Regulatory changes aimed at giving disabled people full access to public buildings are creating big business for contractors. But with few guidelines to help, how do firms know what to do? Cue the rise of the latest construction professional – the access consultant.
Impending changes to disability legislation mean all public buildings will have to become much friendlier to the 8.6 million Britons with disabilities. The regulations could cost owners of new and existing buildings more than £190m a year, according to a report for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Owners, developers, designers and contractors have their work cut out to comply – but most have no idea how to go about it. Cue construction's latest professional: the access consultant.

The number of access consultants has grown from just a handful two years ago to more than 200 now, according to the Centre for Accessible Environments' national register. "A whole new section of the industry is emerging that wasn't there before," says David Burdus, who has been an access consultant for more than 10 years. "We've had to cut our daily rates because there are so many people out there now doing access management. Four years ago there was the odd sole trader, but I had little real competition. Now I've got at least eight competitors just in the Newcastle area."

What's sparked this growth is the dual regulative challenge of the Disability Discrimination Act, which comes into force in October 2004, and part M of the Building Regulations, which is set to become a lot more demanding this autumn. Part M deals with access to and use of new buildings and extensions to existing buildings, but at least its guidelines are clear. The real challenge for access consultants will be interpreting the requirements of the DDA. And it is not just about wheelchair access. The new rules cover a wide range of disabilities including people who have problems with manual dexterity, hearing, speech, vision, physical co-ordination, and learning difficulties (see "What is Part M?" and "What is the DDA?").

Compliance with the DDA could be as simple as repainting walls or altering evacuation plans or as complex as having to move bathrooms or even radically alter a building's design. The problem is, no specific standards have been set down – companies are expected to do whatever is "reasonable". Puzzling out the implications of this is a complex business, so the new specialism of access consultancy has sprung up to help those in need deal with the changes.

But timing is important. Getting access consultants in at the start of a project is vital if buildings of the future are going to be fully usable and comply with the regulations. "If the access consultant comes in further down the line, drawings and plans may have to be altered and that is expensive," warns Rowland Philips, the author of a RIBA framework document to be released this spring, which aims to set out the exact role and responsibilities of access consultants.

However, disability charities are concerned that many consultants are jumping on the disability bandwagon without fully understanding the needs and requirements of disabled users.

"We have concerns about quality," admits Helen Allen from the Royal National Institute of the Blind. "Clients are not going to be aware of whether or not they have been provided with good access – they are not in a position to understand what good access is."

This is bad news for disabled people, and for building owners and tenants. Having paid for expensive alterations specified by cowboy consultants, hapless owners could still find themselves falling foul of the law, exposing themselves to a fine of £10,000 and paying for additional work to comply.

The RIBA document aims to put an end to such confusion. "One of the reasons we've written this plan of work is to make sure everyone knows what they need to do," Philips says. "It's to make sure that these people, whoever they are, provide the right services.

You don't have to have any particular skills to be on the consultants' register."

Sarah Langton-Lockton, the Centre for Accessible Environments' chief executive, agrees: "It's an important potential new area of work for architects and other construction professionals – but they really need to undergo training. People also need to know more about the best practice guidance." The centre offers three-day courses and the RIBA also runs short training schemes.

Clients need to ensure the consultant they are employing is not simply an engineer, architect or surveyor who has printed a new set of business cards. Graham Taylor, of management consultant Taylor and Townsend, advises: "Look out for base competence and track record. Ask for references and recommendations from people who have used access consultants, especially on big projects. There are obviously opportunities [in access consulting]; it needs to be done to meet the needs of people who are being discriminated against. Informed clients and organisations are seeing it as a benefit rather than a cost."

Consultant David Burdus agrees, saying the changes don't have to be restrictive. "People are getting excited and interested," he says. "What used to be thought of as 'disabled access' is now being seen a lot more broadly by the design and construction industry. We're moving towards more inclusive design; we're normalising it."

For bona fide consultants, the opportunities are immense. Only 25% of companies are up to date, reckons Mary-Ann Bowering, managing director of surveyor Ringleys. "It's a completely new area for the construction industry and something we haven't had to think about before. Surveyors have to educate those working on projects about the law, and they have to look at upgrading all their clients' buildings. The people who most need to know about this are surveyors, building engineers and architects."

And with less than a year to go before the compliance deadline, she adds, "it's going to be a steep learning curve. Time is of the essence."

What is the DDA?

The final phase of the Disability Discrimination Act – which relates to disability access to “goods, facilities and services” (any that the public are likely to use) – comes into effect in October 2004. “It is not possible to design a building that complies with the DDA; the act only involves the design of a building when it contributes to discrimination – there are no DDA technical requirements for building design,” says Richard Cullingworth, a chartered building surveyor at CS2. However, by the time the act does come into force, it will be necessary to remove all physical barriers that prevent disabled people using a service from all public buildings – new and existing.

What is Part M?

This section of the Building Regulations deals with access to and the use of buildings, including dwellings. It covers the construction of new buildings, and extensions and alterations to existing buildings. The regulation deals with features including ramps and doors, and access within a building, including width of corridors, lifts and sanitary accommodation. In August 2002 the government published a consultation paper on proposed changes to Part M. The proposals will take into account the needs of elderly people and of those with young children, as well as the physically disabled. They will incorporate the recommendations of British Standard 8300: 2001 Design of buildings and their approaches to bring them into line with the final phase of the DDA.

Is your public building friendly?

  • Low-pile, high-density carpets make it easier for people with with wheelchairs, artificial limbs or walking aids to move around.
  • Fit Braille markings on signs and lift buttons.
  • Install a hearing induction loop system in at least one meeting room.
  • Building work can cause navigation problems; take this into account when you’ve got builders in.
  • Consider the colour scheme – shades that blend into each other make it harder for people with visual impairments to see.
  • People with physical disabilities such as severe arthritis can find it painful to stand for long periods of time, so if a building’s users have to queue, use an alternative arrangement such as a ticket system.
  • Consider disability awareness training for staff.