Edited By Rachel Z. Azoff

Meeting the accessible design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act can be easier said than done. Unfortunately, many developers don't realize they are in noncompliance until they receive a complaint or-even worse-news of a lawsuit.

"Understanding and implementing the requirements of the FHA, from design through construction, is critical to protect yourself," says Douglas J. Anderson, a partner with Chicago-based LCM Architects. "Accessibility is often measured in inches-and sometimes to a quarter of an inch. Careful attention to detail can mean the difference between FHA compliance and an FHA lawsuit."

Here, Anderson offers his list of 10 areas of common misconception when it comes to FHA design and construction.

1. State and Local Code Compliance

Many designers or owners assume that if they are in compliance with state and/or local codes, they automatically meet or exceed HUD's fair housing requirements. In general, most state or local codes do not meet or exceed HUD's interpretation of the FHA requirements in all areas, and the issuance of a permit or certificate of occupancy for state or local codes provides no assurance that the development meets the FHA requirements.

2. FHA Covered Units

For a typical site, the law applies to all ground-floor units in multifamily walk-up buildings with four or more units and all units in multifamily elevator buildings with four or more units, regardless of whether the developments are privately held or government-owned. Rental units, condos, student housing, and timeshare units all share the same requirements. The only multifamily units that are generally not covered by the FHA are multi-level townhomes.

3. Accessible Exterior Routes

Attention is often focused on the dwellings, and access to the common areas is overlooked. At least one accessible exterior route is required to link accessible pedestrian and vehicular site arrival points with all covered dwelling units. An accessible route must also connect all covered dwellings to amenities and recreation areas.

4. Accessible Parking and Accessible Route Cross Slopes

Cross slopes for accessible routes and the slope of accessible parking spaces and access aisles also tend to be overlooked. The cross slope for accessible routes and accessible parking spaces and access aisles is limited to a maximum of 2 percent. Achieving this standard will require careful site planning, explicit direction in the drawings, and controls throughout the construction process.

5. Curb Ramps

While building a curb ramp is not difficult, building a compliant curb ramp requires detailed drawings and close attention during construction. The typical curb ramp detail provided in construction documents does not always provide sufficient direction to contractors.

6. Clear Floor Space in Kitchens

The Fair Housing Design Manual issued by HUD indicates that the clear floor space at all appliances and sinks is required to be centered. This can have a big impact on kitchen layout as meeting this requirement will not allow designers to locate the appliances or sink in a corner area.

7. Centered Clear Floor Space in Lavatories

If a vanity cabinet is not removable, the centerline of the bowl will need to be a minimum of 24 inches from an adjacent fixture or wall that projects beyond the front of the cabinet. Meeting this requirement can be a challenge in smaller bathrooms.

8. Outlets, Switches, and Thermostat Heights

The maximum height of the operable part of outlets, switches, and thermostat controls is 48 inches above finished floor (AFF) unless the device is located over an obstruction, such as a kitchen cabinet. The maximum height for these items when located over an obstruction is 46 inches AFF. Many times, horizontal placement of outlets and switches over cabinets is not properly addressed. The minimum height for outlets is 15 inches AFF. As the electrician will be installing the boxes for these items prior to the installation of the finished floor, it is important to consider what the final finished floor level will be when locating floor outlets. Installing these items 2 inches to 3 inches below the maximum and above the minimum is a smart way to avoid future problems.

9. Sliding Glass Door Interior Thresholds

The maximum dimension allowed by the FHA from the finished floor to the top of a sliding glass door threshold is three-quarters of an inch, and the transition must be beveled no greater than 1:2. If the sliding glass door frame is set on top of the finished floor, this requirement usually cannot be met.

10. Grab Bar Blocking

Don't forget to provide blocking in the walls for grab bars at toilets, bathtubs, and showers. This is relatively inexpensive to install during construction but can be very difficult and expensive to retrofit.