Compliance vs. Good design

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03 December 2021

Being compliant doesn’t necessary equate to good design. While most working in the accessibility field will know the term ‘DDA’ (or Disability Discrimination Act), many project manager, architects, builders and other construction professionals will use the term without understanding its full meaning.

In our latest blog, MGAC Access Consultant Richard Scott takes a closer look at what it means to be compliant

What is the difference between the DDA and BCA?

The first thing to understand is the distinction between the different accessibility standards. Perhaps most fundamentally, it’s vital to understand that the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and the Building Code of Australia (BCA) are not one and the same. While elements of both interact at many junctures, they cover different elements of the building and compliance process.

For one thing, the DDA is a federal requirement and operatives above the BCA. In fact, most of the time when a BCA non-compliance instance to be addressed, the DDA may be referenced to take precedent over the BCA outcome. While this seems logical, it also comes with a number of potential issue. 

The most significant problem with this reliance on the DDA is that it’s not regulated by any single authority during the building design phase. For example, there is no single authority ensuring builders, project managers, and developers design and construct building according to a DDA compliance certification.

In some instances, councils might ask for a universal design review. In other circumstances, some private enterprises may be aware of the need to meet accessibility requirements and will initiate their own engagement for a DDA review. However, a majority of time, it’s left up to the access consultant to introduce, educate, and literally ‘sell’ to the client why they need to consider a DDA review of a job. At MGAC, we always do our best to always provide DDA advice, even on jobs we might not be engaged to do so on.

In comparison to the DDA, the BCA can be seen as largely a tick the box exercise. Everything is quantified, provided in examples, and either ‘complies’ or ‘doesn’t’. The BCA framework doesn’t apply in every situation. For one thing, the BCA would be too large and extensive if it’s purpose was to cover the permutations of every type of development in size, combination of use, site fall, and state it’s based in. 

Essentially, the BCA provides the general framework and minimums for the industry to follow. But really, it should be built on top of from there. Developers, builders, architects, and project managers instead are also seemingly always designing to these minimums instead of taking the basic framework as good enough. 

Why is it important to be accessibility compliant?

We work with clients on a daily basis who think that because there has been no issue without an official DDA review, there won’t be one in the future. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this thinking lead to a series of regrettable events.

For those who choose to continue work without a DDA, the risks are numerous. In essence, operating without a DDA leaves many in the industry at the mercy of users not flagging an issue or compliant with the human rights commission – a situation that anyone in the industry would prefer to avoid.

The need to pay heed to these risks and underlying accessibility needs is growing. New disabilities are being introduced and we’re all living longer. This means that the millions of Australians who are already in need of accessible housing is only set to continue to rise.

People know their rights and the power of information sharing tools, such as social media, means that documentation of a situation or circumstance that has left an accessible user with a hardship is easier than ever. In short, it’s important to be accessibility compliant because it’s not only risky not to be, but it’s also the right thing to do.

How do the DDA and BCA accessibility standards work together?

My opinion is that all projects should provide a DDA review. As previously mentioned, the DDA isn’t a choice – it’s a federal requirement. The fact that these reviews aren’t conducted across every project is perplexing for many of us who work as access consultants. Similarly, the BCA should be more than a tick the box exercise that aims to just meet a minimal standard.

For context, I’ve outlined an example of BCA compliance, but a DDA human rights commission compliant that would hold up.  

Convention Centre

In a convention centre (Class 9b), the BCA under Section F2.4(a), only requires an accessible bathroom at 50% of the standard bathroom banks per level. The convention centre is large and made up of ballrooms, lecture halls, and other mixed uses. There are 2x bathroom banks for the convention centre in each wing. The BCA asks that 1x of these banks provides and accessible bathroom – and by extension – ambulant bathrooms. 

The lecture/event that the accessible user is attending is in Hall 1. The accessible user needs to use the bathroom and finds the wayfinding at Toilet Bank 1 indicating that Toilet Bank 2 has the accessible bathroom and ambulant facilities. They now need to the travel over 50 metres to the Toilet Bank 2, undertake the pan transfer (which might not suit them due to the nature of their impairment), and then return another +50m to Hall 1. In comparison, a non-physically impaired user travels ten metres to the bathroom and returns to the lecture an average of 30 minutes faster than the accessible user.

Due to the nature of the design, the accessible user has:

  • Incurred significant hardship for the distance travelled compared to the standard user who went to Toilet Bank 1.  
  • More than likely missed all or at least part of a lecture they may have paid for due the time it took them to use the facilities. 
  • Potentially had an accident in the bathroom while rushing or being fatigued from travelling such a significant distance.
  • Encountered other obstacles due to the nature of their impairment and the not ‘fit-for-purpose’ facility, forcing them to find an accessible bathroom on another floor or another venue.

Astoundingly, this design would be compliant with the BCA. The accessible bathroom is provided at 50% of the toilet banks, meeting the BCA requirement. The building certifier would provide the venue with an occupation certificate. Now if there’s a claim in the future, the venue would not be liable. Further to this, the human rights commission complaint falls on the owner. 

A few key questions remain, especially for those of us who are access consultants. For example: ‘Should the BCA consider quantifying a distance between accessible bathrooms to eliminate this issue/example?’. In my opinion, yes it should. But in reality, this example is simply one of many where BCA compliance tries to comply with a DDA example. In some cases, such as a recent example on the Sunshine Coast, the cost of misalignment between the two codes can run into the million of dollars.

Preventing this type of confusion all the time isn’t always possible. However, as with this example, a DDA report could have be done to introduce some all important elements to the building and construction process. Namely, opportunity, equity and equality – all the things we strive to uphold in the work we do at MGAC.



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