Accessibility in the built environment
Developers, designers and owners of buildings have a responsibility to ensure that the built environment is accessible to everyone wherever it is practical to do so. This includes anyone who has a mobility or other impairment, whether permanent or temporary, such as:
- Wheelchair users, their carers, people with walking difficulties and so on.
- People with pushchairs and children.
- People with sight or hearing impairments.
- Elderly people.
- People with co-ordination or respiratory problems.
Part M of the Buildings Regulations, Access to and Use of Buildings, sets out legal minimum requirements for works to buildings or new buildings. Whereas previous versions of the Regulations focused on the specific needs of people with disabilities, the current edition promotes an approach to inclusive design that reflects the needs of all people, requiring that:
- M1, Access to and use of buildings other than dwellings: Reasonable provision shall be made for people to: (a) gain access to; and (b) use the building and its facilities.
- M2, Access to extensions to buildings other than dwellings: Suitable independent access shall be provided to the extension where reasonably practicable.
- M3, Sanitary conveniences in extensions to buildings other than dwellings: If sanitary conveniences are provided in any building that is to be extended, reasonable provision shall be made within the extension for sanitary conveniences.
- M4 (1), Visitable dwellings: Reasonable provision should be made for people to (a) gain access to; and (b) use, the dwelling and its facilities.
- M4(2), Accessible and adaptable dwellings, optional requirement (1): Reasonable provision must be made for people to (a) gain access to; and (b) use, the dwelling and its facilities. (2): The provision made must be sufficient to (a) meet the needs of occupants with differing needs, including some older or disabled people; and (b) to allow adaptation of the dwelling to meet the changing needs of occupants over time.
- M4(3), Wheelchair user dwellings, optional requirement (1): Reasonable provision must be made for people to (a) gain access to, and (b) use, the dwelling and its facilities. (2): The provision made must be sufficient to (a) allow simple adaptation of the dwelling to meet the needs of occupants who use wheelchairs; or (b) meet the needs of occupants who use wheelchairs.
Common approaches that can be adopted to demonstrate compliance with these requirements are set out in Approved Document M, Access to and use of buildings.
The Approved Document suggests that the term 'accessible' means '…that people, regardless of disability, age or gender, are able to gain access.'
The 2015 edition of the Approved Document is provided in two volumes:
This introduces three different types of dwelling:
- Category 1 – Visitable dwellings.
- Category 2 – Accessible and adaptable dwellings.
- Category 3 – Wheelchair user dwellings.
Volume 2 provides guidance on:
- Horizontal and vertical circulation.
- Sanitary accommodation
 Accessibility in existing buildings
Volume 2 applies where:
- a non-domestic building is newly erected;
- an existing non-domestic building is extended, or undergoes a material alteration; or
- an existing building or part of an existing building undergoes a material change of use to a hotel or boarding house, institution, public building or shop.
Where works are carried out on existing buildings, the works themselves must comply with the regulations. Reasonable provision must be made for people to gain access to and to use new or altered sanitary conveniences. The building as a whole, including access to it from the site boundary and from on-site car parking where provided, must be no less compliant with requirement M1 following a material alteration of a building. It is not necessary to upgrade access to the building entrance from the site boundary and from on-site car parking where provided (although, see other considerations below).
Where there is a material change of use of the whole of a building to a hotel or boarding house, an institution, a public building or a shop, the building must be upgraded, if necessary, so as to comply with rquirement M1.
Where works are carried out to historic buildings, they should aim to improve accessibility where and to the extent that it is practically possible, provided that the work does not prejudice the character of the historic building, or increase the risk of long-term deterioration to the building fabric or fittings.
 Other considerations
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 Approved Code of Practice and guidance states:
'Regardless of their disability, people should be able to gain access to buildings and use the facilities. This could mean that an employer may need to make some changes to a building or premises to take account of the disabled person's needs.'
These adjustments could include:
- The structure of a building such as the steps, changes of level, emergency exits or narrow doorways.
- Handrails for disabled people who may find it easier to negotiate a flight of stairs than a ramp.
- Avoiding heavy doors, inaccessible toilets or inappropriate lighting.
- Installing suitable toilet facilities, either specially designed cubicles in separate-sex bathrooms or a self-contained unisex toilet.
- In workplaces, workstation access may need to be modified in terms of width and height to accommodate wheelchair users for instance.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests with regard to making reasonable adjustments to premises:
'An employer makes structural or other physical changes such as widening a doorway, providing a ramp or moving furniture for a wheelchair user; relocates light switches, door handles, or shelves for someone who has difficulty in reaching; or provides appropriate contrast in decor to help the safe mobility of a visually impaired person.'
With regard to what is 'reasonable', the considerations can be:
- How effective the change will be.
- Its practicality.
- The cost.
- The organisation's resources and size.
- The availability of financial support.
Access consultants can provide professional advice on how to develop accessible environments.
See Access consultant for more information.
An access audit can be helpful in assessing the ease of access to, and ease of use of an environment, a service, or a facility, by people with a range of access impairments. This can help demonstrate compliance with legislation and identify areas where changes may be appropriate.
See Access audit for more information.
The British Standards Institute (2005) defines inclusive design as "The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible ... without the need for special adaptation or specialised design."
- Inclusive – so everyone can use it safely, easily and with dignity.
- Responsive – taking account of what people say they need and want.
- Flexible – so different people can use it in different ways.
- Convenient – so everyone can use it without too much effort or separation.
- Accommodating for all people, regardless of their age, gender, mobility, ethnicity or circumstances.
- Welcoming – with no disabling barriers that might exclude some people.
- Realistic – offering more than one solution to help balance everyone's needs and recognising that one solution may not work for all.
For more information see Inclusive design.
- Equitable use.
- Flexibility in use.
- Simple and intuitive
- Perceptible information.
- Tolerance for error.
- Low physical effort.
- Size and space for approach and use.
However, there has been criticism that these are too vague to be applied practically in practice. The problems that occur in the built environment are complex and often interlinked. Isolating one individual element may allow the principles to be used, but when viewed as a larger picture issues beyond the designer's control confound the principles.
See Universal Design for more information.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Access and inclusion in the built environment: policy and guidance.
- Access audit.
- Access consultant.
- Anthropometrics in architectural design.
- Approved Document M.
- BIFM standard Managing Accessibility and Inclusion.
- Built Environment Professional Education BEPE.
- Disability Discrimination Act DDA.
- Disabled access lifts.
- Equality Act.
- Equal opportunities policy.
- Essential principles, Creating an accessible and inclusive environment.
- Facilities management.
- Hazard warning surfaces.
- Inclusive design.
- Lifetime homes.
- Lifetime Homes Design Guide (EP 100).
- Lifetime neighbourhoods.
- People with disabilities.
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