The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1991 has had a profound influence on the process of designing and marketing commercial and institutional plumbing fixtures. This is not to say that manufacturers weren't concerned with barrier-free design prior to enactment of ADA, because many certainly were. Rather, it's that pre-ADA barrier-free design did not receive the priority it does today, due in large part to the absence of a unifying, national standard that more clearly defined specific accessibility criteria and that was enforceable on a national level.

Prior to ADA, commercial plumbing fixture manufacturers designed barrier-free toilets, urinals, washbasins, washfountains, drinking fountains, showers and other products to comply primarily with ANSI accessibility standards. ANSI A117.1 was the national accessibility standard for commercial plumbing products. But even though it would eventually become the model for ADA, ANSI A117.1 remained a guideline, not a national law. As such, ANSI barrier-free guidelines were sometimes questioned when conflicting state or local barrier-free codes came into play. This often put manufacturers and local building code inspectors at odds, despite the best intentions of both.

When ADA became the law of the land, barrier-free product design for public, commercial and institutional washrooms suddenly became not only the right thing to do, it became good business. Despite fear by some manufacturers that passage of ADA would antiquate large portions of their product catalogs and render existing tooling obsolete, ADA was regarded by others as an opportunity to increase market share by taking a leadership role in providing newly designed ADA-compliant washroom plumbing products. What's more, most of these products would not be separate, handicap-only fixtures; they would be designed for use by everyone. And as architects, engineers and other product specifiers began to look to manufacturers to provide a comprehensive offering of ADA-compliant washroom plumbing products, barrier-free accessibility became a fundamental ingredient of product design.

The best of both

One recently introduced product that successfully combines function, economy, aesthetics and vandal-resistance with full ADA-compliance is the group washbasin system (see cover photo). The individual washbasins that make up this system share a single set of water supplies along with one P-trap, mixing valve and 24-volt plug-in style transformer, all of which are securely housed inside a vandal-resistant pedestal enclosure. Specifying architects and engineers need only specify one product rather than multiple product components (basin, faucet, trap, trap and supply covers, soap dispensers, etc.), and take comfort in the fact that the entire unit is foolproof in meeting ADA requirements for reach, clearances and operation, because it is shipped preassembled and cannot be installed incorrectly. Even the overall height of the unit allows for mirrors to be mounted above the fixture at ADA-compliant dimensions. And because different applications require varying degrees of vandal-resistance, some manufacturers offer a choice of materials to best serve the application: for example, heavy-gauge stainless steel for high vandal-resistance, precast terrazzo for moderate vandal-resistance and a solid surface cast resin material for lower vandal-prone applications.

But the concept of linking ADA-compliant and vandal-resistant design features into the same fixture seems to somehow embody two opposing objectives: 1) fixtures have to be wheelchair accessible, extremely easy to activate and comfortable for everyone and 2) fixtures must withstand repeated and aggressive attempts of damage, abuse and misuse by vandals. In other words, the fixture must be accessible to the physically challenged, but impenetrable to physical attack.

Take, for example, washfountains or washbasins designed for use in vandal-prone applications. On one hand, the washfountain must comply with specific ADA clearance requirements (toe and knee clearances that facilitate wheelchair access, and a fixture rim height that promotes ease of use). But on the other hand, vandal-resistant features remain critical, such as a floor-mounted pedestal beneath the washfountain bowl for support, so that the fixture cannot be torn off the wall.

In addition, a pedestal enclosure is required to conceal the washfountain's working mechanical components from vandals (water supply lines, P-trap, valving, infrared transformer or other mechanicals), as well as protect users in wheelchairs from bumping or burning their knees on hot water pipes. In accomplishing these multiple functions, thepedestal enclosure must be small enough to adhere to ADA for toe and knee clearances, large enough to house all of the mechanical components, and strong enough to physically support and protect the fixture, plus anyone that might kick, sit or jump on it.

Another aspect of designing washfountains or washbasins for ADA-compliance, with equal attention to vandal-resistance, involves accessible reach and ease of operation for activating the flow of water. Many commercial-grade plumbing fixtures feature either pushbutton-activated air metering valves or infrared-activated solenoid valves. In either case, the device that activates the water flow must be tough enough to withstand repeated attack by vandals, but in doing so must meet minimum ADA reach and operation requirements. ADA requires an activation force of no greater than 5 pounds, with very little manual dexterity, to actuate any manually activated valve.

Some specifiers leave nothing to chance, specifying instead infrared controlled units for their projects, because infrared requires no manual dexterity or activation force whatsoever (only the reach required for activation remains critical). And both pushbutton-activated air valves and infrared-activated solenoid valves provide for automatic shut-off of the water. This feature conserves water and the energy required to heat it. Just as important, however, it prevents would-be vandals from covering up a drain with paper towels, turning on a (compression valve) faucet, and exiting the soon-to-be-flooded washroom.

Similar barrier-free accessibility concerns, coupled with a need for superior vandal-resistance, are addressed in the design and manufacture of showers for commercial and institutional shower rooms. The desire for superior durability and vandal-resistance implores the use of heavy-gauge stainless steel with seamless welded construction and concealed or tamper-resistant fasteners; the need for barrier-free access determines the overall product envelop, in addition to the actual barrier-free elements and exact placement of each within the fixture.

For example, all shower controls (plus the soap dish) must be located 38 inches to 48 inches above the finished floor in order to be within reach of a seated bather with limited arm movement. A detachable hand-held showerhead, mounted to a slide bar with a 60-inch flexible supply hose, is also provided. The slide bar allows vertical adjustment of the showerhead so that it can be used comfortably as a fixed head for seated or standing bathers. (In high vandal-prone installations, ADA allows for use of a fixed showerhead mounted at 48 inches above the shower floor in lieu of a hand-held shower.) Finally, a pressure balancing mixing valve is recommended to protect all users against hot or cold temperature fluctuations caused by sudden changes in a building's hot or cold water pressure, although this is not covered in current ADA guidelines.

Behind bars

Perhaps the most dramatic example of reconciling barrier-free accessibility with the need for vandal-resistance is in the design and production of plumbing fixtures for prisons and other correctional facilities. The ADA applies to all Americans, including convicted criminals serving prison sentences. As such, correctional facilities are now being equipped with toilets, urinals, washbasins, drinking fountains and showers that have been designed to accommodate the physically challenged. But in correctional applications-the acid test for products of all kinds-it is imperative that each fixture be as tamper-resistant and as vandal-resistant as possible. Towards that end, more and more correctional facilities are choosing barrier-free fixtures constructed of heavy-gauge stainless steel rather than traditional vitreous china.

Most stainless steel plumbing fixtures that are designed for barrier-free correctional applications feature low-profile design elements that deter mischief and attack by vandals.

One such element is an ADA-compliant, vandal-resistant pushbutton (instead of removable valve handles) similar to those used on washfountains and washbasins. However, these smaller, heavier pushbuttons have no exposed fasteners and attach to each washbasin, shower or drinking fountain from the inside of the cabinet.

In fact, the entire ADA-compliant fixture is typically designed to attach to the wall without any exposed fasteners whatsoever; the fixture is instead attached to the wall from inside the fixture cabinet, accessible for installation and service only from a pipe chase located on the other side of the wall. This minimizes the possibility of an inmate loosening or removing the fixture from the wall, thus providing an opening to conceal weapons or other contraband, or as a means of egress. It also enhances security by allowing for routine maintenance and repair of the fixture without having to enter the prisoner's cell.

ADA-compliant stainless steel toilets for holding cells are mounted to the wall in the same manner (walls are usually concrete block or poured concrete). Designing the toilet for an installed seat height between 17 inches and 19 inches satisfies ADA accessibility requirements for the fixture itself; designing it with seamless welds, no sharp corners or edges, no removable parts (such as a flush handle or plastic toilet seat) and the capacity to withstand more than 5,000 pounds of force satisfies the rigorous "demands" of the prison population.

Whatever the application-schools, factories, airports, office buildings or prisons-designing plumbing fixtures for barrier-free washroom design has now become of primary importance to manufacturers. And while it may have taken passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 to convince some manufacturers of the need to focus more attention on barrier-free product design, nearly all have since learned that ADA is a good idea that has been great for business. But when designing or specifying barrier-free plumbing fixtures for public, commercial or institutional washrooms, an equal concern for vandal-resistant design must remain a primary consideration. After all, a toilet, washbasin or shower that will not function because of damage by vandals is of no use to anyone, regardless of how accessible it may be.