High-performance buildings, by definition, exceed the minimum standards set in the building code across almost every design and operating feature. Accessibility is the exception. Fear of possible liability often prompts building owners and their designers to favour the choices they know they can defend.
“The architect tends to drift back to the code where it’s nice and safe,” Brad McCannell, vice president, access and inclusion, with the Rick Hansen Foundation, told seminar attendees at the recent IIDEXCanada conference and tradeshow in Toronto. “We need a LEED program (equivalent) for accessibility. We need a national scale to rate things. We need a common standard.”
Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) is an initiative to create that standard, stock a pool of accredited accessibility assessors to serve as a resource to the commercial real estate industry, guide property improvements and identify and commend accessible buildings. The program got a boost in the Rick Hansen Foundation’s home base earlier this fall when the British Columbia government pledged $9 million to sponsor free accessibility ratings of up to 1,100 of the province’s commercial, multi-residential or institutional buildings by March 2019 and offer grants of up to $20,000 for accessibility improvements.
Thus far, 12 accessibility assessors are on the job, including three working in Ontario. Vancouver Community College is the first of the envisioned national network of colleges to offer to the 60-hour training module, while an associated course specifically for design and real estate practitioners is slated to be launched in the spring of 2018. RHFAC administrators are aiming to have about 200 assessors qualified within the next 18 to 24 months.
The timing is fitting as Canada and countries worldwide await what’s been dubbed the silver tsunami. Already, global statistics reveal that about one in seven people report some kind of disability, but that percentage is projected to rise to one in five over the next 20 years. McCannell pointed to his own mother as a stereotypical example of the aging population, experiencing diminished mobility, eyesight and/or hearing.
“They don’t respond to the idea of being disabled,” he said. “She doesn’t think she’s disabled. She thinks she’s normal and, when you look at the stats, she is.”
Universal design principles are grounded in the same philosophy. McCannell cited the Vancouver International Airport, where the Rick Hansen Foundation served as a consultant, as an example of a space designed to enable the broad cross-section of the public to use it with minimum need for assistance or special interventions.
“You won’t find that little wheelchair guy (icon) anywhere because everywhere is accessible,” he explained. “When you make things invisible except to people who need it, that’s a core principle of universal design.”
Benchmarking and guidance
Much of the existing building stock falls short of that ideal, but RHFAC can help owners/managers identify impediments to access and set priorities to address them. The assessment scores buildings on a scale of one to five in eight different aspects, including vehicular and exterior access, interior circulation, communication systems and emergency egress. Assessors can also award bonus points in each category if they see something innovative.
Buildings achieving a score of 60 to 79 per cent are awarded accessibility certification; scores of 80 per cent or higher merit gold accessibility certification. In all cases, building owners/managers receive the scorecard and have discretion to decide whether to publicize the results.
“It’s not designed as a consumer product. It’s an industry tool,” McCannell said. “Eight categories tell owners where they are strong and where they are weak. The scorecard will reveal the low-hanging fruit.”
Developers can similarly ask for a preliminary accessibility rating based on the building design. This could then be used for leasing and marketing purposes or it could be a quality control exercise to spot and correct potential barriers. “Getting to new buildings is important because we have to stop making new mistakes,” McCannell asserted.
If participation grows as the program designers hope, it could help to build a more accurate inventory of accessible buildings. “Right now, we don’t know,” he said. “We want to celebrate access. We are not the code police; we are trained to see the good as much as the bad.”
Beyond the scorecard, which McCannell defines as “a snapshot in time”, RHFAC will be a resource for building owners/managers seeking more detailed audits and/or guidance about implementing improvements. The standard could also support regulatory due diligence since new federal accessibility legislation is expected to be tabled in 2018.
“We see RHFAC as a way of helping you get prepared for that,” McCannell said.
Under B.C.’s new grant program, municipalities and not-for-profit entities are directly eligible for funds, while private sector owners/managers must contribute a matching amount. Prospective proponents are urged to consider the entire scope of needs, including visual and auditory aids that can be added without modifying protected design features in heritage buildings.
“Hearing loss is the single biggest disability by far,” McCannell stressed. “There’s a notion that wheelchair users equal access. Wheelchair guys are less than 20 per cent of the disability community, yet we dominate the discussion. Just because you don’t have access for wheelchairs doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of things you can do.”
The Vancouver International Airport is good proof that the benefits flow both ways. Universal design doesn’t just get people efficiently to their flights, it also gives everyone equal access to services while they are waiting.
“It’s essentially a mall,” McCannell observed. “A barrier to a person with a disability is a barrier to making a profit.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.