“Grandfathered”: Barrier-Free Design and Renovations

Author: Will Zver, B. Arch (Tech), LRI Engineering Inc.

With any design or construction project, it is important to first establish the requirements that apply, based on the current edition (2012) of the Ontario Building Code (OBC). In terms of barrier-free design, new construction projects, including most building additions, are subject to the requirements of Section 3.8 of the OBC, with a few exceptions based off the proposed building’s size and major occupancy classification.

Where a renovation is proposed to an existing building, the application of the barrier-free design requirements is based on a few conditions. The OBC recognizes that existing buildings (those which have been in existence for at least five years) may not be able to achieve the barrier-free requirements prescribed in Section 3.8 and provides guidelines for full or partial application of the requirements of Section 3.8, as well as compliance alternatives. This process is prescribed through the requirements within Part 11.

A renovation is subject to all the requirements of Section 3.8, according to Sentence (2), where:

  • New walls and floors are being installed;
  • The suite has an area greater than 300 square metres; and
  • The existing difference in elevation between the floor level and adjacent ground level is not more than 200 mm, or there is elevator access to the floor area from the entrance storey with an existing difference in elevation between the floor level and adjacent ground level that is not more than 200 mm.

If all the criteria of Sentence are not present, the renovation is permitted to apply limited requirements. These requirements include barrier-free path of travel, ambulatory water closet stalls, barrier-free urinals, barrier-free lavatory elements, accessible signage, barrier-free door criteria, assistive listening devices in assembly occupancies, and other amenities such as telephones and water fountains.

You may be wondering why there are barrier-free design requirements in scenarios where the renovation is in a suite or on a storey in a building that is not accessible by way of a barrier-free path of travel (that is, where the elevation difference between the ground and entrance level is more than 200 mm). It is important to understand that not every person with a disability uses a wheelchair. The intent of the OBC is that barrierfree design provisions are incorporated into all renovations.

Since certain factors — such as property setbacks, available space within the building and existing construction — may limit the feasibility to extensively renovate a building to achieve the full requirements of Section 3.8 without significant expense or by means of additional facilities, the OBC provides requirements that will enhance accessibility within a building to support persons with limited mobility or sensory disabilities.

The next step in the process is to establish the scope of the renovation. If you have ever worked on a renovation project, whether it be on the design or construction side, you have most likely heard the term “grandfathered.” It is often used quite loosely, with the hope that further exemptions will be permitted based off the fact that the existing building was built under a less stringent OBC. The underlying sentiment is true as the OBC is not retroactive. However, as soon as a change is proposed to the existing element, compliance with the prior established criteria is required. Establishing the scope of the renovation with consideration to the elements that are being altered will help limit the potential surprises that may arise during the permit review process. Where existing elements are considered “grandfathered,” those elements were likely the compliance alternatives found in Section 11.5, applied where it was impractical to satisfy a requirement, and would have been subject to approval by the chief building official. Alternatively, those existing elements may have been outside the scope of the renovation project and not subject to application of the OBC.

At our firm, we often conduct accessibility audits with the purpose of helping clients compile a list of barrier-free elements that would be subject to upgrading if changes are proposed, or as part of capital planning for proactive upgrades. With this report, capital planning teams can prioritize renovations to their properties so that renovations can be planned to increase and/ or maintain a level of accessibility throughout each building. It also provides an opportunity to implement best practices to promote a higher level of accessibility, or universal design, within the buildings undergoing renovations.

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