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Will your revamped office be as accessible as it should be?

Often overlooked areas of Part M when refurbing an office

When carrying out refurbishment, fit-out work and internal alterations to an office, there are many building control considerations. One area that often doesn’t get enough attention is Part M, which   ensures that people are able to access and use buildings and their facilities.

Ben Cheeseman – Commercial Director at Harwood Building Control – explains what Approved Document M relates to, highlights some of the areas that often get overlooked and the implications of this.

What is Approved Document M?

Approved Document M provides information about the ease of access to – and use of – buildings, including facilities for disabled visitors or occupants, and the ability to move through a building easily.

For new residential properties, there are three different levels of guidance contained in volume 1 of Approved Document M. For commercial properties, such as offices, you should refer to Volume II, which covers any buildings that aren’t dwellings.

Something to be mindful of is that some buildings, such as student accommodation, may be similar in nature to domestic premises but may also require consideration for users other than residents. It depends on how the building is configured.  In some instances, commercial properties – such as holiday lets – may also be better served by volume 1 of the guidance.

Part M considers the requirements of the building regulations. However, it is important that designers and contractors also consider a building’s users under the provisions of the Equality Act, to ensure that all persons can use the building and its facilities without discrimination.

What are the key considerations within Part M when refurbing an office?

Part M, in terms of commercial buildings such as offices, focuses on accessibility and access to services.  If you’re extending an existing building, the regulations apply to the extension and to any access points required to reach the new extension, but not other areas of the existing building itself.  If you’re just refurbishing, the requirement is that you don’t reduce accessibility.  For example, if you’re refurbing a two-storey building without a lift and you’re not altering the building’s footprint, there is no obligation to install a new lift, although this would always be recommended if it can be accommodated.

Traditionally, if an existing building cannot be adjusted to allow someone physical access, an Access Statement is provided, which may say that a service or facility can be arranged in a different capacity.  For example, if a wheelchair user accepted a job in a two-storey building that wasn’t equipped with a lift, all the equipment required to carry out the role could be moved to a ground floor location to allow access.

When refurbishing offices, the typical accessibility considerations for wheelchair users tend to encompass reception areas with lowered desks and additional knee space, accessible toilets, kitchen and tea points with lowered or adjustable worktops and parking. But, it’s important to note that those making decisions about the building and it’s accessibility may not consider solutions from a perspective of experience.

We advise clients to consult a local access group or a qualified Access Auditor during the building process to ensure a best practice approach is followed. When this approach isn’t taken, there are some areas which could be overlooked in error.

Which areas get overlooked?

How wheelchair users can safely exit a building in the event of a fire often requires greater consideration. With lifts out of action, the standard approach is for the wheelchair user to wait somewhere away from immediate danger for assisted evacuation by the building management, often involving transfer to an evacuation chair. This is not the most efficient process so there needs to be a strategy in place to keep fires out of areas of the building.

There are also considerations related to door and corridor width. If entrance turnstiles or other access control security measures are in place, there needs to be a bypass facility for wheelchair and guide dog users, to allow rapid and unobstructed egress.

In areas where individuals may be required to wait outside before being granted access, for example using an intercom system, there should be a recess entrance or a canopy, so people waiting to gain access to the building are shielded from any adverse weather conditions.

For a person with sight loss, there are other considerations which can sometimes be overlooked, including colour contrast. Doorhandles should contrast doors; doors should contrast the frames; the frames should contrast the colour of the wall.  These easy to implement adjustments allow people with impaired vision to identify where doors are located.

Part M doesn’t offer much detail around accessibility for people with hearing loss beyond the consideration of induction loops at reception areas and in meeting rooms. This has a direct impact on fire safety.  If there’s a part of the building in which an individual with hearing loss may be on their own, considerations must be made as to how this individual can be informed of a fire in the building.  A flashing beacon is one option. The general assumption is that beacons will only be needed in the accessible WC, but there should be greater consideration for any space an individual may be on their own, which will often extend beyond an accessible toilet.

The materials used during construction, particularly when it comes to doorhandles, should also be taken into consideration.  Doorhandles should be made of a material that isn’t cold to touch, as some individuals may have an adverse reaction when touching things that are particularly cold.  The aesthetically popular chrome, steel and polished metal doorhandles and rails can be problematic when it comes to temperature.

What are the implications of overlooking these things?

It’s important to note that there’s a large overlap between Part M in building regulations and the Occupiers’ and Employers’ Responsibilities under the Equality Act.

Theoretically, if buildings aren’t compliant, the usual penalties under the building regulations should be issued. The guidance in the Approved Documents does not necessarily need to be followed, and this guidance will not necessarily meet the needs of all potential users of the building. Unfortunately, with the exception of means of escape in case of fire, accessibility is rarely life critical, so Part M may not be as well understood or treated as seriously as other areas of the building regulations. The building owner and occupier are more likely to face claims under the Equality Act in terms of discrimination.

From a building developers’ perspective, if the guidance under Part M is followed to the letter, they will be protected to a certain extent under the Equality Act.  For example, the vast majority of developers follow the guidance on accessible toilets so closely that this is now referred to as a ‘Doc M Pack’ in the industry.

When working with clients looking to refurbish a commercial building, Harwood strives for full compliance with the building regulations, including Part M.

If you’re thinking about refurbishing your building and would like some further guidance on ensuring best practice accessibility for all, get in touch today on +44 (0)1227 931 777 or email enquires@harwood.uk.com.

 

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