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."