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What does your office look like from a wheelchair?

Warren Rupnarain, accessibility and diversity co-ordinator in Vaughan, a northern suburb of Toronto, rolls up to the lower counters in city council chambers. The 2012 city hall stands out for barrier-free features.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When Avison Young relocates two of its property management branches to a downtown Toronto office high-rise this summer, the commercial real estate services company will make the usual move-in preparations. This year, the to-do list is little longer, with recent revisions to the Ontario building code on accessibility.

The numerous technical revisions that took effect Jan. 1 have generated uncertainty over how they will be interpreted, but the intent of the code change is not seen as onerous.

"Good landlords have been aware of this and have been planning for it," says Craig Tresham, a principal of Avison Young, a national commercial real estate services firm.

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Adds Marlene Farias, vice-president of central region for Triovest Realty Advisors, an investment and property management services firm: "I don't think it is a huge change in that we don't have to spend an enormous amount of capital to upgrade our buildings at this point." She notes that existing properties with no renovations are grandfathered under the revised code.

Though industry spokesmen are supportive of barrier-free buildings, some still express concern over interpretation of the new rules and cite new, but not insurmountable design challenges to rethinking traditional spaces.

"Because it is the law, people are embracing it and going forward and adjusting their projects to suit," says Michael Steele, director of technical standards for Rescon, a residential building construction association. "But there is a need for consistent interpretation of what the requirements are."

Industry officials complain that Ontario provides less advice than in the past on its code, raising the potential for varying interpretations by local municipalities that approve building permits.

In an e-mail, Susan Allen, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association, stated that her association supports the new legislation "and all the regulations and standards that are at various stages of development and implementation." But, she adds, "we also believe that more resources should be invested to educate our sector and help navigate some of the salient and less-understood aspects of the regulation."

The new accessibility rules apply to all new commercial, industrial and multi-residential construction. Existing buildings must comply fully for "extensive renovations," such as revamping an entire floor for a new tenant, with even minor improvements prompting some barrier-free modifications.

"Anything you touch in a renovation must comply with the new rules," warns accessibility design consultant and registered interior designer Lynn McGregor, principal of McGregor Design Group and a government appointee to the province's building code advisory committee.

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When Avison Young moves its 58-person property management group to a 12,500-square-foot office in a 1970s-era building this summer, the company will make several code-related upgrades.

One key change is a new universal washroom for males and females, including someone with a disability accompanied by an attendant. The washroom is larger than a conventional lavatory to allow a six-foot turning radius for wheelchairs. The new regulations also require a push-button door opener at the office front door for ease of access.

Though not required by law, the company is buying tables and desks with adjustable heights.

"It is the right thing to do," says Steve Ichelson, vice-president of operations for Avison Young. Like others, he sees uncertainty and confusion among tenants and building owners over the updated code.

"It is very early days and we are still in the education process," he says.

For developers and architects of residential high-rises, the code poses some design challenges.

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At least 15 per cent (up from 10 per cent previously) of suites now must provide a barrier-free path between the entrance to the suite and its rooms, with wider doors, foyer and a more spacious bathroom to accommodate wheelchair turns.

Also, accessible suites now must be scattered through the building in proportion to all units. If half of the building is sold as two bedrooms, half of the accessible suites must be of that unit type, too.

Since the design of accessible units varies from the standard layout, plumbing, heating and other fixtures may have to be relocated, with the potential to cut into the ceiling height of the unit below.

"You have to be really careful about the placement of these units," says Carlos Antunes, a partner at Kirkor Architects, which designs mixed-used and condominium projects for Tridel Corp. As well, mid-rise buildings have less flexibility than taller buildings on the location of accessible units. "It's not impossible," adds Mr. Antunes, who supports the code's intent. "It's just another challenge to be aware of, when designing buildings, to make it work."

Tridel vice-president of project management Bruno Giancola says accessibility design issues arise especially for small units. But he sees the new code as "a good thing to do," enabling those with or without a disability to age in place.

Given the learning curve, tenants and landlords are turning to accessibility design consultants to navigate the fine print.

In response, McGregor Design Group introduced an accessibility audit service for clients to identify barrier-free upgrades for new or existing buildings.

Ms. McGregor acknowledges some "pushback" from companies over compliance costs, but urges landlords to see the changes as "an opportunity to distinguish themselves" in a competitive market for tenants.

"My suggestion to the real estate world is to be pro-active," she adds. "Rather than Band-Aid their facilities to comply at the moment, they should think progressively and look at things from a more creative stand so they can comply with a look to the future."

She anticipates additional accessibility updates over time.

Meanwhile, accessibility advocates point out that the new rules benefit all, not some, users.

"A ramp or a door-opener doesn't just benefit a person in a wheelchair; it benefits a parent with a baby stroller or an elderly person," says Warren Rupnarain, accessibility and diversity co-ordinator with the city of Vaughan, Ont., whose 2012 city hall stands out for barrier-free features.

"We look at accessibility from a universal benefit perspective," he says.

Five facts on Ontario's new accessibility rules

1. What is the legislation?

In 2005, Ontario adopted the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act to ensure a fully accessible province by 2025, with barrier-free standards covering a range of issues in the built environment.

2. Who is affected by the Ontario Building Code changes that took effect Jan. 1?

All new construction (office, industrial and multi-residential). Existing buildings that undergo "extensive renovations," such as remodelling an entire floor or with installation of new walls or floors, with even minor renovations requiring some accessibility upgrades.

3. Who is exempt?

Private homes less than 3,000 square feet and existing commercial buildings untouched by renovation.

4. What are key provisions?

– New buildings must provide universal washrooms for men or women, with the lavatory larger than traditional facilities to serve someone in a wheelchair with an assistant; texture strips near ramps, stairs and other elevation changes; wider doors and corridors for easier wheelchair access; and automatic door openers.

– Multi-residential buildings must equip at least 15 per cent (up from 10 per cent) of suites with accessibility features.

– Existing buildings with any modification of tenant space must comply, though the degree of adjustment varies with the scale of the renovation. For example, a three-storey office with a front entrance ramp (and no elevator) must fully comply with the new rules, including for those individuals in a wheelchair, on the ground floor. But the upper two floors, not wheelchair accessible, must only include modifications for those, say, with sight or hearing disabilities.

5. How does Ontario compare to other jurisdictions?

Manitoba and British Columbia have followed Ontario's lead, with Quebec seen as lagging other provinces, according to Lynn McGregor, principal of McGregor Design Group. She suggests Japan is an international leader in way-finding for the visually impaired, but notes that other countries typically have less stringent rules on accessibility than Canada.

Sources: Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing; McGregor Design Group

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