ramp up your design


If you’ve ever had to deal with small projects and handicap accessibility you know that there are several factors that can truly challenge the designer.

If you’re not a designer, but one who appreciates architecture, let me simply state that it’s noble as well as mandatory to comply with accessibility requirements. However, with small budgets, tight spaces and sharp changes in topography, the designer can find themselves struggling to find a solution within the plethora of constraints. Clients are not always cooperative because they aren’t prepared to include any more into their budget.

I do a lot of work in small urban environments and there is rarely a flat spot in Western Pennsylvania. Most buildings over a few decades old have more than a few steps at the entrance. What are we to do with this emotionally charged issue?

Several things inspired this post including a webinar a couple of days ago from the AIA about the myths of accessible design. I thought I would share a small portion of a recently completed project of mine that, in my opinion, creates more than the required ramp and accessible route into the new bar, but solves the mandatory requirements with something spatial that masks its utilitarian purpose. At face value it may seem extremely simple, but this one took some time to discover as well as develop, and convince the client to build.

This photo shows the original condition of the entrance. There were two steps that lead into the entry, but the sidewalk also sloped beyond the maximum cross slope in both directions. I couldn’t do anything about the sidewalk beyond the entry, but I did set out to address the sidewalk immediately at the entry. Consulting with the local plan examiners and City officials early in the process helped the development go smoother.


This photo shows the final entry solution. The steps were eliminated, the sidewalk removed and reinstalled with minor adjustments to meet the mandatory 1/4″ per foot cross slope at the base of the ramp. It took convincing the city that we were not creating a sharply molded sidewalk that would cause a trip hazard. This has occurred in other places where others have endeavored to create a flat spot in front of an entry door only to yield a hump in the sidewalk. I had to carefully illustrate it to show the minor but necessary difference between the before and after conditions to get approval. I’ve seen more complicated situations to overcome, yet this one was difficult enough.


The new entry door is my design interpretation of an old storefront entrance door reconsidered for 2012.


The plan below shows the basic layout of the new ramp leading into the bar. Once we had the concept in place, it took several calculations and multiple site visits to carefully measure the dimensions both vertically and horizontally to confirm my solution would actually work. Drawing it with all of the clearances overlaid was the only way I felt comfortable that the design could actually work. Basically the front portion of the existing wood floor framing was “lowered” down to an elevation just above the elevation of the sidewalk. The entry vestibule was rebuilt with modern aluminum storefront and moved back into the building. There is an exterior ramp as well as one on the interior.


The small footprint required the ramp to change directions. A change of direction requires a large landing that permits a wheelchair turning radius. The angled stair is derived from the angle of the original storefront, but it also quickly leads ambulatory users into the space. It gives a quirky nature to what is often an underwhelming feature. The dimensions were amazingly tight with little or no room for slop or additional clearance. The contractor actually built a 60″ round template to check the turning space at various parts of the ramp and entry. The interior ramp (and stair) became the new window feature in this near century old storefront.


In these sections, the structural concept is evident. The existing floor structure was “lowered” with the new wood ramp construction built on top of the lowered floor framing. Consideration had to be taken to allow for the ceramic tile thickness to align with the existing wood flooring at the interior.


section aa

section bb

section cc

Although the railings were not mandatory since each ramp section was under a 6″ rise, I felt it necessary to include them to keep anyone from tripping. In addition, unfinished black pipe railings were selected to continue the gritty, industrial look of the new bar. They’re more than a railing to assist one up the ramp or stair, but a spatial divider as well as an element to lean against and talk to your friends. The connectors are the Kee Klamp system, an industrial, but versatile system for connecting pipes into a myriad of configurations. The wood plank shelving on top of the one rail sections is a remnant floor joist from the area of floor framing that was removed. Consider it a serendipitous solution that arose during construction as well as a reminder of what occurred to make the design possible.


Simply put, ideas are great and necessary, but the execution is where the strength of the idea is confirmed. Even though it strained the budget, this entry truly “ramps up” this design and it would be missing something without it. Besides meeting the minimal requirements for accessibility, my goal from the start was to make this space exciting and a place everyone would want to be in. I felt it should be more than what it has to be so that the occupants of the bar could use it as a place to hang out as well as provide easy entry for all types of people. It’s important to break the myth that accessibility needs to look sterile or institutional. We must be more creative, especially with small projects as this. It’s also a victory to have a willing client.


What are your thoughts? I’m open to constructive critiques. Did I get it right?  I’d also love to hear about or see your creative solutions to similar challenging problems. I’d love to have talked more about other design features of the bar I designed, but I’ll save that for another time.



all photos are by skysight Photography ©

rendering and design is by lee CALISTI architecture+design ©

ramp up your design

5 thoughts on “ramp up your design

  1. Sarah says:

    Good solution! I ran across your design while looking for integrated approaches to including ramp accessibility to areas. Most of what I’ve seen is so very disappointing but your’s is great! Thank you.

  2. Lee, just reading this the first time. I have to say that despite the technical nature of this elegant solution and article, it is actually an even more impressive design result. What began as a rather diminutive entry became an intriguing space that I believe would attract business and draw patrons beyond any code-satisfying accomplishments.

    Thanks for the good example of how an architect can wrangle seemingly oppressive code restrictions into design that more than justifies the investment!

    1. Steve, that is a very kind thing to say, but it’s true that I talked the Owner into doing this because I believed we could make it more than what it was. People often see ramps and other accessible features as this “thing” they HAVE to pay for and then stick it in the corner because no one will use it. They feel punished by having to invest in it. Why can’t we as architects make it a win-win. Well, I don’t have a magic wand for every project, but I was glad to see how this one turned out in the end. I may have to rip off your statement and use it when I describe it to others. Thanks for taking time to comment and comment so graciously.

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