units are considered adaptable for future accessibility needs.

– The requirements for clear floor space are not as strict as ANSI “A” units. Examples of adapting a unit would include removing the cabinet under the sink to provide knee space and removing doors off laundry closets to provide better access to appliance(s).

An ANSI “C” Unit: These units address visibility and auditory accessibility needs which do not affect apartment design at the time of construction. These requirements can be addressed after leasing to someone with a visual or hearing impairment as most changes are electrical. For example, adding fire alarm and doorbell lights.

“Visitable” Unit: These are apartments that are designed in a way that allows someone with accessibility concerns to visit, but not be a permanent tenant. Five percent of an apartment building must be visitable. Since the ground floor units are all ANSI “A” or ANSI “B,” most designers do not provide a separate visitable unit as those two types will meet the requirements.

Items such as grab bars or shower chairs are not required to be installed during construction. The backing in the walls must be installed during construction to allow for future installation of these items when needed by a tenant.​​​​​

Design Best Practices: Measure Twice, Cut Once

It is important for contractors and owners to be aware of the building codes. Small mistakes can end up costing time and money if the contractor has to rework the units and the owner loses out on revenue during that time.

  • One of the most common problems seen during construction involves the 40-inch width or aisle clearance needed in kitchens so that wheelchairs can easily move around. It’s important to take into consideration that appliances might stick out farther than cabinets, and continue measuring 40 inches from the cabinetry and not the stove. In one project in Iowa, an owner was unable to get occupancy because the clearance was measured to be 39 inches. To get occupancy, the contractor had to pull all the islands up and move them, which also required moving electrical work, and then repair of the floor finishes.
  • Even though the Fair Housing Act was signed into law more than 50 years ago, it is still difficult to find sliding patio doors that meet the requirements for threshold heights. A building code official is also not likely to pick up on threshold heights. If a contractor is unable to find doors with the correct threshold, the designer can help them come up with workarounds. If this detail is missed, corrections will need be made after the fact, requiring more money and lost revenue for the owner.
  •  Like patio doors, selecting accessible shower units is a common area of difficulty and requires designers and contractors to work together. Although more options exist, shower units may be selected on price but are not big enough or do not have reinforcement for grab bars; unfortunately, these shower would not meet accessibility requirements and rework would be required.

One way to avoid these types of situations is for the contractor to share their shop drawings or submittals to the designer during the construction process. This gives designers an opportunity to review the products that they’re installed. With the shop drawing, the designer can then inform the contractor of potential problems beforehand. Without shop drawings, problems may not be caught until the designers do a walk through at the end of construction.

The cost of things like larger doors and rooms does add up over the span of many units. However, compared to the costs of remodels and lost time and revenue, not to mention possible litigation, it makes doing it right the first time the obvious route.​​​​​