How to ensure accessibility in multi-story residential buildings?

February 10, 2024

One of the key considerations when designing or renovating a multi-story residential building is ensuring its accessibility for all residents. Accessibility here refers to the ability for people of all abilities, including those with mobility impairments, to safely and comfortably navigate and utilize the building’s spaces. This might mean providing a wheelchair-accessible route to all accessible dwelling units, public use areas, and amenities. It’s not only a matter of human rights and dignity, but it is often a legal requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or other fair housing laws. In this article, we will discuss how to ensure that multi-story residential buildings are ADA-compliant and accessible to all.

Understanding ADA Accessibility Requirements

The ADA sets the standard for accessible design. These standards apply to all places of public accommodation and commercial facilities. These standards cover a wide range of issues, from the width of doorways and corridors to the placement of light switches and fire alarms.

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In the case of multi-story residential buildings, the ADA includes specific requirements for accessible routes, dwelling units, facilities, and other features. These standards are crucial in ensuring that individuals with disabilities can access and use these buildings without undue hardship.

An accessible route is the continuous, unobstructed path connecting all accessible elements and spaces of a building or facility. In a multi-story building, an accessible route must connect all floors. This usually means that the building must have an elevator or a ramp that can accommodate wheelchairs.

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Building Design and ADA Compliance

Building design plays a significant role in ensuring accessibility. Designing with accessibility in mind from the start can save a lot of time, money, and frustration down the line.

For multi-story buildings, the design should include at least one accessible route from the covered parking area or public sidewalk to the building. The path should be wide enough for a wheelchair, and the surface should be smooth and level.

Inside the building, the design should consider the needs of individuals using wheelchairs or other mobility aids. This often means installing ramps or lifts where there are changes in floor level, providing spacious and appropriately located wheelchair turning spaces, and ensuring that all doorways are wide enough for wheelchair passage.

Dwelling units should also be designed or adapted to be wheelchair-accessible. This includes having doors that are wide enough for a wheelchair, kitchens, and bathrooms that can be used by someone in a wheelchair, and controls and switches that can be reached from a wheelchair.

Navigating the Public Housing Accessibility Requirements

Public housing developments are legally required to adhere to strict accessibility standards set out by the ADA and Fair Housing Act. These requirements aim to ensure that public housing units are accessible to people with disabilities.

In public housing, five percent of the dwelling units, or at least one unit (whichever is greater), must be accessible for people with mobility disabilities. An additional two percent must be accessible for people with visual or hearing disabilities.

In addition, all public and common use areas must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. All ground-floor units in buildings without elevators must also be fully accessible.

Ensuring Accessibility in Existing Buildings

In many cases, multi-story residential buildings were constructed before the accessibility requirements of the ADA were put into effect. For these buildings, significant modifications may be required to ensure they are compliant.

The first step in this process is conducting an accessibility audit. This involves assessing all areas of the building and identifying any areas where accessibility could be improved.

Once the audit has been completed, the building owner or manager can begin planning the necessary modifications. This may involve installing ramps or elevators, widening doorways, adjusting the height of light switches and other controls, and making bathrooms wheelchair-accessible.

Accessible Facilities and Amenities

Facilities and amenities in a multi-story residential building also need to be accessible. This includes laundry rooms, mailrooms, recreational areas, and any other shared spaces.

An accessible laundry facility, for example, would have front-loading washers and dryers, and space for a wheelchair to approach and maneuver. Similarly, an accessible mailroom would have mailboxes at a height that can be reached from a wheelchair.

The ADA also requires that any amenities, such as swimming pools or fitness centers, be accessible. This might mean having a lift for the swimming pool, or exercise equipment that can be used from a wheelchair.

In short, ensuring accessibility in multi-story residential buildings is a comprehensive task that requires careful planning and implementation. But, by meeting the requirements of the ADA and other fair housing laws, building owners and managers can ensure that their buildings are open and welcoming to all.

Addressing Accessibility in Work Areas and Common Spaces

Work areas, such as offices or communal kitchens in residential buildings, should also be designed to ensure accessibility. These areas are considered primary function areas and under the ADA standards, any alteration to these spaces must be made accessible to the maximum extent feasible.

For example, a communal kitchen should have work surfaces and appliances set at a height that can be reached by someone in a wheelchair. There should also be enough space for a wheelchair to move around easily. Cabinets and other storage areas should be within reach, or there should be a solution available such as pull-down shelving.

Common areas such as lounges, game rooms, or rooftops must also comply with the accessibility guidelines. For instance, doorways should be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and any furniture should be arranged to provide clear pathways. The flooring should be smooth and even to prevent tripping hazards, and any amenities such as TVs or games should be within reach or operable through a remote control.

In terms of the path of travel, it is crucial to ensure that residents can move freely from their dwelling units to these common areas or work zones without encountering barriers. Any changes in level should be equipped with ramps or lifts, and the accessible route required must be clearly signposted.

Compliance with Local Government and Design Manual Rules

While the ADA provides a robust framework for accessibility, it’s also crucial to comply with any additional requirements set by the local government. Different jurisdictions may have specific rules or guidelines regarding accessibility in residential buildings.

For example, some cities or states may require a higher percentage of dwelling units to be wheelchair-accessible, or they may have additional requirements for amenities such as swimming pools or fitness centers.

Therefore, it is advisable to consult the local government’s housing design manual or building code to understand these requirements. Consulting with a local ADA coordinator or accessibility expert can also be very beneficial in this regard.

These professionals can provide guidance on meeting the local requirements, suggest effective solutions for challenging design issues, and help review the plans to ensure they meet all accessibility standards.


Ensuring accessibility in multi-story residential buildings involves a comprehensive understanding of ADA standards, local laws, and practical design considerations. From creating an accessible route from the building’s entrance to all dwelling units, facilities, and amenities, to making the necessary modifications in existing buildings, it requires careful planning and thoughtful implementation.

It is not just about compliance with the law; it is about creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all residents. By integrating accessibility features such as wheelchair-accessible units, mobility features in common areas, and ensuring a safe path of travel throughout the building, residential dwellings can truly become a home for everyone, regardless of their physical abilities.

Finally, always remember that accessibility is an ongoing commitment. As new technologies emerge and our understanding of accessibility needs evolves, it is important to continually review and update the building’s accessibility features to ensure they meet the highest standards of inclusivity and comfort.