How the ADA changed architecture

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 had a profound effect on architecture and design:

The Americans with Disabilities Act created a comprehensive civil rights approach to accessibility at the federal level. Before its passage, architects worked under a varying system of state and local buildings codes that governed design requirements. Federal laws that were precursors to the ADA, such as the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (especially section 504) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, mandated better access. But since they only applied to federal properties, those built with federal money, or housing programs funded by federal sources, they didn’t address varying codes for other structures, and had no impact on privately owned buildings. People with disabilities still had to navigate on unstable terrain, legally speaking. Wright told lawmakers the patchwork of protection was akin to a “piece of Swiss cheese” spread across the country…

The battle for passage, which foreshadowed many of the issues surrounding its implementation and eventual effectiveness, boiled down to three main issues, according to Wright: civil rights, an implicit part of the debate; architects’ desire to have freedom in their choice of designs; and the cost of retrofitting buildings. While architects eventually accepted the changes as another set of guidelines, like a code change, every section of the bill encountered different forms of corporate resistance. During debates over transportation, for instance, Greyhound complained about the cost of retrofitting buses and rebuilding all their stations. During months of negotiations, Wright was assisted by her “right-hand man” Ron Mace, an architect and designer with Barrier-Free Environments, who used a wheelchair due to polio. He continually gave her facts and figures on the costs of different alternatives and upgrades, helping to assuage fears and correct inflated cost estimates from the opposition…

At first, architects greeted the ADA as just another code change, according to many in the field. Patrick Burke, a principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design who started there in the ’70s, admits that his colleagues at the time rarely thought about people with wheelchairs. But a few years after the ADA was introduced, it quickly became “part of design DNA.” While sustainability often provided a quantifiable, monetary impact, accessibility, which almost always requires a bigger building and more money, is just the right thing to do…

“It’s changed the way we enter buildings, and the way we design for monumentality,” says Steinfeld. “The ADA has created a new way of thinking, a much more convenient, egalitarian approach. It’s no longer like the days of imperial Rome and England, with the elite of society standing up on the second floor, watching the peons go by below.”

The suggestion here is that addressing accessibility led to more open, flowing, lighter designs that all people could benefit from. While the legislation may have been aimed at helping a specific group, the benefits can be shared by all. Think about the trend of having first floor master bedrooms in houses; they may have benefits for those with mobility concerns or allowing the homeowners to stay longer since they don’t have to travel up or down stairs as much but such a layout could have other benefits such as a more private space away from the other bedrooms and having closer access to the main living spaces.

On the other hand, I wonder if the normal person has noticed these changes in public places beyond seeing a ramp here or there. Many people don’t have to think about accessibility issues. Granted, it may be our often lack of attention to architecture and design in our daily lives and the inability to read/understand this architecture that is more of an issue. Yet, I suspect this is still a hidden issue.

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