Americans with Disability Act

If you want to renovate an existing commercial space, most likely you will be obligated by the “California Building Code” and the “Americans with Disability Act” (ADA) which is a civil rights law to upgrade your accessibility features such as handicapped parking, main entry, the “Path of Travel” from main entry to the “Area of Primary Function” of the space.  As a building owner or tenant, you have been obligated to do so since 1990 when the “Americans with Disabilities Act” has been in effect.  Most commercial and civic buildings are affected by this federal law in some form or another.

For ADA purposes, the “Path of Travel” includes parking, walkway, entrance, restrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains.  When the “Area of Primary Function”, (for example: the dining room in a restaurant, the lobby in a hotel, the retail area in any store, the showroom in a car dealership, etc.) is renovated, the “Path of Travel” to that area must be upgrade to ADA compliance, unless the cost and scope of such alterations is disproportionate to the cost of the “Area of Primary Function” renovation. And the point, at which costs become disproportionate, is 20%.

For Example:  You are only remodeling a reception area, staff lounge and a conference room in a 2-story office building. The construction cost for this renovation is $100,000.  That is the scope of work; however, you have a handicapped parking spaces but without the wider loading zone for van.  An entry ramp exists but the slope is too steep.  The restroom is large enough but the toilet is too close to the wall, and there is no elevator to the 2nd floor.

Under the California Building Code and ADA, you are obligated to correct those barriers up to a cost of 20% of $100,000, which is $20,000.  The hierarchy for the upgrade will be to provide a van parking space, provide an entry ramp with proper slope, provide an accessible “Path of Travel” to the area of remodel and correct the toilet location.  You will correct those features up to 20% of the construction cost.  Most likely, you will not have to install the required elevator for the above example, since that cost would far exceed 20%.  However, if you do another remodel within 3 years, then, the $100,000 in this example will be counted toward the construction cost on the next project. If the construction cost of the next project exceed $143,303.00 then all accessibility feature will have to comply.  That means you will need to install the elevator in the next project.

The $143,303.00 construction cost is the current threshold set by the building code and it is updated annually by the Division of the State Architect.

In San Francisco, many of the older buildings does not have an accessible entrance and a building over 50 years old is consider historical which makes it difficult to modify from a historic preservation point of view.  The San Francisco Building Code has a procedure called “Local Equivalency” to allow exception on a case by case bases.

For example:  You have a 36 inch wide entry door but you don’t have the required 2 feet clearance on the strike side on the exterior side of the door. Most likely you can apply for     exception to use a power door opener instead of removing portion of the wall or storefront to comply with the 2 feet required clearance.

Here are some general rules of thumb to remember:

A common misconception regarding ADA is that older buildings are grandfathered and do not have to comply. That is not true, older buildings still need to comply.

From ADA point of view, it is not acceptable to alter any “Area of Primary Function” area without improving the “path of travel”, unless the “path of travel” already complies with ADA.

You can alter a portion of the “Area of Primary Function” room or space as you like without triggering a requirement to make the entire room or space accessible based on the scope of alteration. However, if the intent was to alter the entire space, then, the entire space must be made accessible.

Many local codes contain accessibility requirements, but sometimes they are different from the ADA Standards. It is very common for architects and contractors to follow the local building codes, which may not provide the same degree of accessibility to persons with disabilities. Compliance with local building codes does not ensure compliance with the ADA. When the requirements between the two differ, the requirements of ADA prevail, unless the adopted code or standard is more restrictive.  Rule of thumb is to follow the more restrictive requirements.

Please visit the following Federal and State websites for more information:

The Federal ADA standards

The California Building Code for accessibility standards