Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Role of Civil Engineers in ADA Compliance: Shaping Accessible Environments


This article examines the pivotal role of civil engineers in ADA compliance. Discover the profound impact these professionals have on an adaptive user experience through site design, coordinated considerations, and innovations.

The Core of ADA Compliance: Site Design and Coordinated Considerations

ADA compliance, a federal and state legal mandate, places civil engineers at the forefront of creating site designs that prioritize equal access for individuals with disabilities. Key to ADA site compliance is the thoughtful consideration of physical accessibility elements including ramps, path of travel, slopes, and parking become not just features but essential components that allow seamless navigation within buildings and ultimately are required to obtain permits.

How Does ADA Compliance Work and Where is it Implemented?

Compliance happens during conceptual design and is implemented into architectural and civil engineering plans and can have profound effects on plans if not considered from the beginning of design.  After the plans are approved and a permit is issued by the city, if it doesn’t meet compliance regulations, the owners can be sued by private parties.

Brand new land development projects must comply with ADA laws, as it is a federal law. For existing businesses and structures that are not up to code, and may be facing a lawsuit, they come to CDR to remediate the site. Many commercial developments were built before ADA compliance laws were passed.

“Many housing developments need modernization, especially around clubhouses and amenity areas. CDR sees these retrofit projects as an opportunity. Our engineers bring the sites up to code and spare the owners from worrying about being exposed to a lawsuit,” says Mario Lomeli, director of civil engineering.

ADA compliance does not apply for private homes unless the homeowner requires it for their personal benefit, in which case they would hire an architect to plan for that.

Meeting Challenges Head-On: Remodeling Projects

Though there are numerous hurdles associated with adapting to ADA requirements, one significant challenge arises during remodeling projects. In scenarios where the interior remodel exceeds approximately $200,000, the entire building, including parking stalls, paths of travel, and sidewalks, must adhere to ADA standards. A seemingly internal project can trigger a comprehensive overhaul, encompassing exterior elements to ensure full compliance. This highlights the dynamic nature of ADA requirements, where seemingly isolated renovations can evolve quickly into extensive accessibility modifications.

Legal-Driven Modifications: Response to Lawsuits

Another avenue through which ADA compliance projects emerge involves lawsuits filed by individuals targeting shopping centers and various commercial spaces. These legal actions are often instigated by individuals seeking monetary compensation. Businesses, faced with the choice of paying a settlement or undertaking significant modifications to become ADA compliant, opt for the latter. This legal-driven approach sheds some light on the financial and legal implications that drive organizations to prioritize accessibility.

The Intersection of Technology and Accessibility

The proliferation of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations introduces a new dimension within the evolving world of ADA compliance. With the increasing adoption of EV infrastructure, the path to compliance extends beyond parking stalls. For every EV charging station, at least one parking stall must be ADA compliant, necessitating adherence to accessibility standards not only in the stall itself but also in the path of travel from the stall to the sidewalk. This demonstrates the intersection of technological advancements and accessibility requirements, adding layers of complexity to compliance initiatives.

Civil engineers play a crucial role in addressing these multifaceted challenges. Their expertise goes beyond the technical aspects of construction; it involves navigating the intricacies of legal mandates, financial considerations, and changing technologies. Whether it’s retrofitting existing structures or ensuring new developments meet ADA standards, civil engineers are instrumental in orchestrating inclusive environments.

The Complexity of ADA Compliance in Altering Existing Buildings

The complexity of ADA compliance is further underscored when altering existing buildings. The ADA specifies that when altering a primary function area, the path of travel elements supporting this space must also be altered. These elements can include items like restrooms, doors, telephones, drinking fountains, and the route itself, among others. The ADA sets a cap on the additional expenses for making these elements accessible. If the costs exceed 20% of adjusted construction costs, the expenses are considered disproportionate and are not required to be undertaken.

Ongoing Obligations and Nuanced Aspects

California, however, deviates from the federal ADA guidelines. The state does not allow the 20% ceiling if construction costs surpass the valuation threshold, set at $200,399 for 2024 and increasing annually. In California, if the construction budget exceeds this threshold, all path-of-travel elements supporting the space must be made accessible regardless of cost, except elevators, which are still subject to the 20% disproportionality rule.

The ADA emphasizes that even when the cost of alterations is disproportionate to overall costs, there is still an obligation to make the path of travel as accessible as possible, with a mandated 20% expenditure. This includes upper floors, even in non-elevatored buildings. If a series of smaller alterations occurred over the preceding three years, the proportional spending is based on the sum of the alterations during that period. The prioritization of accessible elements includes entrances, routes to altered areas, restrooms, telephones, drinking fountains, and, when possible, additional elements like parking, storage, and alarms.

It is crucial for owners to keep up with the ongoing obligations of barrier removal within the scope of work. Additionally, if an alteration is solely for path-of-travel elements or barrier removal, there is no additional 20% expenditure required.

Navigating the Intricacies of Accessibility

Understanding these nuanced aspects of ADA compliance is essential for civil engineers and organizations like CDR as they navigate the intricacies of creating truly inclusive environments. If you would like to discuss ADA compliance for your land development project or an existing site that needs remediation, please reach out to set up a consultation.