Is it Worth Getting Design Plans Reviewed by an ADA/FHA Expert?

When a developer looks to construct a new large multi-family residential housing project, it’s very likely the project will be subject to both the FHA and ADA design and construction guidelines. This means the property must meet seven federal design requirements. The property must have: 1) an accessible building entrance on an accessible route; 2) accessible and usable public and common use areas; 3) usable door; 4) accessible route into and through the covered dwelling unit; 5) light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations; 6) reinforced walls for grab bars; and 7) usable kitchens and bathrooms.

During initial planning, owners and developers will look to their architect and/or civil engineer to interpret what particular features of the project will need to be compliant under each of the seven required design criteria. This typically involves an extensive plan review process in order to verify compliance. At CSA, we work alongside your design professional during this critical phase of review to determine the correct scoping and technical requirement for each applicable design standard. If a state or local building code indicates a lower level of compliance than applicable federal law, the stricter federal guideline must be followed. Other considerations such as whether federal funding is involved could also directly impact the number of accessible elements and features required for the project. One common mistake we see is for designers to rely on local building departments plan submittal process as a pseudo plan approval process. This can often be a poor course of action because local building departments only review to enforce building codes and not applicable federal guidelines. When new construction or renovation to a building is being undertaken, developers typically will submit plans to the building department, the department decides whether to issue a permit, and then inspectors employed by the building department verify building code compliance. Building departments also decide whether to issue occupancy permits. Except in certain circumstances, such as when a building is significantly renovated or altered or there is a change in the building’s use, buildings are only required to comply with the code requirements that were in effect when the building was designed and constructed. In other words, the law does not generally require already-constructed buildings to be improved whenever the code changes. For these reasons, building officials cannot be held responsible for ensuring whether or not each aspect of the ADA or FHA accessibility design laws and standards are met.

CSA believes that in view of today’s legal landscape, developers and design professionals must be accountable to ensure their own compliance. When first approaching a project, design professionals should take a more proactive and specialized approach towards plan review and periodic inspections. Failure to do so could not only expose the project owner, developer and design professional to expensive litigation, but even the general contractor and parties involved.

At CSA, we trust the specialized technical assistance we offer will work to minimize the overall risk for design and construction liability associated with the ADA, FHA and Section 504 requirements. Whether you’ve just completed construction or are about to construct or purchase this type of residential housing property, understand that you may be at risk for a Fair Housing Act complaint. With this uncertainty, CSA recommends, as part of your due diligence process, you have a plan evaluation performed that includes both an Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Act Design and Construction compliance review.