How many accessible entrances must a school provide? Is an accessible route required at drop off zones less than 100 ft.? Until now, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) design standards often raised more questions than it provided answers.

Effective Sept. 2004, the ADA enforced new guidelines which clarify design codes relevant to schools, including the number of required accessible entrances, detailed drop off area specifications and updated parking regulations. Taking some guesswork out of designing to ADA codes, these updated guidelines may save on material costs for schools designing far above the necessary amount of accessibility and will also protect disabled students and faculty whose schools incorrectly interpreted the former codes, building below the required standards.

Even with these new guidelines to clarify the design process, creating ADA-approved schools often presents a difficult balancing act between adequate accessibility, aesthetics and budget. Through creative and efficient design, however, an accessible school can achieve both high performance and beauty.

Clearing It Up

The ADA’s clarified codes help designers and school administrators ensure equal access for all. Following are some updates to the former guidelines relevant to the accessibility of schools.

Accessible Routes — Whereas the former ADA codes could be interpreted in a variety of ways in regards to the meaning of accessible routes, the new guidelines clarify that“at least one accessible route is required between facilities and public streets, sidewalks and passenger loading zones.” To provide equal access, this accessible walkway must lead to the main entrance. For schools with multiple main entryways, however, good judgment is always the best rule. If all students and faculty cannot easily enter, exit and maneuver through the school with just one accessible entrance, all should be made accessible. Parking — ADA also more clearly defines the measurements for handicapped parking under the new guidelines. The van accessible space was increased to the required width of 11 ft., up from eight, while maintaining all aisles at five ft. These additional three ft. will allow vans and other large vehicles to more easily maneuver into the space. The adaptation will also minimize confusion and violation of the no-park aisles that were formerly eight ft. wide, a standard compact car space.

Drop Off Areas — Only defined as one accessible route per 100 ft. of drop off area, those drop off zones which were less than 100 ft. could technically be designed without equal access. ADA has reworded this guideline, requiring one accessible drop off space per 100 ft. or less.

Balancing Act

The new, clarified design guidelines certainly help designers and school administrators create a more accurate and user-friendly accessible building. However, other ADA-related design challenges still exist. A constant balancing act, designers often must create an accessible school, which is also consistent with the existing aesthetics of the building and within a tight budget.

The main entrance, one of the focal areas of a school, must provide equal access while upholding the school’s aesthetic value. Although constructing a ramp may seem the easiest, most logical solution to creating an accessible entryway, it may not be the most pleasing choice. Users with disabilities often prefer an accessible route that blends in with the main entryway, providing equal access for all. If the terrain allows, school administrators should opt for a graded walkway rather than a separate ramp and railing configuration that often isolates the users with special needs. This type of transparently accessible entrance saves on cost and can create a more attractive entrance space. For very steep sites and other limiting constraints, however, a ramp may be the only option. In this case, a ramp and railing system can be integrated into the project design approach by using materials that highlight the existing building, as well as adding quality detailing and plantings. When building a new school, designers should consider building at an elevation that allows for a gradual entrance sequence. Instead of elevating the building and adding a grand stairway to define a space, designers can add features such as flags, seating, plantings and various pavement types to create a sense of entry without compromising a school’s accessibility or aesthetics.

To create a more transparent accessible drop off zone, the ideal solution is to remove barriers, like curbs and steps, and make the entire zone flush with the entry plaza. Although a curb helps delineate the entry plaza from the roadway, there are more accessible-friendly options to achieve definition, like bollards and varying paving materials. A drop off zone flush with the entrance area functions more smoothly for all users. If the grading and drainage do not allow for such a set-up, it is important to design the zone to include at least one flush curb or curb ramp portion.

Gaining Consensus

Above all, the most important consideration when building a school up to ADA codes is ensuring that users can easily maneuver through the site. Receiving input from students, parents and faculty concerned with the school’s accessibility, as well as the local access board and watchdog groups, is a key step during the design process. If this crucial meeting occurs after breaking ground, it can be very costly to alter the design to meet requests. Using illustrative plans and three-dimensional graphics, a designer can give all parties a clear understanding of the accessible challenges and solutions, which not only helps to appease the concerns of the users, but can also aid in getting donors on board early.

By working with consultants familiar with the new ADA codes and gathering a team that is not daunted, but creatively challenged by these accessible design standards, school administrators can most efficiently bring academic buildings up to code while preserving the school’s aesthetics. Now with a clearer set of ADA standards, designers can better meet the guidelines and keep schools from allotting funds improperly. Most importantly, users will now have more convenient routes, ample parking spots, and safer playgrounds, thereby ensuring equal access for all.