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Building Permits — Accessibility approved…or not?

Janis Kent, Architect, CASp © April, 2014

Many owners, developers, architects, and other design professionals have the common belief that if they have a building permit or a certificate of occupancy then all requirements for accessibility have been met, both for the local jurisdiction as well as ADA. Not.

When a building official provides approval via plan review or building inspection, they are authorized to review only for local and state requirements not federal. In fact the California state attorney general had issued an opinion in 1993 that specifically states building officials are only authorized to enforce state and local codes. and are not authorized nor responsible for enforcement of federal access requirements. The Department of Justice (DOJ) further states that local and state officials do not have the authority to enforce ADA on behalf of the federal government.

As a side note, a number of manufacturers state their products meet ADA requirements. They place an International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) on the specifications making it appear official. Be aware, though, that there is no agency providing approval for ‘accessible’ products. So you cannot totally rely on manufacturers’ statements regarding conformance to ADA standards. Each item would need to be evaluated as well as their installation.

The question is, where does this leave us? There is no approval process for federal regulations; ADA is enforced thru litigation; and manufacturers have no over sight on their claims. It is the owners responsibility to comply with all requirements of ADA, although the architect/designer should be familiar enough with the regulations and how they differ from local building codes for implementation. But ultimately, it is indeed the owner’s obligation. Remember that the ADA is a civil rights law not a building law and a number of items also have to do not only with ongoing maintenance but also policies and practice, rather than just construction.

So in summary, there is no one agency that can provide approval that your project or products meet federal standards of accessibility. Just because you have a building permit approved does not mean you meet ADA requirements because building departments only look at state and local requirements – unless the state is actually certified by DOJ. Since there are very few states that have their building codes certified, more likely than not, you are on your own. So owner be aware that ADA has a different set of regulations with no approval process. And when local building codes conflict with ADA, ADA takes precedence – you use the regulation that provides for the most access. You need to be very very aware when making decisions that can prevent equal access.

Be aware that your local City or County may have additional requirements that are more restrictive than the State or Federal requirements. Also, this article is an interpretation and opinion of the writer. It is meant as a summary – current original regulations should always be reviewed when making any decisions.

© Janis Kent, Architect, CASp 2014