Like all legislation and official regulations, the Building Regulations, 1997-2000 and their associated technical guidance can seem off-putting to non-specialists. Don't worry, community-based projects don't have to be able to quote and interpret these documents in detail. You just need to know what your obligations are and be able to draw your architect's and builder's attention to them if necessary. Architects and builders generally refer to the Building Regulations just as "the Regs", so that's the term to use if you want to sound like you are in the know!
The Building Regulations are not just about standards for people with disabilities. Their primary purpose is to provide for the health, safety and welfare of people in and around buildings. They cover all aspects of building construction ventilation, fire safety, the quality of building materials etc.
The Building Regulations apply to
- the construction of new buildings
- extensions and material alterations to existing buildings
- certain changes of use of existing buildings.
They apply only to buildings and the access route to them (e.g. from the car park or the boundary wall of the site to the main entrance) so they do not deal with paths, car parking, playgrounds or other outdoor parts of your site.
It is important to remember that the Building Regulations and their associated technical guidance, like many building codes around the world, do not guarantee the universal right of access. They are minimum standards:
- They specify the least people must do, not the best or the most. Some of the standards are quite skimpy. For example, they assume that wheelchair users have neat, manually-operated chairs, whereas a lot of people have motorised or larger-than average chairs.
- They do not cover all aspects of buildings. They concentrate more on getting into and around buildings and out again, especially in emergencies than they do on detail design or on using what is available within them.
- They do not specify how the design of buildings can assist people who have impairments such as intellectual disabilities and mental health difficulties. They define people with disabilities only as "people who have an impairment of hearing or sight or an impairment which limits their ability to walk or which restricts them to using a wheelchair".
Because of these facts most service providers have to go beyond the Building Regulations to be sure of providing reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.
Even if your premises are subject to the Building Regulations you must still comply with the Equal Status Acts. On the other hand, your building might comply with the Building Regulations but your services might still be in breach of the Equal Status Acts. This is because the Building Regulations are minimum standards relating to building design, while the Equal Status Acts are rights-based, are much broader and work from the notion of universal access.
What the Regulations say
The Building Regulations are divided into a number of sections. The one which refers to access for people with disabilities is Part M. As previously noted, Part M's definition of people with disabilities is narrower than that in the Equal Status Acts, which means that compliance with the Regs is not necessarily the same as the provision of reasonable accommodation.
The aspect of each Part of the Building Regulations which people have to comply with is called the Requirement. It is a very short description of what is required. There are three sections to Part M:
- M1: Access and use Adequate provision shall be made to enable people with disabilities to safely and independently access and use a building.
- M2: Sanitary conveniences If sanitary conveniences are provided in a building adequate provision shall be made for people with disabilities.
- M3: Audience or Spectator facilities If a building contains fixed seating for audience or spectators, adequate provision shall be made for people with disabilities.
Technical Guidance Documents
The Building Regulations are accompanied by Technical Guidance Documents, commonly known as TGDs, which give guidance on how to construct a building so that it complies with the Regulations. If works are carried out in accordance with the TGDs, they are automatically in compliance with the Regulations (but not necessarily with the Equal Status Acts).
When architects and designers talk about "Part M" they are usually referring to the Technical Guidance Document which accompanies the part on accessibility. The TGD which accompanies Part M:
- sets minimum standards for dimensions, such as the width of doorways and the correct placing for grab rails in toilets
- sets minimum standards for the provision of accessible facilities, for example, the number of wheelchair spaces to be provided in an auditorium with fixed seating
- contains drawings and plans which give examples of how to design doorways, steps, corridors, bathrooms etc. so that they comply with the Regs. This doesn't mean that everywhere has to look the same, however. You can use any design you like, so long as it provides access to at least the same standard.
Checking for compliance
If you put up a new building, add an extension or do other works which are covered by the Building Regulations, a Building Control Officer may be sent by the local authority to check that everything complies with the Regs. In some local authority areas this person may also be an Access Officer. In either case, if your building works do not meet the criteria you will have to make alterations.
Want to know more about the Building Regulations?
- Log on to www.environ.ie and, starting with "Building Standards" on the left, follow the links to download Building Regulations 2010 Technical Guidance Document M or buy a print copy from Government Publications Sales Office, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2
- Talk to your local authority's Access Officer
- Visit the NDA Library.