I’ve worked on several new school projects over the years, and one aspect that should always be at the forefront of a design is whether or not the building is handicap accessible. Compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA) is always one of the first items that comes up in meetings, especially when discussing entrance and exit design. Building accessibility for the disabled usually means ramps at every entry and exit that adhere to certain standards, as well as hand railings that also meet certain criteria.
So the question for a lot of architects and designers is, can we maintain the same design aesthetic we envisioned for this project while also meeting the criteria for ADA compliant railings for handicap ramps? While ramps are fairly standard for commercial buildings, handrails come in a variety of styles and materials. This makes it imperative to fully understand what handrails are acceptable under the ADA. It also makes it important to confirm that the manufacturer has certified a particular railing ADA compliant before specifying it for a job. These are a few of the issues we’ll talk about in this post.
What You Should Look for in Handicap Accessible Railings
Every building professional knows that before you can begin a design you have to know what the codes and specifications are for the job first. Local and city codes often give parameters for a job in order to make the building safe for occupants, while there are always aesthetic and installation considerations during building as well. That’s why it’s important to consider the following factors when choosing railings for handicap ramps:
- ADA compliant: In section 4.8 of the ANSI A117.1 specification, handrails are required on both sides of the ramp if the ramp run is higher than 6 inches and the ramp is longer than 72 inches. As for the handrails themselves, they must be continuous or extend 12 inches from the top and bottom of the ramp segment and parallel with the surface. The gripping surface must also be continuous and free of any sharp or rough elements.
- Easy installation: While not as critical as code compliance, I’ve found that using railing that is easy to install can save a lot of frustration and wasted time, especially on a project where ADA compliance is critical. On the public buildings I’ve had experience with, accessibility often meant long and winding ramps for any entryway and exit for the building, and that equals a lot of railing length. With that much railing going in plus the adjoining handrails for accessibility, finding a railing and handrail system that is easy to install can save hours in labor costs.
- Compatibility with building design: As mentioned before, codes and requirements have to be considered before any work is done. But as an architect or designer, it’s imperative to meet these requirements while also providing a particular quality of style. This means matching the building entryway design as closely as possible. For a building that has a largely rustic aesthetic where wood railing systems are desired, it’s possible to use a wooden railing along with an ADA compliant metal handrail, but it’s also possible to find ADA compliant wooden handrails as well. And while many ADA handrail systems come in basic aluminum, with its silver, industrial-looking finish, it’s also possible to find compliant handrails in other colors and finishes, like shiny black, matte black, or bronze. Some manufacturers even use a tough coating process that involves a pre-treatment, as well as a high-quality powder coat finish to ensure the railing doesn’t rust or corrode in any way.
The Types of Railings for Handicap Ramps
Meeting code requirements for handicap accessibility doesn’t mean you have to compromise the look of your design. Of course, budget and time constraints always have to be taken into consideration when choosing a product. The basic types of railing systems that meet ADA requirements fall into two categories:
- Basic handicap accessible handrail without railing: This is the typical handrail system that you will see in the back of buildings where curb appeal is not an issue. It usually consists of a basic aluminum pipe handrail that meets the code requirements. But while these are practical, they lack the interest and style that different materials and designs can offer in a railing system.
- Railing system with ADA compliant handrail: This type of system consists of a separate railing system of any style or material with a handrail attached. The key factor to making it ADA compliant is that it must have a handrail attached that extends continuously 1 ½ inches from the surface and extends 12 inches past the ramp end. Where budget is not a concern, this design looks and feels much more finished and attractive than a basic handrail, and can frame a ramp and tie it in with railings on other parts of a building for a cohesive look.
Where to Use ADA Compliant Handrails
If you are working on a commercial project, chances are your project will need to be ADA compliant. The ADA requires compliance for buildings that fall into two categories:
- Places of public accommodation: This includes most businesses that you can think of, including any government building, restaurant, mall, grocery store, or any other type of building with a store front.
- Commercial facilities that need to be accessed by people with disabilities: This section includes any businesses that have employees that are disabled. This means that while your facility may not have a storefront that requires handicap accessibility, once you hire someone with disabilities, you are required to make it ADA compliant. In the same way, if you decided to add a reception area for customers to come in to do business, that would also require ADA compliance.
Meeting code requirements is important for the safety and security of a building and certainly should be the most important priority when starting a new project. Otherwise–and I can tell you this from experience–a whole project can be slowed down considerably due to an issue that could easily have been avoided. But once you’ve found a trusted manufacturer that complies with code, you can relax about meeting code requirements and instead focus on the style and look of your railing system.
Adding style to a handicap ramp is easiest when you start with a beautiful railing system and add a handrail to it. You can choose just about any style of railing, as long as it has adaptability for installation of an ADA compliant handrail on the surface. I’ve used Fortress Railing systems on jobs where the owner wanted more than just a basic compliant handrail, because they have a variety of styles and color finishes for their railings and handrails, and they’re very high quality as well (and they look it). In addition to railings, they also have other Fortress Building Products designed for commercial projects, such as powder-coated steel fencing and bamboo composite decking.