Maximum Mobility and Function

July 1, 2003
Tips for accessibility planning in school labs.

In designing new or renovating existing laboratory spaces for education institutions, planners concerned about meeting the needs of disabled students focus primarily on those in wheelchairs. Elements that must be compliant include counter heights, sinks, fume hoods, doors, and emergency eyewash and shower areas.

The requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide the basis for these design decisions. For teaching labs in public secondary schools, ADA guidelines are mandatory. At the university level, the ADA allows for “reasonable accommodation” of disabled students. This gives schools more latitude in the degree to which a lab is designed to accommodate those with disabilities. How well a lab succeeds is determined by university policy and local reviewing agencies.

For a lab building overall, all public spaces must conform to ADA requirements. These areas include all egress corridors, teaching spaces, restrooms and breakrooms. To design a lab that accommodates those with disabilities, planners must review several items carefully.

The greatest concern is to eliminate the barriers for students in wheelchairs using the lab. But other considerations also are involved. For example, schools can address safety concerns for hearing-impaired students by providing a strobe light in the lab that will activate in case of fire or other emergency, along with an audible alarm.

Counter height

For students in wheelchairs, schools should design the physical space for maximum mobility and function. Casework counters need to allow knee space underneath. To comply with the ADA, the maximum height of the counter must be 34 inches. Planners can specify adjustable casework that raises or lowers to the appropriate height, or fixed countertops lower than the typical 36-inch height casework, with the appropriate knee space — at least 27 inches wide. The lowered, fixed counter heights must provide a reasonable amount of space for those who require it.

Sinks and equipment

To allow for the necessary knee space at sink areas, ADA-compliant sinks with their drainpipes closer to the back wall are strongly recommended. The normal counter depth of 30 inches is sufficient. Schools need to allow enough space for a student in a wheelchair to fit under the counter and avoid coming into contact with the drain underneath. Insulating or screening the drainpipe is required to avoid potential contact with a hot pipe.

For an addition at the University of North Carolina's School of Pharmacy, one ADA-compliant sink and sufficient counter space was provided in each of nine main labs. In the building's several smaller, specialty research labs, spaces were designed for specific users, so the school took the approach of providing reasonable accommodation when requested by a researcher with disabilities.

To support the various pieces of lab equipment that a student in a wheelchair may need to use, the best solution is adjustable casework that raises or lowers for convenience. Low tables or carts also may supplement the countertop areas to provide additional space for equipment.

The University of Virginia's Biomedical Engineering and Medical Science Building does not provide disabled students with fixed sinks because every lab has adjustable-height cabinetry. For a student in a wheelchair, movable ADA-compliant workstations were designed for use as needed. The 30-inch-deep by 60-inch-wide counters are on wheels, and include a small sink and fixtures for gases and electrical outlets. A half dozen such workstations can be brought out of storage as needed and connected to the labs' utility systems. The countertop is adjustable from 30 to 37 inches in height and contains a small base cabinet, providing a complete workstation. This ADA-compliant item, which was a custom-ordered product, is now being manufactured by a number of producers because of high demand.

Fume hoods

Schools commonly use three approaches when selecting fume hoods for the disabled. The first is to designate a percentage of all fume hoods that will be ADA-compliant. An ADA-compliant fume hood has a lower sill that has been configured especially for persons in wheelchairs, and the underside has been left open to allow for the necessary knee space.

Many universities hesitate to use this approach, however, because the lower space at the base of the fume hood often is equipped with storage cabinets for chemicals and solvents that can be vented through the hood. If schools choose hoods with lower sills, additional vented storage space may be needed in another area of the lab to make up for the lost storage space.

Another option is an adjustable fume hood that can be raised or lowered to the appropriate height. However, the exhaust connections must be flexible. Also, these hoods have a greater potential for breaking down over time.

A third approach is a walk-in fume hood with a sash to the floor (instead of to the countertop), allowing for adjustable tables to be moved inside the hood. The precaution with this and the other selections is to make certain the correct type of fume hood is specified to work in coordination with the lab's overall exhaust system. The designer needs to work closely with the HVAC engineer in making the final hood decision.

Doors and entries

Laboratory doors typically are designed with sufficient width for wheelchair egress. The minimum width is 3 feet, 6 inches to allow for movement of lab equipment. Often, a split door of 3 feet, with a 1-foot inactive leaf, will allow for additional space when moving large equipment, but is more easily used by researchers in wheelchairs.

One potential difficulty with doors for those with disabilities is that they might be difficult or impossible to open because of pressurization. For laboratory safety, doors should swing out for optimum safety during an emergency. This can increase the pressure difference. As labs are negatively pressurized to the corridors to prevent odors and potential chemicals from escaping, the pressure relationship can make them harder to open. Doors are required to have an opening force of no more than 5 pounds of pressure. The best solution may be to provide a power-assisted opener to provide reasonable accommodation for the disabled.

In fire-rated egress corridors, labs are fitted with automatic door closers. The closers must be provided with an adjusted hold-open device to permit a person to open the door and have sufficient time to move through in a wheelchair before the door is closed.

Safety concerns

When adjustable counters or ADA workstations are selected, schools must provide an emergency eyewash station for those with disabilities. Typically the eyewash is at the sink. If a lowered, fixed sink with eyewash is not available, then a freestanding eyewash, sometimes in conjunction with an emergency shower, must be provided. A good idea is to provide an ADA-compliant safety station with eyewash within the laboratory.

Similar considerations need to be made for emergency showers, which often are ceiling-mounted. A handle extension will make the shower operable by a person in a wheelchair. A low handle can present an obstruction, especially if the emergency shower is in a hallway, so consideration should be given to placing the shower in an alcove, out of the traffic flow.

Supported by the ADA-mandated requirements for accessibility in the building as a whole, these considerations can make a university lab highly usable and productive for all students.

Smyser, AIA, ACHA, is project manager/vice president for HDR Architecture, Alexandria, Va.

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