Q & A with Peter Stratton

Developers are still tripping up on accessibility laws when constructing or renovating multifamily housing. Fact is, being in compliance with the accessibility requirements of the building code does not necessarily and automatically satisfy the federal, state or local accessibility laws. Peter A. Stratton, senior associate, heads up the Accessibility Team at with Steven Winter Associates Inc., an architecture/engineering research and consulting firm with expertise in energy, green, building science, accessibility and other aspects of multifamily housing. This accessibility expert tells Keat Foong, executive editor at MHN, about his specialty and all the pitfalls of accessibility laws that developers are prone to overlook. MHN: Describe your specialty at Steve Winter Associates. Steven Winter Associates, Inc. is an architecture/engineering research and consulting firm with expertise in energy, green, building science, accessibility and other aspects of multifamily housing. I head up the Accessibility Team here at Steven Winter Associates. We provide regulatory and building code compliance consulting services to key stakeholders in the building industry. Specifically, we work with developers, architects, engineers, contractors, public agencies, and others to help them ensure that projects are designed and constructed in compliance with the accessibility requirements of Federal, State and local laws and building codes. Our services can be as simple as conducting a plan review to ensure compliance with the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Amendments Act to more challenging tasks such as providing accessibility-related construction oversight from foundation through construction close-out. MHN: Why is it necessary to have a specialist in accessibility at an architecture firm? Having an accessibility specialist as part of the design team will help to make sure that projects are designed to be compliant with the accessible design and construction requirements of laws and codes, but that’s only the first step. Once the project is designed, it has to be constructed. The construction phase is often where the trouble happens. Plans might be perfectly compliant, but if the developer or contractor doesn’t understand the importance of the critical details which have been incorporated into the plans to ensure compliance he or she risks building the project in violation. It’s critical for the entire project team, not only the architect, to work with an accessibility consultant. Especially since all of the players who come into contact with the project leave themselves open to potential problems later on if it is determined that the project was designed or constructed in violation of federal, state, or local laws. The architect may not be the only one who bears the liability. MHN: To what extent do you think developers are still tripping over fair housing accessibility laws today? What do you think are the reasons some large and/or very seasoned developers are still getting sued over fair housing?  The bad news is that some developers continue to maintain that they rely on their architects to make sure the project is compliant. That’s the first mistake. Of course there are architects who understand access, but generally, in our experience, that’s more of an exception than the rule. Many architects still believe that designing to the accessibility requirements of the building code will suffice to satisfy the design and construction requirements of federal, state or local accessibility laws. This is often not the case. Developers need to be involved in the process of achieving compliance either by ensuring that their architects have the required specialized expertise, that they work with an accessibility consultant, or by hiring a consultant of their own. The good news is that more developers and other stakeholders are getting on board with working with us as part of the design team. They are beginning to understand the value we bring to the entire process of design and construction. One of our developer clients requires that their architects hire an accessibility consultant. We are hired by the developer as its peer reviewer and we review plans designed by the architect in cooperation with his or her accessibility consultant. This process ensures a double check on compliance. MHN: What is your role as architect and accessibility consultant in ensuring compliance with federal, state and local handicapped accessibility laws, versus the lawyer’s role?Lawyers understand the law; they are usually not as familiar with the nuts and bolts of design and construction or with the technical criteria. That’s where we come in. We understand the technical criteria developed to ensure that an element, space, etc. is accessible. More importantly, we understand how to apply the technical criteria and how to select the appropriate criteria when more than one may apply, which is often the case. MHN: When do federal/state/local accessibility laws apply to multifamily developments? Are they relevant only for new construction, or are they relevant also for rehabilitation or renovations?Regardless of the funding source, any newly constructed multifamily development of at least four units is subject to the seven design and construction requirements of the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act. This Act applies to private and public projects. If there is federal funding involved in a project which includes at least five units, regardless of whether they are on the same site, the project is subject to the accessibility requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Federal funding also triggers the Architectural Barriers Act. Any project which is an activity of a state or local government, such as a state dormitory building, is subject to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Places of public accommodations and commercial facilities are covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Leasing offices in multifamily developments are considered places of public accommodation and are subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The design and construction requirements of the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act apply only to new construction versus the other laws which apply to both new construction and the alterations of existing facilities. In many cases, all of these federal laws will apply to one project, that’s in addition to the access requirements of the state or local jurisdiction, if any, and the applicable building code. Each state and local jurisdiction must be consulted to determine if there are additional mandates which apply. Navigating through all of this is no joke. This is why it is critical to work with a specialist with expertise in accessibility compliance. MHN: Generally, what do developers need to know about federal, state and local handicapped accessibility laws?Developers need to know that compliance with the accessibility requirements of the building code alone may not satisfy the requirements of all of the federal, state, or local access laws which apply to a project. MHN: What are the federal accessibility requirements that are most easily or often overlooked by developers? Why?Designing buildings is one thing, but designing compliant sites is often much more challenging and is one of the more critical components of the project which is often overlooked. What good is a compliant dwelling unit if a person who uses a wheelchair can’t get to the unit because the connection between the public sidewalk and the unit entrance is completely inaccessible? Cooperation between the civil engineer and the accessibility consultant is critical to ensure site compliance. All of the laws and codes require site access. Why is site access most challenging and overlooked? Because often, especially in urban areas, the line between the site boundary and the public right of way is blurred; developers often claim that they do not own the public sidewalk so a non-compliant sidewalk should not be their concern. However, in many cases, construction in the public right of way is completely b
y the same developers who claim that non-compliance in the public right of way is not their concern. In more suburban areas, sprawling sites connect units to many common amenities, such as a trash area, mailbox kiosk, pool, playground, picnic area, recreation facility, etc. What’s important to understand is that if a site amenity is provided for the enjoyment of a tenant, then it must be accessible. This is often overlooked. MHN: What would you say are the federal, state or local accessibility regulations that are most challenging to the developer?These days, I think most developers have heard of the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. They may not know exactly what these laws require, but they’ve heard of them. I find that developers who work on projects which receive federal funding do not understand that compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, another Federal access law, applies. This law refers to an often misunderstood technical standard called the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards, more commonly known by its acronym — UFAS. This federal law applies to new construction and to alterations. The technical criteria contained in UFAS are not the same as those provided in other standards. And, compliance with standards referenced by other laws or codes will not satisfy Section 504. MHN: Do accessibility requirements impact negatively in any way on the design of a multifamily building? What are the design challenges posed by these accessibility laws?If access is taken into consideration during schematic design through construction close-out, then the design of multifamily buildings is not impacted negatively. Misconceptions about the negative impact of accessibility are usually developed when remediation is required during construction or after a project is complete and the developer has to make expensive changes for one reason or another. When we work on the project team we find that developers and contractors usually have a good attitude about compliance when they understand what it means and the purpose behind it. Training project teams in the field is important.  MHN: What are some of the ways accessibility requirements can vary from state to state in terms of the design of a multifamily residential building? It’s local laws and codes which vary between jurisdictions that can affect the design of multifamily residential buildings from one location to another. For example, in New Jersey, 100 percent of the dwelling units in a multifamily housing development are required to be designed to stringent Type A dwelling unit accessibility criteria, which are contained in the ICC/ANSI A117.1 Standard. In Washington, DC, only 15 percent of the dwelling units in a multifamily development are required to comply with the same Type A criteria. In Maryland, Type A dwelling units are not required at all. Type A dwelling units will require more floor space than standard units.