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Accessibility in Older Buildings

Owning or managing a building requires having in place a business plan which typically includes an operating reserve fund. Cost for utilities and ordinary monthly expenses fall outside the reserve fund. The reserve fund covers the inevitable unexpected cost of maintaining a property, such as replacing the boiler when it has outlived its normal life span, or fixing a leaky roof that is no longer under warranty.

Owners of old buildings also face some unique challenges that the owner of a new building doesn’t have to plan for. Older buildings were built to earlier codes, standards and statutes and therefore do not conform to today’s standards. One such challenge is what degree to modernize a structure for current accessibility codes. For the Owners of a “for-profit” facility such as a hotel or restaurant, it makes good sense to make improvements to a building that permits the accommodation of persons with special physical needs. For the Owner of a non-profit facility the choices are harder.  Funds are typically harder to come by and must be spread out over a variety of needs. The dilemma of upgrading a building to accommodate accessibility needs is not always a clear choice. Meeting accessibility requirements in new construction is clearly covered in today’s building codes, and the code even addresses what is required in providing accessibility for major renovations to existing structures. The dilemma is what sort of improvements you make when you are not planning a major renovation.

While recently working with a local non-profit organization, which provides housing for individuals who would otherwise be at risk of being homeless, we faced these issues. Using the reserve fund, upgrades were planned of kitchens and bathrooms that were badly in need of modernization. While it seemed a clear choice to include grab bars and other features for accessibility other choices were not as clear. What do you do about a staircase that fails to meet the riser and tread dimensions prescribed in the newer codes, or that have handrails that are mounted at the wrong height. Replacing a multilevel staircase is impractical given the cost required to make changes to the structure, but adding a new railing at the proper height can go a long way for making the building safer for all users. Installing a new interior ramp that provides access to an activity space that would otherwise be inaccessible seems like a clear choice.

Unfortunately, for the Owner of an older building, there is no rule of thumb or guidelines which prescribes what changes should be included in your overall business plan to cover upgrades to your building to meet accessibility requirements. The original Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), requires public accommodations to remove architectural barriers where such removal is “readily achievable”. But who determines what is “readily achievable”? There are no easy answers, and Owners of older buildings will continue to be faced with these hard choices.