Simplifying barrier-free design across Canada

July 12, 2017

Image © BigstockPhoto

By Samantha Proulx, CET
Barrier-free, accessible, universal, and inclusive design are all terms used to describe the same thing: a design that creates a built environment usable by everyone. Minimum barrier-free design requirements are derived from the provincial and national building codes. Meanwhile, provinces and municipalities across Canada are going above and beyond the minimum to develop and enforce their own, more restrictive barrier-free requirements in an effort to achieve overall equality amongst their communities in areas related to customer service, information and communication, transportation, employment, and the built environment.

Similar to the United States and its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Canada is developing a legislation that will potentially enforce a uniform level of accessibility across the nation. Until then, the most nationally recognized and recommended accessible design guide is CAN/CSA B651, Accessible Design for the Built Environment. Typically, compliance with accessibility standards and guidelines is required for public buildings (government-owned/funded projects), while private buildings must typically comply with the minimum requirements of the project-specific building code and, where enforced, provincial accessibility legislation (e.g. the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act [AODA]).

The reality of designing a project to the minimum code requirements is that not every project is required to be barrier-free—buildings exempt from this requirement could include existing or smaller buildings.

To strengthen Canada’s built environment, the need to eliminate barriers must be at the forefront of design. Simply put, barrier-free design needs to accommodate:

This article guides readers through minimum barrier-free requirements prescribed by various provincial building codes and the National Building Code of Canada (NBC), followed by best-practice recommendations compiled from various accessibility standards and guidelines, as well as experiences over the years.  (These include the 2012 Ontario Building Code [OBC], 2012 B.C. Building Code, Manitoba’s Buildings and Mobile Homes Act, and the 2014 Alberta Building Code [ABC]. Some accessibility design standards used for best-practice principles for this article include CAN/CSA B651-12, Accessible Design for the Built Environment, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act [AODA], and Calgary’s Access Design Standards.) All requirements have been generalized—throughout this article, the term ‘code’ is broadly used to describe building codes, and is not intended to focus on one provincial code over another unless otherwise specified.

It is important to note all barrier-free requirements are a summary combining multiple building codes. If applying these requirements to a project, the project-specific building code must also be referenced for verification. Further, the barrier-free requirements outlined in this article are applicable to new buildings and/or renovations—however, there may be exemptions or areas of relief for buildings undergoing renovations, depending on the province. (Barrier-free requirement exemptions for existing buildings are not discussed in this article.)

Barrier-free design should always start from the outside and work its way in: exterior, interior, washrooms.

Exterior and entrances
An exterior barrier-free path of travel must connect accessible parking spaces (above-and below-grade) and passenger loading zones to a required barrier-free entrance. For best practice, the path of travel should also connect transit stops for commuters and a relieving area for service dogs (located near a barrier-free entrance).

All buildings subject to compliance with Section 3.8 of NBC, “Barrier-free Design,” must be provided with a minimum number of barrier-free entrances. Depending on the province, at least one of these may need to be the principal entrance (Figure 1). The best-practice recommendation is any entrance that can be used by occupants (i.e. staff and/or pedestrians) should be barrier-free and equipped with a power door operator.

Figure 1: Provincial building codes in Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta have slightly different requirements for the barrier-free entrance.

A barrier-free path of travel must extend from a barrier-free entrance into and throughout all normally occupied floor areas (some exemptions apply), and is permitted to consist of:

Elevators are only required in high buildings, as defined in Subsection 3.2.6 of NBC, and select care and treatment major occupancies. However, elevators tend to be the preferred option when providing a barrier-free path of travel between floor levels.

This path of travel is the basis of a design; it is what allows people to manoeuvre into, throughout, and out of a building. Building codes require the path of travel to be between 920 and 1100 mm (36 to 43 in.) wide, whereas accessibility standards and guidelines suggest it should be 1500 mm (59 in.) wide or more (Figure 2). Figure 3 indicates various widths of barrier-free paths of travel.

For best practice, all barrier-free paths of travel should take into consideration a minimum 1500- to 1800-mm (59-to 71-in.) width if the level of building traffic is anticipated to be high. A ‘high-traffic area’ could be defined as a floor area with an occupant load of more than 200 people; for example, a rapid-transit station, or a concourse serving multi-level interconnected office buildings.

Best practice would be installing directional tactile indicators (e.g. colour-contrasting floor or ground material with raised linear bars) along a barrier-free path of travel to help individuals with low to no vision find key building components such as information desks, elevators, stairs, and rooms. One may also use colour-contrasting floor materials to differentiate seating or waiting areas from the main barrier-free path of travel.

Headroom clearances and projections
A cane-detectable barrier or guard must be provided within 680 mm (27 in.) above the finished floor (AFF) to help individuals with low to no vision navigate around potential hazards. Hazardous areas may include those where:

For more esthetically pleasing cane-detectable barrier options, it is possible to use furniture or planters.

Lay-by spaces
A barrier-free path of travel must typically incorporate unobstructed floor areas (lay-by spaces) at 30-m (98-ft) intervals, with the intent to permit wheelchair users to pass one another and/or provide a resting opportunity outside the required barrier-free path of travel (Figures 4 and 5).

Lay-by spaces can be increased in size to accommodate resting areas with seating (e.g. bench-style seat with at least one armrest). A bench-style seat is capable of accommodating people of all sizes, and can further accommodate a wheelchair side transfer. The provision of an armrest also assists individuals in sitting and standing.

Tactile attention indicators
Some building codes will require tactile attention indicators (TAIs)—colour-contrasting floor/ground material with raised truncated domes—to be installed to identify changes in elevation, tops of stair landings, and places where vehicular pathways are at the same level as a barrier-free path of travel. TAIs are required to be of a certain depth (typically 300 to 610 mm [12 to 24 in.] or greater), and must extend the entire length of the hazard (e.g. full width of a stair). It is best practice to install them at the tops of ramp landings and curb ramps. Figure 6 provides an example of TAIs at the tops of stair landings.

Doors and door hardware
All doors in a barrier-free path of travel must be designed to include the following elements and features:

Figure 7 illustrates this.

Power door operators are not substantially discussed in this article, as they constitute a topic of their own. However, they are typically required to serve:

Power door operators may also need to be installed on doors serving public-use washrooms or accessible hotel rooms, assembly occupancies serving Group C residential buildings, and outward-swinging doors for universal washrooms (Figure 8). However, each code differs when it comes to doors requiring these operators.

Where an existing door cannot achieve the required clear width, offset hinges or thinner door slabs can be installed. For best practice, door hardware should be colour-contrasting to the doorframe and physical door slab. Where a door opens into a barrier-free path of travel, one should provide a guard or barrier perpendicular to it to protect oncoming traffic (most applicable when the door is equipped with a power door operator).

It is worth noting able-bodied design professionals who have not tested a wheelchair device, mobility device, or mobility aid will never truly understand the complexity of navigating a doorway using such devices. The best way to understand barrier-free design is to go out and manoeuvre the world as an individual with a physical or sensory disability by using various mobility devices. For instance, one might use glasses simulating low- to no-vision capabilities and walk around with a walking cane, or mute any capabilities of hearing through soundless headphones and try to communicate. The codes require minimum barrier-free design requirements, but such requirements may not portray the reality of what is actually needed by someone with a disability.

Control height
Controls for the operation of building services or safety devices (e.g. electrical switches, thermostats, or intercom) intended to be operated by occupants and located within a barrier-free path of travel must be mounted at an accessible height, reachable by individuals using a wheelchair, and operable with minimal force (Figure 9).

Based on the Appendices of CAN/CSA B651-12, the average adult using a wheelchair can reach as high as 1400 mm (55 in.) from a side approach (i.e. parallel approach), and 1200 mm (47 in.) from a front approach (i.e. leaning forward). It is important to note not all wheelchair users have full mobility of their upper body, so reaching capabilities will vary. This criterion is also confirmed through anthropometry research completed by the Centre of Inclusive Design and Environment Access (IDeA) in Buffalo, New York. (For more information, see “What is Anthropometry?” from the Center for Inclusive Design and Environment Access [IDeA] at[5].)

When considering the installation height of a control, three things must be considered:

Controls and mechanisms unrelated to building services or safety devices—including, but not limited to, hand-sanitization stations, vending machines, bank machines, and parking-stub dispensers—should also be located between 900 and 1200 mm (35 and 47 in.) AFF to be considered accessible, with an appropriate clear floor space for approach (from 750 to 900 mm [29 to 35 in.] wide by 1200 to 1370 mm [47 by 54 in.] long).

Electrical receptacles
The installation height for electrical receptacles (i.e. plugs) varies between provinces; however, the recommended accessible height for plugs is no less than 400 mm (16 in.) AFF (to the centre). Based on research criteria found in Design Resources article DR-20, “Functional Reach Capability for Wheeled Mobility Users,” completed by the Centre for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, a large percentage of individuals who have functional reach cannot safely reach below 380 mm (15 in.) AFF, but can more comfortably reach to approximately 700 mm (27 in.) AFF. (The article is available at[9].) Unless a receptacle needs to be mounted higher than 400 mm AFF, a power-strip extension cord could be used to overcome reaching restrictions.

Accessible signage must be provided to identify barrier-free facilities such as entrances, ramps, passenger-loading zones, washrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains. Where accessible signage is required, it must typically consist of:

Not all codes specify character-size requirements or the braille grade to be used. For guidance on wayfinding signage where this criterion is not prescribed by the code, one can consult CAN/CSA B6512-12 and other regulated accessibility guides and standards, which refer to it in detail.

The design of wayfinding signage should include audible, visual, and tactile elements. Signage should be simple and consistent throughout the entire building, including its mounting heights and locations, and should be glare-free and colour-contrasting to the background and/or mounting surface. Consistency helps create a pattern for individuals with low to no vision, and assists them in finding the signage more easily.

There are three types of barrier-free washrooms typically addressed by code:

Ambulatory water-closet stalls provide mobility assistance. They are similar to regular stalls, but are equipped with grab bars on both sides of the water closet and to the rear. They also have outward-swinging doors and can accommodate various small mobility aids (e.g. canes or crutches). Currently, the Ontario Building Code (OBC) is the only provincial code requiring ambulatory stalls within non-barrier-free multi-stall washrooms. One can refer to OBC or CAN/CSA B651 for ambulatory design requirement guidance.

A functional barrier-free washroom, based on the various codes, must typically take into consideration the following elements and features (applicable to both universal and multi-stall):

Figure 10: On the left, a basic universal washroom. On the right, a fully inclusive multi-purpose universal washroom.

Items related to the final three features in the list are all quite common additions to universal washrooms serving large assembly and care facilities, but are currently only mandatory in Ontario (Figure 10).

For best practice, one should equip all barrier-free washrooms with a power door operator, or provide rough-in electrical for future installation. Barrier-free water closets should also be floor-mounted to accommodate all weight ranges (including bariatric individuals). Where possible in multi-stall washrooms, it is suggested both barrier-free and ambulatory water-closet stalls be provided.

Further best-practice recommendations suggest where base building washrooms are provided, male, female, and gender-neutral (universal) washrooms should be placed in identical locations on each floor so as to be easily found by individuals with low to no vision. Additionally, where room permits, universal washrooms and barrier-free stalls should include unobstructed 2100- to 2500-mm (82- to 98-in.) turning circles to accommodate scooters and larger mobility devices. Where barrier-free multi-stall washrooms are equipped with multiple lavatories, it is also important to provide a built-in step or stool for children or individuals of shorter stature. All doors into washrooms serving mental health or care facilities should swing outward to eliminate barricade concerns.

The list of barrier-free washroom-enhancement features is endless, and providing the ability for anybody and everybody to go to the washroom while they are out and about is priceless.

This article provides the reader with basic knowledge of barrier-free design, awareness of minimum barrier-free design requirements across Canada, and a few best-practice design principles that can help enhance the built environment. Until uniform accessibility requirements improve or are established across Canada, it is advisable to continue using best-practice guidelines in conjunction with the applicable minimum requirements addressed by the project-specific building code. The design of a building should enable anybody to enter and exit its doors, manoeuvre and navigate its interior, and use it functionally. Accessible design should not be difficult; it should be common sense.

[11]Samantha Proulx, CET, is an accessibility and building code consultant for Jensen Hughes Consulting Canada Ltd., with six years of experience. She studied architecture and construction engineering at Conestoga College (Kitchener, Ont.), and is a member of the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OACETT). Proulx is proficient in the application of barrier-free accessibility principles for the assessment of universal design, has experience as a lead accessibility consultant for numerous public and private projects for all building occupancy types, and is an advocate for barrier-free design education across Canada. She specialises in accessibility codes, standards, and legislations as they relate to the built environment, and has experience with elder-friendly, mental-health, bariatric, transit, pool, and artistic accessibility design projects. Proulx can be reached via e-mail at[12].

  1. [Image]:
  2. [Image]:
  3. [Image]:
  4. [Image]:
  6. [Image]:
  7. [Image]:
  8. [Image]:
  10. [Image]:
  11. [Image]:

Source URL: