Accessibility: The 20% Rule Explained

Did you know that if you want to renovate a portion of a building, you may be obligated (by the Building Code and Federal civil rights law) to upgrade your handicapped parking? Or, the drinking fountain? Or, the pay telephones? Or, ADD an elevator?

Truth is, as a building owner, you’ve been obligated to do so since 1990.

For those who don’t know, the “Americans with Disabilities Act” (A.D.A.) has been in effect since 1990. Most commercial and civic buildings are affected by this federal law in some form or another, but local governments had no jurisdiction to enforce A.D.A. regulations since A.D.A. is civil rights law, not a building code.  The local building inspector had no authority to require provisions of A.D.A.  In 1999, however, the North Carolina Accessibility Code essentially incorporated the A.D.A. into its pages (with some exceptions), and made it North Carolina Law. As of July, 2009, Chapter 11 of the North Carolina Building Code replaced the NC Accessibility Code (Volume 1-C).  Chapter 34 deals with upgrades to existing buildings which carries additional requirements to remove existing barriers to accessibility.

drinkfountain2One lesser-known provision buried in this Chapter is the 20% rule. When an “Area of Primary Function” (e.g. the offices in an office building, the dining room in a restaurant, the lobby in a bank, the retail area in a store, etc.) is renovated in an existing building, the Path of Travel to that area must be brought up to Code, unless the cost and scope of such alterations is disproportionate to the cost of the Area of Primary Function renovation. And the level at which costs become disproportionate, is 20%.

An Example: You are remodeling a Conference Room and a few offices in your 3-story office building. The budget for this renovation is $100,000. That’s all you want to do. However, in front of the building, handicapped parking spaces exist, but without the wider van space now required by Code. A ramp exists up to the front entrance, but doesn’t meet current standards. The restrooms have grab bars, but the stalls aren’t wide enough. The drinking fountain is not a high-low type of arrangement. There is no elevator.

HandicapToiletTissueDispAs of July 2004 (and continuing under the current NC Building Code), you are obligated under NC law to remove those barriers to accessibility up to a cost of 20% of the project budget.  In this example, 20% of the total budget of $100,000 equates to $20,000 required to spend to remove any existing barriers. So, you will be adding a van-accessible parking space and re-striping the parking lot. You will renovate the ramp and restrooms. You will replace the drinking fountain with a pair of fountains that meet Code. You will remove all barriers up to 20% of the original project cost.

Chances are, you won’t have to install the required elevator for the above example, since that cost would far exceed 20%, but if you come back next year and do another project, you’ll have to look at it again.

Of course, if no barriers exist, you are not required to do anything.

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