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Existing Buildings – What needs to be done?

Janis Kent, FAIA, Architect, CASp © December, 2014. Updated March 2021


One of the more common questions posed to me, is in regards to existing buildings. Many times it is a very simple question of what do I need to do? But in order to answer this question, other than ‘it depends’, there is a whole list of information that has impact and needs to be known.


One question – is the building privately owned, in other words a place of public accommodation, or is it a public facility, such as a city, county, or state building?

If it is a privately owned or commercial building, then one might need to perform Barrier Removal depending on when the facility was built and the economic situation of the ownership. If it is a public facility, then one needs to look at the facilities owned or Program Accessibility (services, programs, and activities), provided by the public entity as a whole and to provide an Accommodation as needed.


An important question – when was the facility built?

If it is a place of Public Accommodation and built pre-ADA, then Barrier Removal is required that is Readily Achievable. If it is a Public Building that was built pre-ADA, then one needs to review the agency’s programs, services, and activities in order to provide Program Accessibility which may necessitate performing construction/alterations or just relocating activities to an accessible location. In the latter case, this is usually determined and shown in the agency’s Transition Plan if it has 50 or more employees. In either case, if the building was post ADA, post January 26, 1993, then it should have totally complied so there is no Barrier Removal and no Program Accessibility for those specific buildings since they are required to be accessible. If it is not in compliance, then the items should be fixed.


Another question that would be asked – has there been any alterations?

If an alteration has been performed since January 26, 1992, then the altered area itself should totally comply. Additionally the Path of Travel (POT) supporting the altered area would have needed to be upgraded. Whether this POT, for Places of Public Accommodation, would be totally accessible depends upon the amount spent for the adjusted construction costs and what could be done with the additional 20% Proportional Spending budget. For Public facilities, the supporting Path of Travel for Program Accessibility now should be totally accessible. If a renovation was done, then the 20% Proportional Spending now also applies to the POT if the altered area was not for Program Accessibility.


And one of the last questions to ask for a very quick overview of necessary information – are there any elements such as pools, play areas, saunas/steam rooms, exercise equipment, etc?

There are over a dozen items that are new to the ADA Standards which became effective March 15, 2012. If any of these items exist in the facility, then Barrier Removal or Program Accessibility would need to be addressed whether the building is an older pre-ADA building or a building that was recently constructed.


This is by no means a definitive list to understand what needs to be done for an existing facility. There are also a myriad of other questions. To name a few – Is it an employee only work area? What is the nature of the tenants – public entity in a private facility, or private business leasing and running a space from a public agency? What about other federal agencies, whether they own or lease part or all of a space? Is this a private club or a religious institution? As you can see, before you can even determine what needs to be done to an existing building, there are a myriad of questions that need to be answered in order to determine requirements. So the answer to the original question, we are back to…it depends.

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.

© Janis Kent, Architect, CASp 2014