Designers and their clients might think all they have to do to make a building accessible is comply with Part M. The Disability Discrimination Act has different ideas …
Designers beware. Compliance with Part M does not necessarily mean compliance with the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act. Even if the guidance in the Approved Document is followed, designers can still fall foul of the act and be sued by clients.

The problem is the difference between the two pieces of legislation: whereas Part M is simply about the provision of access to buildings, the 1995 act is about people.

There are two sections of the act that could trip up architects and engineers: one dealing with disabled employees that is already in force; and another concerning the provision of goods, facilities and services to disabled people that comes into effect in 2004 (How building owners and service providers can avoid writs).

Under the act, a disabled employee can ask an employer to make "reasonable" adjustments to accommodate their needs. This might, for example, be an employee who has difficulty using a toilet, even though it complies with Part M.

In some cases, the Disability Discrimination (Employment) Regulations that support the DDA can help with this contradiction. They give employers exemption from having to alter anything built to comply with Part M. But this exemption does not cover the whole building. Because Part M is so lacking in detail, employers might still find themselves forced to alter other parts of their building. And the employer might then look to the building's designer to ask why these features were not included in the original design.

From 2004, service providers will be required to make reasonable adjustments to their premises to cater for disabled customers. The regulations to support this part of the act have not yet been issued. Like the employment rules, these regulations will provide some exemption to service providers if the features within the building were constructed to comply with Part M. However, unlike the employment regulations, these service provider regulations may well include a time limit after which Part M-compliant areas will no longer be exempt and will have to be altered.

Spot the differences
So just what is in Part M that makes it so different from the act? Part M covers new work to new buildings, but the act will apply to most types of building and can be applied retrospectively. However, because the act is aimed at employers and service providers, it does not cover new-build homes, whereas Part M does.

The act also has a wider definition of disability: Part M limits the definition of disability to those with impaired mobility, hearing or sight. The act covers impairments in areas such as manual dexterity, physical co-ordination, speech and memory.

For example, someone with a manual dexterity impairment may be unable to use a light switch, a tap or an entry system because of its design. Or they may not be able to simultaneously operate a door handle and a push-button code lock, or have difficulty opening doors with poorly adjusted self-closing devices. None of these common building elements is mentioned in Approved Document M, yet they can constitute significant barriers.

But it is not only in the definition of impairments that the two documents differ. Approved Document M aims to meet a range of needs of disabled people but, under the act, standard designs may have to be changed to suit the specific needs of an individual disabled employee because "one size" may not fit all.

Both documents use the word "reasonable". For Part M, compliance with the Approved Document is considered reasonable. But the disability act is not supported by any technical standards and relies on employment tribunals and the courts to define the term. As a "reasonable adjustment" may include specific management issues – such as altering the location of the workplace rather than installing a lift – no hard and fast standard for property can be defined.

The final key difference is that, under Part M, a certificate can be issued to show that plans or finished work comply; no such certificate is available for reasonable adjustments made in accordance with the act.

Will Part M change again?
Part M was last amended in 1999. Last year, the DETR commissioned a survey into the effectiveness of the regulation. This feedback report is expected to lead to significant changes to Part M in the future. In fact, it may even be incorporated into the other Building Regulations – as has already happened in Scotland.

In the short term, designers and occupiers should design to meet Part M and the likely requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. But this is difficult without any technical standards and only codes of practice to define what might be deemed "reasonable". From a technical standpoint, this is set to change in September, when the new

British Standard
BS 8300 is due to be published. It will provide technical information on the design of new buildings for disabled people and, for the first time, collate good practice in a single document.

However, designers still need to be wary: the application of these design solutions to existing buildings will need to be handled with thought or unreasonable difficulties may be created – just as they can be now under the Building Regulations.

Part M: Access and facilities for disabled people

Part M provides details on access to buildings, sanitary accommodation and audience and spectator seating. The document uses a much narrower definition of what constitutes a disabled person than the Disability Discrimination Act. The Approved Document:
  • Provides guidance on designing the approaches to buildings and dwellings
  • Contains guidance on access to the buildings and dwellings, including the design of ramps
  • Advises on the design of entrance doors and lobbies
  • Provides guidance on design for access within a building, including the design of corridors and internal lobbies
  • Advises on lift design
  • Makes recommendations on access to facilities within a building, including bars and restaurants, hotel bedrooms, shower and changing facilities
  • Offers guidance on the number and design of sanitary conveniences
  • Makes recommendations for the design of audience and spectator seating.