Office towers and K-12 schools can be retrofitted cost-effectively to improve accessibility: Study

The Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) and architecture and design firm hcma, have published research on the costs and strategies to retrofit existing office towers and schools in order to improve accessibility.

New research on the costs and strategies to retrofit existing office towers and schools to improve accessibility has been published by the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) and architecture and design firm hcma.

The study estimates that RHF Accessibility Certified Gold can be achieved through upgrades in an office tower at less than 0.5 per cent of the replacement cost, and in a K-12 school for less than 1.5 per cent of the replacement cost.

The study also outlines strategies that management can take in order to increase the feasibility of upgrades as well as cost-effectively improving accessibility for people of all ages and abilities.

According to the study, almost 50 per cent of adults in Canada have experienced a permanent or temporary physical disability or live with someone who has.

Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility CertificationTM (RHFAC) is a national rating and recognition system that both measures and certifies the level of meaningful access of buildings from the perspective of those with varying disabilities.

The study included 10 RHFAC rated office towers and 10 RHFAC rated schools, all of which were built between 1974-2019 in B.C. and Ontario, in or near large urban centres. The researchers then developed prototype buildings based on typical conditions and features of these sites in order to determine average costs to retrofit.

“Understanding what it takes to retrofit existing buildings and schools is critical to achieving an accessible country for people of all ages and abilities. I encourage building owners, managers, and designers to take a good hard look at this new research which provides helpful data on the costs to recuperate an accessibility retrofit over time. The study also highlights the numerous ways to improve accessibility at no to minimal cost with the goal of more inclusive school and work environments for everyone,” said Doramy Ehling, CEO, Rick Hansen Foundation.

Changes that improve building accessibility at no cost include the relocation of furniture and waste bins which clear space and ensure adequate clear widths and turning aisles.

Changes that improve accessibility at minimal cost include the introduction to assistive listening systems at reception desks, the addition of braille lettering to directory boards and room signage, the installation of directional signage with prominent colour contrast and moving washroom accessories and dispensers to accessible heights and locations.

Examples of higher cost retrofits include upgrading fire alarm systems and the creation of accessible kitchens and universal washrooms.

The research also shares the cost to retrofit to RHFAC Gold as a cost per square foot of gross floor area, which was calculated at $1.50 for office buildings and $9.00 for school buildings. According to the study, when upgrades are amortized or completed over time periods of five, 10, or 15 years, those costs drop to as low as ten cents 2 and sixty cents per square foot, respectively.

“The cost to achieve a meaningful level of access is remarkably low when building owners amortize the cost over time. Owners are constantly investing money to maintain and update their buildings. Dedicating cents per square foot to make these buildings more inclusive should be standard and expected,” said Darryl Condon, managing principal of hcma.

The report also noted that funding barriers may be overcome through a phased implementation strategy that includes accessibility upgrades as part of planned project and maintenance upgrades. This allows costs to be amortized over time.

Of the 99 potential upgrades identified for office buildings and the 167 identified for school buildings, roughly 60 per cent cost $50,000 or less. The study appendix also includes lists of all identified upgrades and their associated costs.

Important factors for owners and operators to consider when deciding which accessibility upgrades to undertake to improve meaningful access to their buildings include life and safety, dignity, overall impact of upgrades, and integration with other currently planned upgrades.

“When considering that the core reasons to improve accessibility in our schools and workplaces are the health, safety, and dignity of our youth and community, eliminating barriers is essential. By making accessibility a priority, and planning wisely, we will get there faster,” said Ehling.

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