Understanding the Regulations of Universal Design

My favorite movie of 2020 was Crip Camp. This documentary follows the lives of a group of disabled teenagers and young adults who met at a summer camp for the disabled in the 1970s and went on to form the movement for universal access and rights for disabled Americans that eventually led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. For me, the ADA is the greatest design movement of the 20th century, as it caused sweeping changes to the ways civil engineers and architects design sites and buildings — it opened up these spaces to everyone for the first time in our country’s history. It’s easy to forget what our built environment was like before ADA, and the numbers of architects who practiced in that pre-ADA world are shrinking every year. In Crip Camp, the inequalities of the pre-ADA world are laid out in deeply personal terms by the campers. We learn about the lived experiences of people with a wide variety of disabilities too — it’s not all about wheelchair access. The filmmakers do such a good job capturing the importance of this overlooked movement for equality that Crip Camp should be required viewing for all architects and architecture students.

The movie also got me thinking about an aspect of practice that I’ve seen a lot of newcomers to architecture struggle with over the years, and that’s how to juggle the overlapping accessibility requirements of the ADA with state and local codes and regulations on accessibility. I see a lot of people mix up these overlapping requirements when they’re starting out, and most frequently, the mistake is that the state and local codes get followed to the detriment of ADA’s requirements. Sometimes, that’s okay if the state and local codes are more stringent, but most of the overlapping requirements represent a little bit of this code and a little bit of that ADA requirement — you’ve got to blend them together in your design to make sure you meet all the regulations.

Here’s how I look at ADA versus state and local codes and regulations:

For those I’ve mentored over the years I use this approach to explain the regulations of accessible design, and it seems to help people get past their misunderstanding of this topic more quickly.

Beyond the dry topic of law, code, and regulation you have the larger landscape of universal design. It’s rarely enough to simply implement accessibility law, code, and regulation. The most impactful part of Crip Camp for me as an architect was getting to see the discussions the campers had about their frustrations not just with the built environment, but with the way the world perceived them and their value to society. The design insights provided by these conversations provide powerful lessons in universal design for architects. It’s certainly changed the way I think about the access and usability of space, especially the weight of those considerations versus everything else one considers when turning a program into a design.

Wisdom From the Restroom

I want to take a moment to address the small, humble single-occupant public restroom. Two of these “single-holers” as they are lovingly referred to out on the job site are standard fare for smaller spaces with low occupant loads like offices, retail shops, and restaurants. Architects who regularly design these kinds of small uses are quite adept at making their single-occupant restrooms spatially efficient while making sure they still comply with accessibility codes (especially the clear space requirements within those accessibility codes). You’ll still get the occasional client bemoaning “all that space” in those restrooms and how it costs them space elsewhere. You’ll still reassure them it’s as tight as it can be in there, and you might even demonstrate that by showing the clear space requirements of the accessibility codes as dashed lines or shaded polygons. We’re thirty years into the ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and this kind of universal design is just something we do now, it’s the default. That’s a beautiful thing.

The reason that ADAAG in particular has largely been a success in altering our built world is that building codes have adopted the ADAAG either verbatim, through incorporation of adopted standards referenced by it, or by using it as the takeoff point for their own accessibility guidelines that meet/exceed those of ADAAG. When law makes its way into building codes it becomes something easily enforced by building officials in their plan reviews and subsequent inspections. Building codes also directly drive architectural knowledge and practice, so whatever’s in them becomes integrated into architectural design. Even the tradespeople building these “single-holers” tend to memorize some of the basic accessibility requirements when they start showing up in inspection reports.

It’s a welcome change that we’re starting to recognize the shortcomings of having gender-based restrooms. The low-hanging fruit of positive change in this area of design is the single-occupant restroom. Why the hell do we even separate these kinds of facilities into men’s and women’s anyway? What difference does it make? If anything, it’s less convenient every time one of these restrooms is occupied and you’re doing the bulging bladder boogie, but the available one doesn’t match your gender or identity. Lots of building operators are already doing away with gender-based single-occupant restrooms, which is great, it’s the start of a movement. But to make it universal like we did with accessible design, we do need legislation to push forward a common sense change that actually benefits everybody, but also makes a positive difference in the lives of people who identify outside of the gender binary.

This brings me back to that whole integration thing between the law and building codes. I’ve now seen multiple instances of well-meaning municipalities pushing through gender neutral single-occupant restroom ordinances, but not updating their building codes to reflect that. A gender-neutral restroom policy will be in the municipal code alongside stuff like licensing requirements for barbers, noise ordinances, and garbage collection rules instead of being in the building code. It probably needs to be in both places, so that existing businesses retroactively comply too. But as it’s set up, many (most?) architects, especially those who aren’t based in the municipality, but get hired to do work there, will miss it. This leaves enforcement in the hands of citizens instead of plan reviewers and inspectors. Major fail.

Push your local lawmakers to get a gender-neutral single-occupant restroom ordinance on the books AND update the building code accordingly. OR, if your jurisdiction already has such an ordinance, make sure it makes the jump into the building code too. AND, just start defaulting to making those two single-occupant restrooms gender neutral in your room schedules from now on. Thanks, I’m stepping down from the soap box now.