By Zoe Gaik, Forensic Associate
RGA Design Forensics
Accessible routes and means of egress are two aspects of design that many architects have to deal with. But, being that the descriptions about both of these aspects within the governing architectural code books can be a bit chaotic, I’d like to explain a little about what an accessible route is, versus a means of egress.
First, we will begin with accessible routes.
Each accessible route is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) Design Standards, which were created in 1991. The ADA Design Standards were created to provide a standard to facility owners for the purpose of supporting equal access to goods and services by those who have impaired physical capabilities.
In addition, this also means that accessible routes are governed by the Florida Accessibility Code, being that the Florida Accessibility Code incorporates ADA within its provisions. The Florida Accessibility Code was created to give the ADA Design Standards a figurative "backbone" by incorporating it into Florida law. It is enacted into Florida law by way of the Florida Building Code, being that the Florida Accessibility Code is chapter 11 within the Florida Building Code. Thus, it is applicable to all newly constructed or altered commercial buildings and elements.
An accessible route’s purpose is to connect all accessible elements on a site, such as connecting a handicap parking space to an entry door. This definition of an Accessible Route might help: “A continuous unobstructed path connecting all accessible elements and spaces of a building or facility. Interior accessible routes may include corridors, floors, ramps, elevators, lifts, and clear floor space at fixtures. Exterior accessible routes may include parking access aisles, curb ramps, crosswalks at vehicular ways, walks, ramps, and lifts” (1991 ADA, §3.5 Definitions).
An accessible route can also serve to connect the accessible building entrance with a transit stop. See the following excerpt from ADA: “At least one accessible route shall be provided within the site from accessible parking spaces and accessible passenger loading zones; public streets and sidewalks; and public transportation stops to the accessible building or facility entrance they serve” (2010 ADA, §206.2.1). It is important to remember this provision because people in wheelchairs that ride the bus need a way to access the goods and services of a business. If the sidewalk from a bus stop to the entrance of a building has a step in it, a person in a wheelchair would have a very difficult time rolling over that.
Accordingly, accessible routes do not include stairs. This is due to the core intention of the ADA code: handicap accessibility. Those in wheelchairs or who are mobility impaired may have a very difficult time traversing a set of stairs, thus a ramp is required in lieu. In addition, fire exit doors are not required to be on an accessible route. They are governed by a completely separate code, set forth by the State Fire Marshal. However, some of the provisions for accessible routes and means of egress are the same. For instance, both codes state that within a walkway, there cannot be a vertical rise of more than ¼ inch.
This brings us to means of egress.
Means of egress are governed by the Florida Fire Prevention Code, adopted by the State Fire Marshal. The Florida Fire Prevention Code further adopts the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101: Life Safety Code, making both the Florida Fire Prevention Code AND the NFPA 101: Life Safety Code governing. In addition, the NFPA 101 applies not just to new construction and alterations, but also applies to existing buildings and structures. There is no grandfathering with this code, meaning that each commercial facility must comply with its provisions at all times.
Means of egress were created to ensure occupants have a safe way of travel from any point within a building or structure out to the public way, especially in the event of a fire or other emergency. This definition of a means of egress should help: “A continuous and unobstructed way of travel from any point in a building or structure to a public way consisting of three separate and distinct parts: (1) the exit access, (2) the exit, and (3) the exit discharge” (2015 NFPA 101, §3.3.172*).
The exit access exists within all parts of a building that can be occupied by a person. It is the way occupants would go about reaching the exit door from the inside. The exit is pretty self-explanatory—it is the door or threshold in between the exit access and exit discharge. The exit discharge is the portion that leads from the exit to a public way. A public way is, “A street, alley, or other similar parcel of land essentially open to the outside air deeded, dedicated, or otherwise permanently appropriated to the public for public use and having a clear width and height of not less than 10ft (3050 mm)” (2015 NFPA 101, §3.3.220).
Thus, for example, an exterior sidewalk deeded to the public would be considered a public way. However, a sidewalk on private property would be considered within the exit discharge portion of a means of egress, because it is between an exit and a public way. There is no set path for an exit discharge area. This is due to the fact that many circumstances could influence what path a person would take when dispersing out of a building, especially in the event of a fire or other emergency. So essentially, all areas within privately owned commercial property that are between an egress exit and a public way constitute the exit discharge area.
Additionally, means of egress can include stairs (and ramps). All means of egress are not required to be handicap accessible.
For more information on accessible routes and means of egress, such as required quantity or placement, view the Florida Building Code (including chapter 11, the Florida Accessibility Code), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101: Life Safety Code. However, ensure you are viewing the correct version of each code—usually Florida adopts the NFPA 101 a couple years after it is adopted nationally!