Archive for June, 2010

Accessibility Requirements in Restaurants

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2010 by planaarchitecture

For those who rely on wheelchairs, or cannot see, or wear leg braces, or have limitations in their ability to reach or grasp, or for those who have other physical challenges, the ways in which a restaurant is designed and constructed will affect their desire to patronize a particular place.  In the past I’ve had a number of clients who’ve complained about the expense and space required to meet these needs.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “we’ve been in business for x years and I can count the number of times a person in a wheelchair came in our place on one hand”.

Ten or even five years ago that may have been true.  But I’ve noticed a growing number of folks out and about in motorized wheelchairs lately.  With this added ease of mobility it’s almost certain that we’ll be seeing more physically challenged folks in all sorts of public spaces.  So it’s not only a matter of complying with the law, but also a matter of doing what’s morally right that will, I hope, bring us to be more conscientious about making sure we take their needs into account.  And we need to keep in mind that accessibility concerns are not limited to those applying to wheelchairs.

And if the building code and morality aren’t enough of an incentive, lawsuits will be.  I attended a seminar on accessibility at McDonald’s Hamburger University in Chicago a few years ago and at that time they (being the big target that they are) were seeing a rash of lawsuits, particularly in California and Florida.  Frankly I’m surprised we haven’t seen this become more widespread in recent years, but I have no doubt it’s coming.

Here in North Carolina we’ve had  our own Accessibility Code for many years.  But last year the state adopted the 2003 International Building Code version of the Accessibility Code which is published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI A117.1).  Maybe I was just used to the old code, but so far I’ve found the ANSI version to be more difficult to work with.  I won’t even attempt to try and explain the basics here.  It would take more pages than the actual code itself.

What you do need to know is that if you’re building a new restaurant or putting one in a new shell building, you must comply with the code.  So be prepared to build ramps if you have steps, build rest rooms large enough to meet all the clearances required at the fixtures and at the entrance, construct a portion of service counters at a height that meets code, make sure that the limitations on reaching self service drink and condiment areas is met, etc., etc.

If you are taking over an existing facility that does not comply with current code you are not automatically grandfathered as you might have been in past years.  Under the provisions of the current code grandfathering may only occur if the cost of bringing the entire facility up to code is “disproportional” to the cost of the entire job.  Disproportional basically means 20% of the total cost of the project with certain exceptions.

Disproportionality gets a little tricky depending on the scope of a particular project.  It may mean as little as installing proper door hardware on the entrance(s) or as much as tearing out the existing rest rooms and building new, larger facilities.  In addition to the North Carolina State Building Code, NC has also adopted the Rehabilitation Code which is specifically designed to promote renovation of older buildings that don’t necessarily meet current codes.  It provides some grandfathering for accessibility issues and is more generous in the way it calculates disproportionality.

One issue that comes up often with existing restaurants is access to elevated or sunken seating areas.  These must now be accessible, so plan on installing ramps or bringing everything up or down to the main level.  Ironically, mezzanines (similar to a balcony) do not need to be accessible.

If you’re building or renovating a free-standing restaurant you’ll also need to be concerned about the accessible parking stall and the route from the stall as well as from the public sidewalk to the building.  An anecdote I heard at Hamburger U. was about a lawyer in Florida who would pull into parking lots and check the parking for compliance with the code.  If it was up to code he’d move on, but if it wasn’t he’d go inside under the assumption that more violations would be found.  These were the places he then targeted for lawsuits.

If you’re a tenant in a shopping center the parking and sidewalks are usually beyond your responsibility, but not always.  We’re working on a project right now in a building that has only two tenants without any accessible entrances.  The city is requiring that we make our tenant’s space accessible with a ramp and sidewalk to the street.

As you can see there are a lot of complexities to the Accessibility Code.  While many requirements such as size of doors, height of sinks, toilet stall sizes, etc. there are many issues that are less clear and dependant on the specifics of the site or building.  Before making any financial commitments to a particular space or building it is well worth paying an architect for a couple hours of time to evaluate the existing conditions.  Not knowing what you’re getting into can be a lot more expensive down the road.