The Accessibility Dilemma

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The Accessibility Dilemma

On 1 May 2011 the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 were introduced alongside an updated Building Code of Australia (BCA). These Standards are now legislated as the minimum requirements for new buildings and buildings undergoing significant upgrade.

This was, of course, a necessary and positive move forward to encourage universal access given that approximately 20% of the Australian population have a long term permanent disability and most of us will be affected by access challenges at some point in our lives. As a company that is involved in planning and designing the built environment, we’re concerned with the practicalities of ensuring universal access without viewing it as a restrictive constraint on design.

The Premises Standards provide certainty to building certifiers, developers and managers: if a person acts in accordance with the requirements of the Premises Standards, a successful complaint cannot be made in relation to that action under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

As well as incorporating AS 1428.1, the BCA was amended to improve access for people with a disability. Access must be provided to and within “all areas normally used by occupants” in class 5, 6, 7b, 8, 9a and 9b buildings. Broadly, this includes offices, shops, warehouses, laboratories, workshops, healthcare buildings and workshops in schools. There are only minor concessions to this requirement.  Class  1b, 2, 3, 4 and some Class 10 elements have more specific access requirements.

Some issues for particular consideration are:

  1. Escape doors – emergency egress for people with a disability is an area that requires further consideration as there are no specific requirements in the BCA.
  2. Stepped floor levels – we understand  that any stepped floor levels that are “normally used by occupants” will require a compliant ramp or lift
  3. Mezzanines – there are no concessions for mezzanine floors or any minimum floor area concessions

The implications of these changes are significant. Building designs and floor layouts will be subject to much greater scrutiny during the approvals process to ensure compliance with access requirements in the BCA prior to commencing construction.

Features that will be assessed include clearances, luminance contrasts, doors, door handles and light switches. New building designs will require wider corridors, wider doors and changes to corridor configurations to achieve compliant door clearances and changes of directions in corridors.

If construction begins and a new building doesn’t comply with the BCA, the owner could be issued with a rectification order, which in some cases will necessitate the demolition of the building.

The changes will have implications for construction costs due to the effect on building size and the requirement for greater scrutiny. However, a small increase in costs is preferable to the cost of beginning the design process from scratch or of demolishing a building. There are also significant benefits of providing equitable and dignified access to all users.

We recommend that anyone who is planning to construct a building that will be open to the public should seek specialist advice from an accessibility consultant or an experienced architect with an in-depth knowledge of the BCA and the Premises Standards. Contact us to find out how we can help ensure that your project provides fair access for all.