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Imperfections and interpretations

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18 June 2021

Access consultants primarily use two legal documents to assess whether or not a building or space complies with the requirements for people with a disability: the NCC (or Building Code of Australia) and the Australian Standard AS1428 suite of documents.

Imperfections and Interpretations

Access consultants primarily use two legal documents to assess whether or not a building or space complies with the requirements for people with a disability: the NCC (or Building Code of Australia) and the Australian Standard AS1428 suite of documents.

Senior Access Consultant Peter Bedford takes a closer look at these two documents, and provides an inside look into how we apply them in practice at MGAC.

Making sense of the legal guidelines

As access consultants, it's our role to identify potential accessibility issues and provide expert advice to ensure our clients are able to meet their legal obligations. To do this effectively, we need to be well-versed in the legal requirements that help to inform and guide our decisions and advice.

The Building Code of Australia (BCA) is a set of mandatory technical provisions that apply to the design and construction of buildings around Australia. The BCA forms part of the NCC, along with the Plumbing Code of Australia. Being a performance-based code, compliance with the BCA means a building solution will either satisfy the provision or require an alternative solution.

Accompanying the BCA, the AS1428 Suite of Standards are technical documents that provide guidance on aspects of physical accessibility relevant to design outcomes. Typically, these standards are written by expert committees and endorsed by governments as binding legal requirements for all those in the industry.

It is generally acknowledged amongst access consultants and building surveyors (PCAs) that both the NCC and the AS1428 Suite of Standards are difficult documents to interpret. In particular, the AS1428 suite of Standards contains many ambiguities and imperfect prescriptions when it comes to compliance. This ambiguity can be attributed to a few key reasons. For one, the Standards are under continuous review, meaning they have to be updated regularly in order to keep up with changes in technology, policy and community expectations.

Needless to say, these complexities can cause confusion for building designers and project managers, as well as for access consultants. This sense of confusion can also be frustrating for clients, especially if they receive differing advice of how to proceed with a design or build depending on an individual consultant’s interpretation of the ever-shifting rules.

Cutting through the ambiguity

At MGAC, we have ample first-hand dealing with the ambiguities and shifting nature of the legal guidelines around accessibility. To overcome this, we have a number of staff processes and procedures in place. For example, we conduct weekly in-house meetings to discuss, amongst other things, some of the many imperfections and ambiguities contained within both the BCA and AS1428 suite of Standards. We work together as a team to form an interpretation that all our consultants can implement in their review of projects. Being able to apply a complete solution as one united voice is an important part of our process.

This blog may be updated in the future with more of our interpretations. For now,I wanted to focus on just one imperfection and our interpretation: the edge treatment to walkways (Clause 10.2 of AS1428.1-2009.

Interpretation: edge treatment to walkways

The prescriptive compliance states, “The floor or ground surface abutting the sides of a walkway shall provide a firm and level surface of a different material to that of the walkway at the same level of the walkway, follow the grade of the walkway and extend horizontally for a minimum of 600mm unless a kerb or a kerb rail and handrail or a minimum 450mm high wall is provided.”

The imperfection in this clause is the use of the phrase “firm and level”. A key question our consultants might ask would be “Is soil , sand, loose gravel, mulch considered firm and level?”

According to our interpretation, MGAC would not consider any of the previous materials to be “firm and level”. Our reasoning for this would be as follows: a person using a wheelchair or other mobility aid would not have a secure surface on which to manouevre if that person strayed off the walkway. In this case, MGAC would consider brick-on-edge paving, coloured concrete, compacted mulch, compacted gravel or turf as being firm and level.

While this is our interpretation, it won’t be the same across the board with every access consultant. In fact, MGAC hears from architects, landscape architects and project managers of interpretations by other access consultants that some loose materials have been approved for use on their projects in the past.

At MGAC, we interpret any imperfection or ambiguity contained within the Standards or NCC in a way which we feel benefits those people with a disability. It is our aim to prevent as much risk as possible to end users. We look forward to sharing more insights into our interpretations in future blogs and updates to this example as well.

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