Monday, July 19, 2010

What do I think of the an architect?

Thank you to Abadi Accessibility News for asking me to weigh in with my opinion as we approach the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. My name is Bob Borson and I can typically be found at the helm of my own blog, Life of an Architect .

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by then President George. H. W. Bush. It was a momentous occasion and it would change the lives of millions of people, mostly for the better. So here we are 20 years later, well into living and working with the rules and regulations associated with the ADA, but how are we as architects doing implementing these rules? As architects we are probably doing okay because you can't work on a project without implementing the requirements of the ADA. For example, this act was signed into law before I even graduated from college so it has existed all of my professional life. That having been said, how are our clients doing with it and are we helping them?

On occasion, when I tell people that some portion of their project doesn't currently meet code or when I try and explain why the bathrooms are as large as I have shown them, I get puzzled, sometimes irritated responses:

Client: "I was in a restaurant the other day and their toilet room wasn't anywhere near this big."
Me: "Well that doesn't make it right, besides, it is possible that their toilet rooms were permitted before ADA was a requirement."
Client: "And why is that space behind the cashier so large - make it smaller.."
Me: "I can't, that is another ADA requirement. Someone who works back there might be in a wheelchair and they need to be able to turn around and maneuver properly."
Client: "It's too big, I just won't hire someone in a wheelchair."
Me: "It's not called the Americans in Wheelchairs Act, there are other disabilities. You do realize that you are now practicing a type of discrimination and trying to break a federal law?"
Client: "No one else seems to have to do whose being discriminated against?"

I am embarrassed to have to say that I have had this exact conversation or some form just like it several times and I am always shocked that people don't even realize that they are practicing discrimination. I like to think I have smart clients but I have had a few tell me (after I pointed out what they were asking for) tell me that they don't discriminate, that they like people from all races and backgrounds.

Errr...that would be racism and something entirely different. Holy gorilla's armpit - you have got to be kidding me.........

I have to be honest with you, I mostly do residential work and my knowledge of the intricacies of the rules and regulations associated with the ADA are pedestrian at best. I can handle looking things up in the rule book and coming to my own conclusions but what it really comes down to is having a Registered Accessibility Specialist, or RAS, who is there to help guide you. When I start a project, and I try to sit down with all the people who will be working with me and I have a conversation about how we are all on the same team and that we all have the same goals. See, the very nature of how most contracts are set up, adversarial relationships between architect and contractor are established from the very beginning. Another relationship that can be a bit...well maybe not adversarial but difficult at times is between the architect and their RAS. Sometimes, and I mean this with begrudging respect, RAS tend to be rule followers of the highest order. This "rule following" mentality can actually serve the architect well when trying to navigate the labyrinth that is the ADA rulebook. But I am not interested in just rule followers, I want my RAS to interpret how the rules might actually apply specifically to my project. And that's where my particular RAS consultant specialist comes in.

When I was asked to write this post, I was more than happy to do it. The type of RAS consultant I like to work with typically has an architectural background. Having a RAS who thinks like an architect while interpreting the rules and regulations associated with ADA, brings me that much closer to achieving a successful project while getting everyone working on the project on the same side and with the same ultimate goal. I don't think that some people think about the type of role that a RAS can perform - if you get the right one. It is my intention to go beyond just "doing the right thing", disabled persons should have their actions and challenges taken into consideration. Trying to be a rule breaker, or even a rule bender, holds no allure for me as a architect and designer. But just as I have to interpret the projects programs, I want a RAS consultant who will help me work within the guidelines established and to achieve all our common goals - a happy client. Incorporating ADA requirements into your projects is an indication on how far we as a society have come, how inclusive we can be. It should be more about what we can do, not what we have to do.


Wally Tirado said...

Always insightful posts from you. I love reading your blog. I was especially tickled by the interview with your daughter you recently posted. Back on topic...

As a RAS, and a person with an architecture background. I have seen both sides. A RAS has to be careful when working with an architect. We are specifically forbidden to participate in the design process which is why some just tell you what's wrong and that's it. While I gently try to give suggestions, I can't tell you how to fix it. Furthermore I am looking at solutions solely as your RAS not as your building code consultant, especially where accessible routes and egress cross.

My last thought I was fired as a RAS for being to tough, while this particular architect's drawings were some of the worst I had ever seen. "I've been an architect for 30 years and I've never had to do that before." You can't let your RAS be a yes man. Ultimately you'd be offered a disservice and open yourself to liability.

Jamie Crawley, AIA, LEED AP said...

Excellent guest spot and spot on. As an architect with a generalist practice(civic/ commercial/ residential), your sample dialogue is all too familiar and I am forever surprised at the reaction when I offer the explanation that ADA is civil rights legislation.

Addtionally,I agree that a RAS with an architecture background is preferable and adds value. Having had the opportunity to work with Marcela, I've always enjoyed and appreciated the dialogue through the course of a project. One needs not see these 'requirements' as 'restrictions' but as an acknowledgement that good design matters.

Bob Borson said...


Thanks for providing some new insight for me - I didn't ever think that the RAS were forbidden to participate in the design process. I actually think that's about the dumbest thing I have ever heard of. Here is this tremendous resource of knowledge and their abilities are being neutered to a degree that reduces their effectiveness and contribution.

Now I am saddened - thanks Wally...

I also like your point about being using my RAS as a yes man. If you don't work on large complex projects very often - like me - I rely on my RAS along the way to make sure that I haven't designed myself into the proverbial corner. I don't need them to tell me how to solve something, but I do want them to tell me why something isn't acceptable in a way that goes beyond yes or no. I think it takes knowledge of a thing in order to appreciate it and if RAS are to get the respect they rightfully deserve, it seems like the shackles need to come off just a bit and allow them to educate the people who retain their services.

by Marcela Abadi Rhoads said...

Thanks everyone for all the great dialogue. I was also surprised by Wally's iformation that we as a RAS can't help in the design solution. I'm sure we can't draw it for you, but as Bob said, we have the knowledge and can make suggestions on how to make it compliant. For example, I did an inspection where a vestibule had two doors in series going the same direction. The vestibule was not deep enough (it had to be 7'-0" and it was only 5'-0). One solution was to swing the doors in the opposite direction. I don't know if egress requirements would be met, and I did advice him about that, but I can at least suggest a different solution rather than just make the vestibule bigger.

But I hope it's not the case that we can't make suggestions....because I will be in BIG trouble!

Anonymous said...

Let the geek talk begin...
It is interesting that even though the ADA is a federal act, it is up to the states to enforce it. I know that this is common, but the fact is there is one act and 10 ways to work on it. Texas has their own accessibility standards and a requirement to use an RAS for plan review and inspection... To make matters worse, the IBC references ANSI 117 (a different accessibility standard), which is above and beyond the Texas standards (or more lenient, depending on the situation). This reference may or may not be enforced depending on what city you are in, and some have formally modified their code. But then states like Florida incorporate theirs into a chapter (11) in the IBC (building code), and state that it is the building inspector's responsibility to ensure compliance. In other states (Mississippi, for example), the building officials consider it a civil matter only and require the owner to handle it themselves, then you have another standard (usually ADAAG) to deal with. They are all really close, so on one side, its not so bad - on the other side - PICK SOMETHING ALREADY!