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Alterations To Existing Buildings — How Much Extra Do I Have to Spend?

© 2012 Janis Kent, FAIA, Architect, CASp. Updated February 2021

You are altering an existing building. You know that the portion being altered is required to meet today’s standards of accessibility, but is that all that needs to be done?

The answer to that question for the most part is no. Per the ADA when altering a primary function area you are required to alter Path Of Travel elements supporting this space as well. These elements consist of restrooms, doors, telephones, drinking fountains, the route itself, and a number of other items. The expense for making these additional elements accessible is considered disproportionate if it exceeds 20% of adjusted construction costs and is therefor not required to be done. So per ADA, the additional amount you are required to spend over the construction costs would be 20% max.

California does not allow this 20% ceiling if construction costs are greater than the Valuation Threshold. For 2012, the Valuation Threshold is $172,418, which increases annually. If the construction budget is over this amount, then all path of travel elements supporting the space are required to be made accessible regardless of cost. The exception is elevators in places of public accommodation, which if required, still has the 20% disproportionality rule applied. So per California, the additional amount you are required to spend over adjusted construction costs would be 20% if it is below the Valuation Threshold, but if over this value, then all supporting elements need to be made accessible with the exception of elevators.

The ADA states that when the cost of alterations is disproportionate to overall costs, one is still obligated to make the path of travel as accessible as possible with the mandated 20% expenditure. This also includes upper floors even in non-elevatored buildings. And if a series of smaller alterations were completed over the preceding 3 years, then the proportional spending is based on the sum of the 3 years of alterations.  The prioritization of these elements are as follows;

  • An accessible entrance;
  • An accessible route to the altered area;
  • At least one accessible restroom for each sex or a single unisex restroom;
  • Accessible telephones;
  • Accessible drinking fountains; and
  • When possible, additional accessible elements such as parking, storage, and alarms.

If the Owner has not kept up with ongoing obligations of barrier removal this should be considered within the scope of work. Another item, if your alteration is just for path of travel elements or barrier removal, then there is no additional 20% expenditure required.


Nothing in this article constitutes legal or design advice for a particular project or circumstance. Be aware that your local City or County may have additional requirements that are different or more restrictive than the State or Federal requirements. Also, this article is an interpretation and opinion of the writer which may vary for a particular project or due to other circumstances. It is meant as a general summary – current original regulations should always be reviewed when making any decisions and specific advice by a qualified professional should be secured for a particular project or circumstance.

© 2012 Janis Kent, Architect, CASp