Building for accessibility

When it comes to ensuring the accessibility of the built environment - so that people with special needs can also access and use it without help - ÖNORMs B 1600 to B 1603 set the standards in Austria. Please note, however, that the standards do not specify whether a building has to be designed for accessibility or not – that is the task of the legislator or the developer. They only point out how this task can be optimally accomplieshed for all the parties concerned. As a result, these ÖNORM standards are to be seen as comprehensive recommendations and planning tools for developers and planners whenever they wish or have to implement buildings without barriers.

Architectural barriers and obstacles exclude many disabled people from participating in community life. Article 7(1) of the Austrian Constitution, however, bans any discrimination of disabled persons and states that: "The Republic (Federation, Laender and municipalities) commits itself to ensuring the equal treatment of disabled and non-disabled persons in all spheres of everyday life.“

Moreover, the European Commission issued mandates to the European standards bodies (M/283, M/292, M/293) for guidance documents in the field of safety and usability of products by people with special needs – these include disabled persons as well as elderly people and children.

1. Safe utilization without any help

Building on this basis, the standards series ÖNORM B 1600 to B 1603 defines the structural measures required to enable persons with disabilities or temporary mobility or sensory impairments to use buildings and facilities safely and largely without any help.

The measures described in the standards also make it easier for persons with plaster casts, pregnant women, people pushing strollers or carrying loads as well as children and elderly persons to access buildings and facilities.

"The approach applied is 'design for all'," stresses Dipl.-Ing. Stefan Wagmeister, the competent committee manager of Austrian Standards. This means that products, devices, environments and systems are to be designed in such a way that they can be used by as many people as possible without any adaptations or special designs.

This approach harbours great potential: If aspects of barrier-free access are taken into account in early planning stages, they usually do not result in extra costs. This becomes clear, for example, when sanitary facilities can be used without major modifications in case of unforeseen disability or increasing impairments in old age.

2. Basic and special requirements

The design principles described in the series of standards include not only structural measures, equipment and installations but also the signs and markings required for taking account of the faculties of diverse people. While ÖNORM B 1600 specifies the basic requirements for accessible buildings in general, the rest of the documents describe the measures required for special-purpose buildings.

Thus, ÖNORM B 1601 lays down the planning principles for accessible healthcare facilities. These include surgeries and health centres, inclusive and assistive housing and workplaces, special residential facilities (residential houses for senior citizens, day-care centres, retirement and nursing homes) as well as healthcare establishments (hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centres).

ÖNORM B 1602 defines requirements for accessible educational institutions ranging from primary schools to all types of secondary schools and from universities to adult education and further training institutions.

ÖNORM B 1603 is dedicated to accessible facilities for tourism and leisure. The importance of this topic is increasing especially in this area as appropriate design allows hotels and restaurants as well as cultural, leisure and recreational facilities to gain access to new customer groups.

3. Simplifications for existing buildings

The standards also take account of the situation in existing buildings. When structures are modified, e.g. by additions, alterations or adaptations, deviations from the standard requirements are permitted in justified cases. For such individual cases, "restricted specifications under more difficult conditions" are defined. Details are described in a dedicated chapter of ÖNORM B 1600.

"This eliminates an important objection against the accessible design of buildings," highlights Dipl.-Ing. Wagmeister. After all, the extra cost caused by accessible building construction – according to calculations, they amount to around four to five per cent – are criticized again and again. The experts who developed the standard, however, are all agreed: A comparison of these relatively low extra costs and the much higher financial expenditure in the field of social services, e.g. care or homes for elderly persons, resulting from demographic developments clearly shows that it makes sense to create the necessary conditions allowing people to age in their own home or their family.

In this context, the preface of the revised version of ÖNORM B 1600 contains an important statement: "The present ÖNORM defines requirements for the accessible design of the built environment and provides planning guidance for implementation. It is the responsibility of the user (e.g. developer, principal) or the legislator to define when this ÖNORM has to be applied and to which extent."

4. Enhancements and adjustments in the construction field

The key changes introduced in the series of standards address, for example, the adaptability of residential buildings, the forces needed to operate doors, the marking of glass panels, enhancements related to tactile and visual guidance systems as well as safe zones in case of emergencies. The new edition is complemented by two additional annexes on doors for wheelchair users and on a test setup for measuring the forces needed to operate doors.

The review also ensures the consistency of the individual standards. Their modification also became necessary because Austria ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. As a result, Austrian building laws and regulations had to be amended and adapted. This applied, for example to the OIB Guidelines 4 on safety in use and accessibility issued by the Austrian Institute of Construction Engineering (OIB).

Author: Herbert Hirner