Historic Preservation and Remodels

by Marcela Abadi Rhoads, AIA RAS

There is a misconception in the building industry that existing buildings that were built before the ADA was enacted don't have to be accessible. Because the ADA is not a construction law, but a civil rights law, existing buildings, including historic facilities registered with the historic landmark commission, according to Title III of the ADA, are not exempt from having to be accessible. Therefore, any building that was built pre-ADA is not “grandfathered” in and must be accessible to the disabled community. The Department of Justice (DOJ) wrote in its 1991 Title III regulations:

Existing facilities that are subject to the ADA (i.e. commercial facilities and places of public accommodations) would require to be brought up to ADA compliance as it was “readily achievable.”

What the DOJ meant by “readily achievable” is that when there was enough money and did not require much effort, then the building owner would be required to bring his building up to compliance. Even though this is still vague, it gives a directive that existing buildings are not exempt or grandfathered from having to comply. Many states have accessibility guidelines, but many are only applicable if there is a construction project, whereas the ADA requires accessibility even if there is no construction currently being done in the facility. Since the new standards included new sections that were not in place in 1991 when the ADAAG was passed, ...

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