The premise of accessibility is the simple right to equal opportunity. From that impetus, many commercial real estate operators are making the simple business case for buildings that are functional for all potential users.
It’s a quest that can begin with simple investigations, simple low-cost measures and simple mindfulness, whether at the design stage of new developments or in re-evaluating routine property management practices. A recent REALPAC-sponsored webinar exploring efforts to identify and alleviate barriers in the built environment touched on all those themes.
“Since 80 per cent of disabilities are acquired between the age of 16 and 64, it’s important to remember that anyone can become a person with a disability at any time,” noted Kris Kolenc, REALPAC’s research and sustainability manager. “As commercial real estate owners and managers, we have a unique and crucial role to play in supporting accessibility within our buildings and our organizations, both for our employees and for our customers.”
Discussion focused on strategies for assuming that role and some of the resources available to help facilitate it. In the latter category, Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) is emerging as an industry standard for gauging how buildings perform for users with mobility, vision or hearing impairments, while Pedesting is a navigational app that guides users to their destinations along the most convenient possible barrier-free pedestrian routes and, as a by-product, delivers telling analytics to property managers.
“You can start to see where the barriers and problems are. In a shopping mall, for instance, maybe there’s a whole wing where people with disabilities are not going. There must be a reason why,” advised Erin Shilliday, a Calgary-based architect and co-founder of Pedesting. “We can rate the pedestrian experience through their spaces, of what is working and what’s not. That is fantastic information for a building owner.”
His business colleague, Pedesting co-founder Nabeel Ramji, who relies on a power wheelchair for mobility, tallied the many daily challenges he encounters in urban spaces and buildings, and the degree of advance planning that entails. It all infringes on the independence and impromptu experiences that able-bodied people unthinkingly enjoy.
“As a result of this lack of independence, sometimes I feel isolated or having missed out on opportunity that change may offer,” Ramji said.
The navigational app is principally a tool to provide users with some certainty in terrain that remains fraught with inadvertent or purposeful obstacles. Similarly, QuadReal Property Group sought the informed insight of RHFAC professionals in an effort to fill some gaps in the company’s stated agenda to embrace responsibility and reflect excellence.
Assessment lens applies perspective of people with disabilities
“We identified that we didn’t know much about accessibility in our portfolio,” recounted Meirav Even-Har, QuadReal’s national manager, wellness and healthy buildings. “We know we follow code, but how much universal design do we integrate into our existing stock? And how do we future-proof buildings in order to make sure, that as a company that also values inclusivity, our buildings are inclusive for everyone?”
To begin, 19 buildings, including multifamily high-rise, office towers and a shopping centre, were registered for RHFAC assessments. They’re now enrolled in the Buildings Without Barriers Challenge — a joint initiative of the Rick Hansen Foundation and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada, which encourages commercial real estate operators to undertake RHFAC assessments in at least three buildings — in addition to serving as a pilot for the rollout of accessibility improvements throughout the portfolio.
Even-Har commended the RHFAC assessment process for its ease, particularly at a time when building managers are taxed with pandemic response obligations, and for the revelatory perspective she gained. Credentialed RHFAC professionals evaluate building performance in eight different aspects of built space — vehicular access; exterior approach and entrance; interior circulation; interior services and environment; sanitary facilities; signage, wayfinding and communications; emergency systems; and additional use of space — to derive a score for meaningful accessibility.
That’s meant to give an indication of how people with a range of mobility, vision and hearing abilities might be expected to navigate, interact with structural and design features, and comprehend and respond to emergency signals and evacuation procedures in a building and its related site. RHFAC professionals also explain their scoring decisions while touring the property with management staff and provide recommendations for improvement.
“In this industry we are just so accustomed to certification programs that feel like you are cramming for a horrible exam. It’s nerve wracking; there are consultants involved; it’s a huge thing. With this (RHFAC) process, there was no pressure,” Even-Har observed. “Going through the process was actually a really pleasant surprise because of what we’ve been conditioned to and because of the wonderful learning experience of participating on the tour.”
Doable improvements and credible returns on upfront investments
All 19 properties have attained RHFAC Accessibility Certified status, meaning they scored in the 60 to 79 per cent range. Beyond this, QuadReal has re-engaged the RHFAC professionals for follow-up virtual meetings with property management teams to discuss their findings and view photos from the assessment process, as well as for on-site tours with select team members to help them set priorities for required work
“There’s lots to learn, but it has been absolutely fascinating because you rediscover your buildings. You realize there is so much to do, and a lot of it is things that are doable, that can go into operational budgets,” Even-Har said.
“Very often we tend to think about the built environment in terms of fixing, designing and making changes to it, but it can be something as easy as standardized training for building staff,” concurred Kevin Ng, acting director, accessibility certification, with the Rick Hansen Foundation.
That said, the program does focus on the development stage with a target that all new construction should ultimately be RHFAC Accessibility Certified Gold, indicating it has achieved a score of at least 80 per cent. Toward that end, the pre-construction rating stream is aimed at finding and correcting design issues before they are committed to less easily reversible forms.
“It can help avoid creating any new barriers. It helps you reduce the need for costly retrofits in the future,” Ng said.
Meanwhile, Shilliday, who is also a certified RHFAC professional, enumerated a fairly modest premium for getting it right in the first place. “If it’s thought through early in the design, the delta in the construction cost is 1 or 2 per cent. It’s not a money thing. It just needs to be thought through in the beginning,” he maintained.
Self-directed agenda for commercial real estate leaders
The still embryonic stage of the federal Accessible Canada Act, which was adopted in 2019, and long timelines for compliance in various provincial accessibility statutes have largely ceded the way for self-directed leadership in commercial real estate. Accessibility champions look to parallels with the green building and climate action movements as a model for how to proceed, suggesting that momentum could build in the same way through collaborative learning, competitive drive and growing recognition of the paybacks.
Webinar sponsor, REALPAC, counts many of Canada’s largest commercial real estate companies and investment managers among its membership. Prominent companies that have been leaders in green certification and environmental performance benchmarking exercises like LEED, BOMA BEST and GRESB are already signed on to the Barrier-free Buildings Challenge, bringing a total of 61 properties to vie for the 2021 awards due to be announced October 21 at BOMA Canada’s upcoming online annual conference, BOMEX Virtual.
“ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager peaked in Canada in part through industry associations like REALPAC really having helped push the agenda. So let’s make this our agenda,” Even-Har urged. “I have been so inspired by some of the work that we’ve been doing as an industry when it comes to sustainability. I really think we can get together and create a way to push ourselves and share some learning, share some best practices.”
Shilliday underscored the potential returns in market share and human capital. Both have been a tangible reality for him through his product and his alliance with Ramji.
“You are missing out on 20 per cent of the market ostensibly by not having accessibility,” he said. “I am wondering how many Nabeels we’re missing out on. Would we not be a better, stronger, more interesting society if all those people, who I know are out there, are represented and part of our everyday lives?”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.