Church Construction and the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The ADA was created, in part, to ensure that a person in a wheelchair is able to move from their car into a building, and access all public areas of the building without assistance. Most churches constructed prior to 1990 did not meet the design requirements of the ADA. Virtually every church, therefore, will need to consider the ADA when renovating existing facilities or building a new church.

Churches are finding that when they plan a building addition or renovation, local authorities will require the church to upgrade most, if not all, of their existing facilities to the ADA codes. Let’s look at an overview of some ADA requirements.

All required emergency exits must be wheelchair accessible with sidewalks out to the parking areas. Doors must be at least 3′ wide with lever handles or panic bars. Any changes in elevation must be made by means of ramps of specific design or approved elevators. About 2% of the parking spaces should be 8′ wide with 5′ access lanes between spaces. Reserved space must be provided in the sanctuary for wheelchairs equal to two percent of the total seating. Restrooms must have a 5′ x 5′ stall with out-swinging door, grab bars, handicap toilet and sink.

Some of the ADA is subject to local interpretation. Some states interpret public areas to include the platform and baptistery areas. In some states, all restrooms must meet ADA codes, including those in nurseries or classrooms. Some states require fire alarms to be visible as well as audible.

Some jurisdictions are requiring ramps or lifts to the platform, choir and baptismal areas from inside the building. Access to a raised platform from an outside entrance may not be approved in some areas. The maximum slope of ramps is 1″ in 12″ with a rest landing every 30 feet. A platform 36 inches high would require a 39′ long ramp. The ramp should also have a handrail. An elevator is usually required for access to upper floors and basements; with a possible exception for a second-floor that contains only balcony seating.

Every restroom should have at least one handicap accessible toilet and sink. The restroom should have a 5′ diameter clear area for turning a wheelchair. All doors should be at least 36″ wide and corridors should be at least 5′ wide, with 16″ of wall area adjacent to the door handle. A sanctuary seating 500 should have six designated areas for wheelchairs plus one additional wheelchair space for each additional 100 seats.

Any church will benefit by making their building more accessible to the elderly and disabled. Remember, however, any renovation work involving the structural, electrical or mechanical systems of your church will probably require a building permit.