One of Canada’s most iconic buildings is one of the earliest adopters of Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC). That’s fitting since Hansen was likewise a trailblazer at the CN Tower as the first wheelchair user to navigate the exhilarating EdgeWalk attraction, in sync with the Tower’s partnership with the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto.
“That’s when we launched our accessible EdgeWalk and he was able to give our staff direct feedback,” recalls Patrick Leavey, manager of marketing and communications at the CN Tower. “For us, or for any building manager, designer or architect, this kind of insight on accessibility is priceless.”
With the rollout of RHFAC — based on inclusive design principles set out in CSA Standard B651, Accessible Design for the Built Environment — real estate operators can look to CSA-accredited professionals for guidance on making buildings more welcoming and workable for people of all abilities. In turn, earning an Accessibility Certified or Accessibility Gold rating could help a building stand out in the marketplace.
Thus far, the program has the most presence in the Rick Hansen Foundation’s home base of British Columbia, where the provincial government has allocated $9 million to underwrite free accessibility ratings of up to 1,100 commercial, multi-residential or institutional buildings by March 2019 and to provide grants of up to $20,000 for accessibility improvements. The CN Tower’s commitment and a consultative relationship with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada signals burgeoning wider interest.
“We attract tourists from around the world. We want to be fully inclusive and fully accessible,” reiterates Jimmy Cheung, director of facilities and engineering at the CN Tower.
“We’ve got an aging population and accessibility has never been a more important issue,” concurs Benjamin Shinewald, BOMA Canada’s president and chief executive officer. “It affects our industry’s customers. They are our tenants, or guests in our tenants’ suites, in office buildings. They are our guests in malls. They live in our multi-res buildings.”
Training RHFAC designated professionals
RHFAC assesses and rates how people across the entire spectrum of mobility, vision and hearing abilities might navigate, interact with structural and design features and/or comprehend and respond to emergency signals and evacuation procedures within a building and its related site. Practitioners in a range of building-related services, such as design, construction, planning and code oversight, have the prerequisites for the specialized training now available in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Halifax.
“We are really looking forward to being able to do more work in Ontario,” says Sarah McCarthy, vice president, strategic initiatives, with the Rick Hansen Foundation.
Earlier this month, a class of prospective RHFAC designated professionals completed the first intensive four-day training course to be offered in the province. Split over two separate weekends to accommodate students with fulltime work schedules, it included two days of classroom work at Toronto’s George Brown College and two days of field experience, with trainees conducting supervised assessments in buildings and their surrounding sites.
Following the course, candidates must pass a required exam (administered by CSA Group) within the next 12 months and complete further field training under the mentorship of an accredited assessor in order to attain an RHFAC professional designation. From there, RHFAC administrators foresee some graduates will apply it directly, conducting ratings and providing accessibility consulting services to the real estate sector, while others will use the knowledge to better inform their work designing and constructing built space or approving plans and ensuring code compliance.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of thinking about things clients might not know they want and advising them that it will make their lives easier, either now or in the future,” reflects Caleb van Esch, a principal in a Guelph-based family construction firm and one of the two designated RHFAC professionals currently working in Ontario.
“I’m trying to help people understand what it’s like to get around in a world that was not built for accessibility,” says Julie Sawchuk, a paraplegic herself, who holds the other designation.
Sawchuk and van Esch got their training in Vancouver and have helped lay the groundwork for some of the first certifications in Ontario. While they brought differing initial expertise — van Esch as a skilled tradesperson and Sawchuk as a teacher, writer and speaker with personal insight into mobility challenges — both commend the course for broadening their perspective.
“It opened my eyes to other types of disabilities,” Sawchuk acknowledges.
Similarly, many people benefit from accessibility improvements passively rather than knowingly. “A lot of baby boomers don’t really consider themselves to have a disability even though their hearing might be only 25 per cent,” van Esch notes.
Return on investment
Living in a small town near Lake Huron where tourism is a major driver of the local economy, Sawchuk reports contractors and businesses show strong interest in ensuring new projects are accessible from the beginning, and in making sensitive upgrades to existing buildings. That includes Cowbell, a local craft brewery with associated event and retail space where she has provided guidance.
“It will likely be Canada’s first RHFAC Accessibility Gold brewery,” she says. “Businesses need to do it because it increases their customer base. We see evidence of that every day at Cowbell.”
van Esch performed the first accessibility rating at the CN Tower and drafted the recommendations that led to its current Accessibility Certified status — signifying that it scored in the range of 60 to 79 per cent for meeting accessibility criteria across eight different aspects of built space. These include: 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.
“Our next target is Accessibility Gold,” Cheung reveals. “Caleb has done a more detailed audit that essentially spells out what we need to do to be best in class.”
This will serve as one of the strategic guides of the CN Tower’s capital planning process. However — as accessibility advocates stress — many improvements can be covered with relatively modest outlays of funds. For example, the colours, type face and physical placement of signage can have a big impact on how people understand, move through and enjoy their surroundings.
“There is a huge population of baby boomers, and if local governments want them to be able to use libraries and recreation centres, these are things they have to think about,” van Esch observes.
Creating confidence for building users
Recent CN Tower upgrades, unveiled earlier this year, are proving their worth. For example, the new floor-to-ceiling glass walls in the viewing area make the panorama easily accessible for all onlookers — notably, children — replacing the opaque wall that previously rose up approximately three feet from floor level. The RHFAC label also confirms to prospective visitors that the premises meet accessibility standards.
“People who have a person with a disability in their group will often have a concern about parking,” Leavey says. “If someone is trying to plan a visit, and they see this information on our website, it will give them a measure of confidence.”
From her lived experience, Sawchuk judges that property/facilities managers and business operators are open to making improvements, but could benefit from the structured guidance that RHFAC provides. She cites the example of a hotel room’s accessible shower where the taps are positioned out of reach from the bench where users sit.
“When I go places that are not accessible and I say something about it, people are always receptive,” she affirms. “Somehow, there needs to be an easier way to reach the people who are making the decisions about the details like where the taps and paper towel dispenser are located.”
Shinewald recalls his own immersion during the half-day training course he participated in through the Rick Hansen Foundation. Donning goggles to impede his vision, he was sent to complete normally routine tasks that suddenly became much more cumbersome and stressful. In contrast, prioritizing accessibility was an easy decision for BOMA Canada.
“We want to shape the culture of the industry in a matter that is positive,” he says. “It has been a good relationship with the Rick Hansen Foundation and the relationship continues.”
Image courtesy of the CN Tower.
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.