"Just some more crazy regulation ideas that could never take effect."
That's how many builders perceived handicapped accessibility standards proposed, discussed and considered in Sacramento for years, says Bob Raymer of the California Building Industry Assn.
Short of some improbable last-minute action taken by the Legislature in its final hours of the 1984-85 session last week, the requirements for new apartment construction take effect today.
Starting on Sept. 15, 1984, local jurisdictions were given one year to adopt the regulations by ordinance or resolution.
"A community could have implemented them a year ago, but nobody did," Raymer said. "They let the regulations become law by default," so uncertain were communities about ramifications of the regulations.
And if the communities were uncertain, builders and architects are even more in the dark now that they must comply with the new standards, Raymer said.
Oh, his organization has alerted its 5,500 members about the regulations, he noted, but not all members read the monthly bulletins. Not all builders and architects in the state are association members. And the regulations are so complicated that even after seven years of negotiations, they still need to be refined.
As Raymer explained it, "We've delayed this as long as we can, but we're still working to change the language to cut the costs of design."
As Walter Park, an architect who participated in the negotiations as a representative of Independent Housing Services in San Francisco, put it, "There is nothing in these regulations for the deaf or blind. For instance, we could require visual warning systems, but we didn't, and that's a shame."
He and Raymer also acknowledged that there are many "loopholes" in the regulations.
"Loopholes?" Julie Stewart of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which led the negotiations and adopted the regulations in 1982, repeated. "I don't know what you mean by 'loopholes,' but there are specific requirements."
The requirement that alarms builders the most is the one that expects 100% of the units in a privately funded, new apartment house to be made adaptable for the physically handicapped.
That is, every unit in an apartment building that has five or more dwelling units.
Enter the loopholes.
"We got the three- and four-unit apartment houses exempted," Raymer said.
Just this summer, Raymer also asked for a change to make condominiums exempt. "That's very important," he added. Whether the condos are rented or owner-occupied, they are still exempt.
The new regulations also replace rather than overlap existing handicapped accessibility standards. So, as of today, the 1% handicapped accessibility state requirement in condo construction has become a design option.
The new requirements also apply only to units that are wheelchair accessible. "Usually, two-story apartment buildings have no elevator, so the second-story units would be exempt," Raymer explained. Three-story buildings without elevators aren't as common here as in Europe, but some observers fear that this provision could result in a profusion of three-story walk-ups.
If an elevator is installed in a two- or three-story at a later date, however, the second- and third-floor units would remain exempt, because the regulations do not apply to existing structures. "The regulations have nothing to do with retrofit. They only have to do with new construction," Raymer emphasized.
In a new building, even first-floor units may be exempt. The regulations do not apply to apartment houses having a public sidewalk, easement or other path of travel to the primary entrance, which has a slope exceeding 15%. A "primary entrance" is defined as "any entrance that has substantial pedestrian traffic to any specific major function of the facility."
So consider this illustration, given in a California Building Industry Assn. bulletin:
Suppose the builder is planning to construct a five-story apartment building that has parking facilities on the first floor, which is a story below grade. Access to the upper floors is provided from the underground parking lot by stairs and elevators. Exterior access to the second floor, which is six feet above grade, is provided by stairs.
As the bulletin explains it, "Chances are, the slope of the drive into the parking area exceeds 15%. In such a case, the path of travel to the elevator is not considered accessible. Since the exterior access to the second floor is not provided by a ramp, the combination of these two provisions effectively exempts this project from the standards." In such a case, the builder could conceivably build 60 floors of apartment units, all of them exempt.
An exception to this case, the bulletin notes, would be where local ordinance requires accessible underground parking. This prompts the criticism that cities can make their own rules.