Alterations in areas containing a primary function

Posted on - Monday, August 3rd, 2020


The ADA Standards (and the Texas Accessibility Standards) states:
106.5.5 Alteration. A change to a building or facility that affects or could affect the usability of the building or facility or portion thereof. Alterations include, but are not limited to, remodeling, renovation, rehabilitation, reconstruction, historic restoration, resurfacing of circulation paths or vehicular ways, changes or rearrangement of the structural parts or elements, and changes or rearrangement in the plan configuration of walls and full-height partitions.
Normal maintenance, reroofing, painting or wallpapering, or changes to mechanical and electrical systems are not alterations unless they affect the usability of the building or facility.
When doing “alterations” in buildings you have two sets of requirements: Requirements for alterations (ADA Section 202.3) and requirements for alterations that occur in an area that contains a primary function (ADA Section 202.4)
If your alteration is in an area that is not a primary function, only the new things will have to comply. Some examples are doing renovation in bathrooms, break rooms, closets etc.
If your alterations are in an area that is considered primary function then all the new things must comply, but also the path of travel elements that serve the altered area including: accessible route, entrance, restrooms, drinking fountains and telephones that serve the altered area. In Texas they included parking that serves the altered area.
The yellow line in the figure above depicts the path of travel elements that must be compliant when an alteration occurs in an area that contains a primary function

Case studies

With the above information, let’s take a look at a few examples and what it would trigger:

Case Study #1: What if we do an alteration in an existing school of an entire bathroom?

This is an existing school building where they were going to renovate the existing toilet room.
  1. Restrooms are not a primary function
  2. They are demo-ing the entire restroom
  3. They are installing new fixtures and new partitions.
Because the toilet rooms are not a “primary function” in the school, only the new elements installed would have to comply

Case Study #2: What if we only renovate one element in the restroom?

This is an existing restroom, but only the lavatory will be altered. Because the ADA allows element by element alteration, only the lavatory will have to comply. The rest of the restroom that was not altered will remain as is and will not be required to be brought up to compliance.

Case Study #3: What if only the toilet is altered?

This one is a little more complicated. Just like with the lavatory, only the toilet would have to comply. But does that mean that it would also require compliant grab bars? What about compliant toilet paper dispenser? The answer is yes. Those are also elements that are part of the water closet.
One gray area question is whether the clearance around the water closet part of the toilet? Would the clearance need to be 60″ wide? If the toilet room was built prior to 2012, then it is allowed to remain at 36″ clearance.
The image on the left is the 1991 ADAAG clearance at the toilet. The image on the right is the 2010 ADA Standards clearance at the toilet. If the toilet was built prior to 2012 (the year that the new standard became mandatory) then it is compliant.

Case Study #4: What if new bleachers are installed in an existing gymnasium in the school?

  1. The gymnasium is a primary function
  2. The bleachers will have to comply
  3. The path of travel elements that serve the altered area must also comply

Case Study #5: What if we alter the floor at the gymnasium only?

  1. The gymnasium is a primary function
  2. The flooring must comply
  3. The path of travel elements that serve the altered area must also comply

Case Study #6

What if we paint the walls in the gymnasium only
  1. The gymnasium is a primary function
  2. Painting doesn’t affect the usability and therefore it is not an alteration
  • In Summary:

    •Existing buildings are not “grandfathered”. They must comply
    •Texas requires compliance at the time of construction
    •ADA requires compliance when it is readily achievable
    •Existing buildings that comply with 1991 ADAAG/1994 TAS are a safe harbor
    •Altered elements must comply
    •Altered elements in an area of primary function must comply, plus:
    •Accessible entrance
    •Accessible route
    •Accessible restrooms
    •Drinking fountains

    Here is a presentation I did about the subject