Accessibility & Awareness in Architectural Design

clip art of a laptop, drafting tools, and architectural plans

There it was, right past the swing of the door, jutting out from the corner. I calculated it was about a little over three foot tall and two foot wide and by the looks of it, heavy, solid wood. The worn, brass knobs had a distinct patina, perhaps unconsciously revealing a bit of its age. Upon closer inspection, it was evident that its ornate lines formed intricate relief images, reminiscent of the Far East region of the world. This beautiful and certainly antique piece definitely fit the image of the very trendy, fusion restaurant we were in. It just didn’t really fit into the actual space it was in….the accessible restroom.

Time after time, the above situation repeats itself in many places from restaurants to common areas of office buildings to retail spaces. An owner makes additional modifications to a space for many reasons. It could be to enhance it by adding furniture; replace worn accessories, update its appearance etc. Most of the time, these actions do not have detrimental effects on accessibility. However, some modifications can result in a room that is no longer code compliant and thus technically not usable as intended.

Accessible restrooms, like many other spaces, have distinct clear floor space requirements for each fixture and accessory. In addition, maneuvering clearances have to be maintained at doors and a turning space provided. These are not simply impositions but rather the minimum required area a person needs to turn, grasp, and maneuver to be able to move through the space and to actually use the fixtures.

In the above example, a restaurant placed additional furniture in an existing accessible toilet room. It is usually well intentioned—either an accent piece to dress up this rather utilitarian space or as in this case, elegantly masking a needed storage space for supplies.  The thought process from their standpoint may be that this is simply designed as an over-sized room so that the disabled user has a bit more extra space. In reality, these are usually designed per minimum clearances. The sheer size and placement of this specific storage piece ended up encroaching on the required clear floor space for one of the fixtures rendering it virtually unusable.

The challenge herein lies in how this situation can be improved.  One could argue if the end user were armed with this knowledge, better decisions would be made. But it needs to go a step further-experience has taught us that change has to start from the top which in this case is the designer.

The focus has to go back to not only planning with one’s kit of dimensions in tow—the designer needs to understand themselves the rationale behind ever code-prescribed clearance and adjacencies before designing these spaces. How does a wheelchair user actually move through the space and use a fixture? As mundane as that might appear, the gymnastics of transfer are real and those inches are critical.  How do those who have difficulty in grasping objects able to turn knobs or access dispensers if not positioned at certain heights and within certain distances? Or knowing that keeping the minimum clear clearance required next to doors is what assists in being able to open doors whether one is in a wheelchair, or has other impediments?

Thus, if the designers truly understand how the space is used, and enlighten owners on these principles, it would provide the tools necessary to make appropriate decisions from the get-go and in future modifications. Provisions for accessible elements should not just stem from mandates, but precisely be the result of careful thought and awareness. Only then will that stylish, hip restaurant recognize accessibility as a positive and incorporate its elements not simply as an afterthought … but as a jeweled accent in its overall brand design.

By:  Patricia Sendra