AIACC for a More Accessible Built Environment

in: AIACC / 5 Comments
accessibility, architecture, built environment, construction observation

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accessibility, architecture, built environment, construction observation

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy of the Library of Congress

How to create a more accessible built environment in California has become a contentious issue. The AIACC has been participating in a series of weekly stakeholder meetings with Senator Steinberg and Senator Dutton’s offices and representatives from a variety of interested parties to address how to achieve a more accessible built environment. The focus of the effort is to resolve access related issues that have bedeviled not only those seeking a more accessible built environment, but those responsible for providing it. The issues on the table range from the Division of the State Architect’s current alignment efforts regarding the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and the Chapter 11A and 11B provisions of the California Building Code (CBC), to legal reforms to ease, if not altogether eliminate, the serial lawsuits related to access.

It is alarming that there is a perception among many people both inside and outside the disabled community that the cause of inaccessible buildings is the result of their having been incorrectly designed by architects – architects who either do not understand the CBC, or, as some have suggested, simply do not care. Neither opinion could be further from the truth.

accessibility, architecture, built environment, construction observation

Mikiten Architecture, Maher Residence, Livermore, an elegant and comfortable example of Universal Design and a 2010 AIA East Bay Exceptional Residential Merit Award winner.
Photo by Erick Mikiten, AIA, LEED-AP

The fact of the matter is that architects do care about achieving barrier free accessibility in their designs and that, despite the conflicts and confusion between the ADA and the CBC, new buildings are designed to comply. Indisputably, what is not occurring is the access compliant construction of those same buildings.

I submit that,with regard to inaccessible buildings and perhaps other construction related issues that have been deemed design errors (think back to the condo conversion litigation so prevalent a few years ago), we do not have as much a design problem as we do a construction problem. Ask yourself, how is it possible that a building that has been plan checked and approved by certified building officials, then constructed by licensed contractors and subcontractors, and then finally inspected by certified building inspectors, can still be considered to have been designed incorrectly when in violation of the ADA and the CBC?

So what’s the solution to this problem? The AIACC has advanced mandatory Construction Observation as a viable solution to part of the problem. In view of the fact that Construction Administration is not always part of their scope of services, there is no way for an architect to be sure that what they’ve designed is what will be constructed. Conceptually, with the benefit of being provided the opportunity to observe specific and key milestones during construction, the architect could verify placement of work during the “rough-in” portion of the phase, and then follow-up during the finish phase, thus providing not only the ability to verify and assure barrier-free construction, but also affording greater control of exposure to this type of risk.

For too many years, blame for ADA violations has been laid at the feet of the profession of architecture. ADA violations are very real, but the blame is with little merit – and it’s well past time for both to end. Mandatory construction observation is one solution toward that end.


Kurt Cooknick, Assoc. AIA

Kurt T. Cooknick, Assoc. AIA, is the Director of Regulation and Practice. With experience in the profession and over 15 years as an advocate on behalf of the architectural profession in California, he is passionate about protecting and advancing the profession.

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  1. avatar
    Brad Henderson AIA CDS

    This is truley a conumdrum. As stated by Mr. Rice, this issue is “so specific and of such a detailed nature” it requires vigilance in enforcement on all levels. However, and in our experience, relagating the “inspection” to certified access specialists only serves to affect another headhunting effort to those less educated than the Architect profession. When there are discerning facts (or code interpretations) that affect your design, do you really want a gendarme overstepping its authority in interpreting what you’ve researched and designed accordingly?
    I would contend that the final authority rests with the signatory professional, who is responsible to its client in enforcement, and that the enforcement at construction is relagated to the contractor/ builder (also licensed by the State to perform according to code and contract).
    Our service to clients may be in the form of detailed project requirements (specified) for recordation of as-built conditions, similar to haz/mat affidavits, confirmations or comissioning.
    The construction process is a direct relationship between the Owner and Constructor. Our service is representative in consultation to the Owner during construction activity (not instead).

  2. avatar
    James C. Dorr AIA

    I second Donald Rice’s comments. Mandatory observation of the construction process is a slippery slope. It would produce enormous conflicts with traditional construction Owner / Contractor contracts as well as place an unreasonable time constraint on the design professional. Imagine a small architectural office that has two projects under construction and two projects on the boards with close deadlines. Also place the two construction projects at opposite ends of the county or state. Would the building owners accept the additional expense the Architect would incur because he/she needs to hire additional personnel to cover the “observation”. Would the observer have to observe all plumbing centerlines at the completion of rough plumbing? Verify all path of travel stud lines? etc.

    Perhaps we should be looking at improving the existing inspection we already have in place. Also we should probablly look at the express accessibility compliance on the construction documents. If you depend on the contractor to wander through a document that has multiple non-applicable details to find the standard clearance detail that matches the exemplar drawing in the CBC and extrapolate that information to the specific condition at hand, you are asking for compliance problems.

    We should be looking at the efect on the practice with any proposed solution.

  3. avatar
    Donald S. Rice Architect AIA

    The sponsorship of SB 1186 by Senators Steinberg and Dutton will go a long way in helping to eliminate the serial lawsuits related to access issues. However, the concept of using site observation by the Architect to also help in eliminating access lawsuits may be placing the Architect in a position of having to actually perform inspection services that far exceeed the normal accepted standard of care that an Architects provides during Construction Administration.
    I mention this because of the fact that the items that we have traditionally discovered on past projects that are actual violations of the CBC or the ADA for access issues are so specific and of such a detailed nature that they are only identified by going beyond the accepted definition of normal observation. By providing this higher level of service, we as Architects, may not only be assuming unintended additional liability, but may also be crossing the lines of responsibility for the Contractor to provide adequate supervision for the Work and ultimatley in providing the Work in an acceptable manner according to the Contract Documents.
    One solution to this dilema would be to require commissioning of a project for access issues by a certified access specialist or CASp. This process would be similar to what is now done by a commissioning authority, or CxA, on a project for energy and related operational issues.
    The Architect would be retained for overall direction, control and responsibility for site observation, but the specific issues for access would be deferred to a certified access specialist.

  4. avatar
    Michael Strogoff, FAIA

    Am all for mandatory construction observation services to better ensure that buildings are constructed in general accordance with an architect’s documents, provided that a minimum level of services is also mandated. Otherwise, some penny-wise and pound-foolish clients and building owners will engage architects for the bare minimum level of services that satisfies legal requirements, but not enough observation for architects to properly carry out their responsibilities. The result will be even more lawsuits against architects for not adequately preventing construction defects that could have been foreseen through a “proper” level of construction observation.

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