Accessibility of operable windows and balcony doors

Photo courtesy Alliance Glazing Technologies Inc.

by Steve Fronek, PE
To help ensure accessibility of fresh air and a connection with the outdoors for those with physical disabilities, windows capable of meeting operating force and motion requirements of International Code Council/American National Standards Institute (ICC/ANSI) A117.1, Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, are being more commonly specified.

Accessibility is especially important in buildings such as skilled nursing and personal care facilities, classrooms and dormitories, and condominiums, apartments, and hotels. As noted in American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) 513-14, Standard Laboratory Test Method for Determination of Forces and Motions Required to Activate Operable Parts of Operable Windows and Doors in Accessible Spaces:

Accessible window and door units [are] operable window assemblies, including frame, infill, hardware, and all other appurtenances, required by project specifications and/or applicable codes, to be accessible to and usable by people with such physical disabilities as the inability to walk, difficulty walking, reliance on walking aids, blindness and visual impairment, deafness and hearing impairment, in coordination, reaching and manipulation disabilities, lack of stamina, difficulty interpreting and reacting to sensory information, and extremes of physical size.

(The portion in italics comes from ICC/ANSI A117.1.)

The need for accessible windows and doors is significant. According to a 2013 publication from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Prevalence of Disability and Disability Type Among Adults−United States,” more than 22 percent of adults (i.e. 53.3 million people) reported a disability, with ‘mobility’ being the most frequently reported type (13 percent), followed by cognition (10.6 percent), independent living (6.5 percent), vision (4.6 percent), and self-care (3.6 percent). The study also noted a higher prevalence of disability cited by adults living in southern states, and among women compared with men. Prevalence of any disability and disability in mobility were higher among older age groups. (For more, see CDC’s Weekly Mortality and Morbidity Report from July 31, 2015 [64 (29)].) While the current focus for windows and doors is on mobility, it would seem appropriate for fenestration designers to target all types of disabilities in the future.

As a general building design concept, accessibility has its roots in disciplines known throughout the years as barrier-free, universal, or inclusive design; other names have included design-for-all or aging-in-place. For clarity, this article uses the term to refer to any of these design protocols, recognizing some differences in emphasis and design criteria. Various protocols have placed more or less emphasis on the use of operable windows.

Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls features more than 300 high-performance windows ensuring fresh air and connection to the outdoors are made accessible to veterans of all ages and abilities.
Photo © Phil Weston

Understanding the U.S. codes
Operable windows intended for use in accessible spaces are often mistakenly called ADA windows. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law—and not a building code, specification, or test method—it is missing many of the necessary technical requirements for compliance testing. Some of the government agencies that have promulgated regulations to help ensure compliance include:

  • U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) ADA Standards for Accessible Design;
  • U.S. Access Board’s ADA and ABA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG); and
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Fair Housing Act (FHA)—which addresses door clear width and threshold height, but not operable parts of windows.

In addition to U.S. governmental agencies, local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) sometimes adopt accessibility requirements for operable windows, including Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), as well as the New York City Building Code.

Many university housing offices have recognized the need for accessible operating windows in dormitories and other buildings. In particular, the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater is a recognized leader in addressing the special needs of its student population. Its Center for Students with Disabilities calls itself “an active partner in creating an accessible learning community where students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of the educational experience.”

It is not this article’s intention to summarize or interpret building code requirements or enforcement provisions, but to draw attention to important design considerations and cite relevant examples of best practices. Local AHJs should be consulted in determining applicability and in defining detailed requirements for any given structure or space.

While detailed requirements vary, generally all U.S. references cite the aforementioned ICC/ANSI A117.1 publication for window operating forces and motions.

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