October 13, 2008
It started back in the heady days just after World War II. Millions of GIs returned home and were they ever happy to get back to the good ol’ U. S. of A.
So happy, in fact, that there were some 76 million Americans, and 202 million people worldwide, who were born during the post-war “Baby Boom” between 1946 and 1964. Sociologists have broken the “Boomer” generation into two distinct groups-early (born between 1946 and 1954) and late (born between 1955 and 1964)-each with markedly different outlooks, values and attitudes.
No matter how you slice it, though, the Baby Boomers are getting older. Bill Geist, author of the 1997 book entitled, “The Big Five-Oh,” estimated that another Baby Boomer turns 50 years old every seven seconds or so. In addition, the youngest of the Boomer bunch will reach retirement age in 2029.
As this large and typically vocal segment of the population ages, it’s becoming more imperative that residences, commercial and government buildings and recreational facilities make a concerted effort to incorporate design that will accommodate the widest cross-section of the population possible. This includes folks with various disabilities-whether it’s a senior citizen with arthritis who has a difficult time turning a door knob or a military veteran in a wheelchair who can’t easily navigate the stairs.
Finally, in 1990, a broad civil rights law called the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into effect by then President George H.W. Bush. In a nutshell, the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability, which is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.”
Like most laws, the ADA itself contains several sections dealing with such things as telecommunications (TTY telephones), public services and transportation, employment and a host of miscellaneous provisions.
Title III of the act is the one that generally affects the construction trades the most, in that it’s the part that deals with Public Accommodations (and Commercial Facilities). Basically Title III ensures no person who owns a public facility can prevent a person with a disability from “full and equal enjoyment” of those places of public accommodation-most inns and hotels, recreation, transportation, educational and dining facilities, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays, among other things.
Plumbing concerns are specifically mentioned in the ADA and its supporting documents and rules, according to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, available online at www.access-board.gov/adaag/html/adaag.htm. The guidelines spell out how such items as drinking fountains and watercoolers, water closets, urinals, lavatories and mirrors, bathtubs and other items need to be dimensioned and installed in order to comply with ADA regulations.
And therein lies the rub when talking about ADA plumbing. Just because something might be marketed as “ADA compliant,” the fact is that almost every product’s compliance hinges strictly on how it’s installed.
Shawn Martin is the technical director of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute in Rolling Meadows, Ill. He is one of the people who plays a part in developing part of the ADA compliance standards.
“There are two methods by which states can comply with federal law and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Martin said. “One is to go with what’s called the ADAAG [Click on the URL listed above-Ed.]. The most recent version of that is 2003. The other one is the International Code Council’s A117.1 standard. I’m on the A117.1 committee. That hasn’t been updated for some time-we’re operating on the 2003 version. We’re in the process of updating it right now. It’s been a laborious process, but it’s finally coming to an end.”
Martin said both the ADAAG and the A117.1 standard contain requirements for how one should go about achieving compliance. A number of states and municipalities go above and beyond those and have their own requirements. Many states adopted either ADAAG or A117.1.
“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in A117.1 this time around, for plumbers, would be regarding something called standard roll-in showers,” he said. “In the past, seats in standard roll-in showers were optional. Now they’re required. That’s going to impact the manufacturing community. They now need to have an integral seat, whether it’s site-built or a molded-in seat or a folding seat.”
Other changes, briefly, include some “moving around” of the required grab bars. A big change looming on the horizon is the current push to accommodate “wheeled mobility devices” such as electric scooters and even more specialized wheelchairs.
“A couple of decades ago a wheelchair was a wheelchair,” Martin said. “They were pretty standard. In recent years, we’ve seen some dramatic changes in this area. For the disabled individual this has brought a whole lot more capability to them. That means we’re dealing with a lot of different form factors. People are sitting up higher and the have a lot more control because they can raise and lower themselves. There are different turning radii-they’re all over the map right now. That caused a whole bunch of proposals in this last round of the standard revisions suggesting that we significantly change a lot of different things-knee and toe clearances under sinks, reach ranges, there were changes suggested for the turning radius-all because these devices are now non-standardized.”
Plumbers, and the building industry in general, are coming to grips with these developments because now the standards are being asked to accommodate a whole range of form factors and that has created some geometry problems: “It’s great [that] the wheelchair industry has innovated, but we’re asking them if they can please standardize a little bit,” Martin said. “We can obviously accommodate some differences, but we can’t accommodate every single variation, and there is no template anymore. It’s whatever they can think of.
“The idea behind accessibility is to provide access to as many people as possible-it’s understood you won’t ever be able to accommodate every single subgroup. There is a task group in [the A117.1 Committee] that has been assigned the job, between now and the next edition, which will probably be about five years from now-of investigating and trying to find out how to reach some equitable balance between the different interests. That is a really big movement right now.”
What all this means for the plumber on the truck and working at the job site is that being caught unaware of ADA requirements can lead to problems with inspectors, resulting in expensive callbacks or even do-overs of an installation.
“Obviously, the building plans will show what the upgrades are-sometimes they’re just handicapped upgrades put into a building,” said ICC director of plumbing programs Lee Clifton.
“The average plumber knows that the handle needs to be on the wide side of the stall, for example,” Clifton said. “One of the typical corrections that we issue as an inspector is that, on back-to-back bathrooms, the plumber will rough it in on one side but, because they’re back-to-back, the handle will be on the opposite side of one of the stalls.
“Another one of the big issues is that the counter height goes down and you have an overflow rim that goes down the center of the lavatory. The question is, where do you measure for that knee clearance? One of the changes that is coming down the pike is that you don’t measure from the rim. You measure it from the bowl. Knowing those kinds of requirements is helpful because you’re taking big dollars if you have to raise a counter.”
Agreeing was Kim Paarlberg, a senior staff architect with ICC, noting there are some references available to help plumbers wade through the current ADA regulations.
“When [a plumber] goes in to do an installation on a product, that product isn’t ADA compliant if it isn’t installed correctly,” Paarlberg said. “Sinks come ‘ADA accessible’, but if you put faucets on that don’t either have lever-type hardware or electronic faucets, you have the same thing. The pipe protection you put on under the sink-because of the tempered water requirement for facilities, you’re not really worried about scalding. Some people think they have tempered water and there can’t be any scalding, so they don’t put it on there. But, that is to protect against accidental contact. If somebody doesn’t have any feeling in their legs, they could cut themselves or get bruised.”
Paarlberg said that most of the technical requirements for bathrooms and how they need to go together are found not in the building code, which tells you how many you have to have to be accessible, but in the ICC A 1771.1 Standard. “There’s a commentary book out for that which includes each section and then tries to explain them all in plain English. That might be a good thing to have in the office. We also have a Pocket Guide to that standard with references if somebody would need to check a number like the distance between a wall and a toilet centerline.”
Both publications, along with a host of other materials, are available from the ICC Store online. Point your browser to www.iccsafe.org/training/workbooks.html to see what’s available.