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The Importance of Good Design in Disabled Adapations

Special Reports

b y Alex French of Alex French Associates Ltd

When considering the design for disabled accommodation, a building surveyor acting as an Expert Witness should have a good understanding of Approved Document M of the Building Regulations (Document M), which covers ‘access to and use of’ domestic, public and commercial dwellings for disabled people.

They should also have a good understanding of BS8300, which is a British Code of Practice that sets out how buildings should be designed, constructed and maintained to create an accessible and inclusive environment for disabled people.

Document M works in tandem with BS8300 to give practical guidance on how its requirements can be incorporated into the built environment. In combination, they both set out the minimum standards that are required to adhere to the Equality Act, which was introduced on 1st October 2010 to replace the slightly older Disability Discrimination Act.

However, although it is generally assumed that complying with the requirements set out in Document M and BS 8300 would be enough to meet the requirements of the Equality Act, neither of these documents actually apply to carrying out adaptation work to an existing building.

Approved Document M of the Building Regulations is only applicable to newly erected dwellings and dwellings undergoing material alteration. However, where the dwelling is subject to material alteration, only Section M4(1) is applicable and only to the extent that any work carried out should be no less compliant than it was prior to the building work taking place. BS8300 guidelines require you to consider every aspect of a building and its surroundings and how it impacts on a user’s accessibility, however, it only applies to non-domestic buildings. In addition, both of these documents are simply guidance and as such they should be treated as a minimum requirement and not best practice.

Therefore, if there is no regulation that applies to carrying out adaptation work to existing buildings, where does that leave the Accommodation Expert when preparing a report for the Court?

A good accommodation expert will combine his or her experience and knowledge of building pathology with the information provided by the Occupational Therapist’s report to provide a well-designed adaptation that will maximise the available space and meet the long-term needs of the client. Document M should not be disregarded but should only be used as base-line and with an understanding of its limitations, particularly with reference to older properties, which may throw up their own unique challenges.

The following examples illustrate how, in certain circumstances, the experience of the designer, whether that’s a building surveyor or an architect, can play an important part in overcoming the limitations in the official guidelines:-

Ramp Access for existing buildings

Ramp access is obviously a primary concern when evaluating the needs of a wheelchair user. As previously stated above, Document M only applies to newbuild properties, however, M4(1) does include a statement about ‘material alteration’ and could therefore be applied to an adaptation.

The guidelines in M4(1) allow for a gradient between 1:12 and 1:15, however, due to space restrictions, which are commonplace in existing buildings, ramps are generally constructed to a 1:12 gradient.

The problem is that many electric wheelchairs these days have their battery pack located on the back of the wheelchair, which changes the centre of gravity and due to the redistribution of weight it is possible for a wheelchair to tip backwards on a 1:12 ramp. We know of one instance when this happened and although, fortunately, the wheelchair user was not seriously hurt the implications are obvious. Even with manual wheelchairs that don’t have a battery pack, the user may find it difficult to negotiate a 1:12 gradient, particularly if they have diminished upper body strength or dexterity.

It is not enough to simply follow the guidelines when considering ramp access. The designer needs to consider the physical constraints of the wheelchair user and the available space before making a recommendation. In my opinion, whenever possible, the gradient of the ramp should not be less than 1:15 and preferably 1:20. However, if there is a space restriction and there is only room for 1:12 there is a way to get around this restriction by changing the design completely and installing a small platform lift.

Turning Circles in kitchens

Section 3.32b of Document M4(3) (Kitchen and eating areas for new build properties) states that there should be ‘a minimum clear access zone 1500mm wide in front of, and between, all kitchen units and appliances.’

However, there are many different types and sizes of manual and electric wheelchairs, some of which will require more turning space than 1500mm, for example those with reclining backrests or elevating legrests and some that will require considerably less.

The guidance in Document M is based on a ‘one-size fits all’ approach and whilst it’s always preferable to have as much turning space as possible, this minimum guidance shouldn’t prevent a highly mobile, electric or manual wheelchair user from living with a smaller, more bespoke kitchen if that is all the space that is available.

Kitchen Design

Document M4(3) contains guidance for the layout of a disabled kitchen, however, it should be noted that the layout (in Diagram 3.8) is poorly designed and would not be recommended as good practice e.g. the oven should be positioned at a right angle to the worktop to allow easy transfer of dishes from the oven and there are an inadequate number of storage units for a family. Also, there is no accommodation for a tumble dryer, which is fairly essential for wheelchair users or apartment dwellers. It is a generic design catering for a range of disabilities and a good Accommodation Expert, working closely with the Occupational Therapist, should be allowed to adapt the kitchen for each individual depending upon their specific needs.

Ramps and Aco Drains

Although Document M4(3) gives quite specific guidelines on the approach to a principal entrance with regard to ramps, there is no thought given to the consequences of breaching the damp proof course (DPC) at the entrance.

The DPC is positioned at floor level. For a ramp to provide level access, the platform at the top of the ramp needs to also be at floor level. Subsequently, driving rain is automatically at the same level as the DPC and, therefore, may easily breach it. To avoid this we always recommend that an Aco Drain (a channel drain used to remove surface water away from a selected area) is incorporated into the ramp design at the point where the ramp platform meets the door threshold.

Pocket doors

Making the most effective use of the available space requires not only a knowledge of construction but knowledge of the latest products and technology that may be used to overcome obstacles or limitations within an existing building. A good example of this is the use of pocket doors, which are not specified in any guidelines. Internal pocket doors glide into a cavity in the adjacent wall and should be specified where space is limited, or where a hinged door would impede access.

Installing a pocket door rather than a hinged door can add an average of ten square feet of floor space, however, you do need to plan ahead and build an encasing wall wide enough to take the door.

In the absence of official regulations for existing buildings the Court, Solicitors, Accommodation Experts and Occupational Therapists all usually rely on Document M and Document BS 8300 to provide general guidelines. However, as demonstrated, these should not be viewed as a set of ‘rules’ and all relevant parties should ultimately rely on the experience of the accommodation expert and their understanding of how the client’s needs may be translated into effective design of the available space.

Article by Alex French of Alex French Associates Ltd Alex French is an elected member of the Institute of Expert Witnesses and provides Expert Witness Reports on the accommodation needs of disabled people with catastrophic injuries, seeking compensa tion and damages.

He acts as Single Joint Expert for both Claimants and Defendants and prepares accommodation reports for clients across the UK. He also acts as an Expert Witness in cases involving negligent building c onstruction and design.

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