Aesthetics of Accessibility

The impact of the Americans With Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) continues to be felt today, even though it has been in effect for the entirety of my architectural career. Many buildings which pre-date the ADA exhibit features that are a challenge to those who must access the building while in a wheelchair. One common approach to dealing with this challenge is to add a long ramp leading up to one of the entries. With a maximum slope of 1:12, each inch of rise to get up to the door will mean one foot of ramp length. As typical stair risers are 7”, this means that for each step there will need to be 7′-0” of ramp, not including any landings at top or bottom. This can have a huge impact on the front facade of a building, especially if it had originally been designed around a monumental stair at its main entrance.

The entry in question may need to be reconsidered in total in order to design something in character with the existing building that incorporates the necessary accessibility features. Building codes will require not only the ramp length, but also handrails, both along the ramp and at any stairs, and landings must be provided in front of the entry as well as at tops and bottoms of ramps and stairs. Depending on the configuration, other minimum dimensions may apply as well. Armed with a knowledge of these constraints, your architect will be able to develop a cohesive entry design that doesn’t feel tacked-on and unsightly.

With the planned conversion of a former elementary school building into municipal offices, there was a need to improve the main entry in terms of both its design appeal and accessibility. While the existing pavement included a ramp with a simple handrail, there were many ways in which that ramp did not meet current ADA standards. Childress & Cunningham looked at several options for creating a new plaza in front of this entry, both to improve the aesthetics of the building overall as well as to incorporate an accessible ramp as a significant design element.

The design that was ultimately chosen uses low walls and planters to form rings around a circular plaza. The ramp fills a couple of these rings, like the layers of an onion, while the monumental stair penetrates these layers. Broad walkways connect to both streets to respond to the lot-corner site as well as the location of future parking. The low walls that ring the plaza become a part of the new entry facade, serving as a plinth on which four new columns will stand. This design achieves a rise of over three feet from the street to the door, all while making the ramp an integral component to the design.

Another example is at a church in Mariemont. A ramp was designed to unify two existing openings (one door and one passage to a patio) in a manner that is in keeping with the historic building character. By using stone that is similar to the existing building’s foundation, the wall that hides the ramp’s handrail feels original, even though it is taller than the existing water table course. The ramp that begins at the new landing in front of the door drops down to the level of an existing step in front of the patio. The patio step is enlarged to become a level landing in the ramp, with the patio steps passing through the ramp to continue down to ground. Then from this intermediate landing the ramp continues straight out to meet an existing walkway. All of this fits just within the space previously occupied by bushes.

There are many ways to work in the design features that are described in the ADA Standards. With some care, ramps, handrails, landings and the like can be incorporated in a way that enhances the building’s design. This will improve the building for all who use it, but especially for those who rely on the accessibility features, for whom the extra care taken with the design will demonstrate that they are welcomed and appreciated.

-Michael Rountree