Accessibility legislation - 1991

Jon Christophersen, of the Building Research Institute in Norway, describes accessibility legislation, implementation, incentives for implementation and problems encountered in Norway. Two studies were carried out, one concerning access legislation in the building regulations and the other concerning life-span dwelling criteria. The results showed that accessibility in Norway could be improved through better workmanship and better control on site, improved legislation, and changing building practice. Internet publication URL:

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Accessibility legislation

Jon Christophersen, Building Research Institute, Norway

Introduction of accessibility legislation in Norway has followed political policy decisions. Presently, central legislation to ensure easy access in new developments is in force. Implementation is the responsibility of local authorities. It is within their power to provide local regulations to further accessibility beyond the central and general legislation. In addition, various incentives for better accessibility on a voluntary basis are in operation.

Policy instruments

Policy documents are drawn up by government departments or, on the municipal level, by the local administration. The former will seldom carry legal weight. Instead, their status is advisory - but recommendations may be and often are of major importance. One such document is a government paper of 1971/72 which has played the part of political basis for Norwegian access legislation. It outlines the principal aim: "To ensure that physical environment in buildings and surroundings should not hinder disabled peoples' activities of daily life." On the local level, policy documents may be worked into a more binding framework, provided sufficient political backing can be achieved. In addition, most political parties have policy statements on accessibility in dwellings and/or the built environment. Recent policy decisions for better accessibility are to a large extent motivated by plans for social reform under the general heading of "integration".

Enforcement provisions

A building code, building regulations, and a building regulations guide book act as the legal framework. All new construction and all major conversions throughout the country must satisfy both the code and regulations including accessibility, as covered by the regulations (not by the code), should be provided for:

  • buildings that are open to the general public,
  • buildings where people with disabilities people may have a place of work (places for work for ten or more persons),
  • buildings containing more than 4 dwelling units.

By accessibility, both internal and external arrangements are demanded, including access roads and paths, corridors and circulation spaces, toilet facilities, minimum door widths, etc. The regulations have frequent references to specifications which are outside the legal framework, but have status as recommendations. Most widely used are Norwegian Standards, information sheets from the Norwegian Building Research Institute and criteria developed by the Norwegian State Housing Bank. It may, however, be noted that accessibility specifications in the building regulations apply only in minor ways to the dominant type of dwelling construction, that is low to medium density timber frame housing.

Compliance with the regulations is checked locally, as a routine matter. This poses a slight dilemma: Regulations are given and maintained by a central office to cover all parts of the country. Enforcement is decentralized to some 450 different local authorities. It follows that results may vary according to the level of practice, local expertise, competence and understanding. Smaller municipalities will rarely have sufficient technical skill; it is generally assumed that their practice is somewhat lacking. Of particular interest on a local level are the rather wide powers given in the building code: Regulations that go further than the building regulations may be - and often are - laid down for specific areas within a community. This has had relevance for housing in the sense that a considerable number of areas have been set aside for "life-span dwellings" (see below).

Norwegian access legislation 

(Left column)
Central level:

building and planning code
building regulations

guide lines
subsidized loans
certifications for products

(Right column)
County or municipal level:

local control & enforcement
local regulations specific for a given site or area

Incentives for better accessibility
Incentives for voluntary provision of accessibility of higher standard than demanded have proved a successful supplement to legislation. Norwegian Standards and various certifications for building products are typical examples. More important are the life-span dwelling criteria employed by the Norwegian State Housing Bank. The bank allows state subsidized loans - i.e., below market interest - to small and medium sized new dwellings. Accessible dwellings get the higher loans, and life-span dwellings receive the best financing. In life-span dwellings all major dwelling functions are fully accessible for persons operating manual wheelchairs:

  • the main entrance door is accessible with a wheelchair from the parking place,
  • living room, kitchen, one bedroom, bath/toilet are on the same level as the main entrance,
  • when fully furnished and equipped, these rooms have sufficient dimensions to allow turning and passage for wheelchairs,
  • doors have sufficient widths and low or no thresholds.

Intentions for accessibility in Norway may be characterized as good, providing both a central, legislative framework (which local authorities are empowered to strengthen) applicable to all buildings and incentives which have proved successful, meaning higher standards of accessibility and usability. Our questions were: how are legislation and incentives put into practice and what are their results? Two projects gave opportunity for research. One concerned life-span dwellings, the other looked into the workings of the building regulations on construction in residential areas. The building regulation project was carried out first. Findings from it were confirmed and detailed in the life-span dwelling project.

The studies

Our studies concern access legislation in the building regulations and the life-span dwelling criteria. The aim of the studies was to find out how access rules and regulations affect the planning professions, the control functions and the end result: the building of residential areas. The life-span dwelling project includes recommendations for improved criteria.

For the building regulation project, we interviewed a total of 50 building controllers in public authorities. Five went into detail, the other 45 interviews were conducted over telephone and concentrated on three main problems: provision of elevators in residential buildings; provision of accessible toilets in dwellings; and practice on exceptions from the access rules. We also interviewed four architects in private practice and the three biggest suppliers of timber frame housing. The five detailed interviews were followed up with site visits, to sites suggested by the interviewees. The 19 building projects we visited included kindergartens, dwellings, office buildings, local meeting rooms and a couple of mixed developments with shops, offices and dwellings.

For the life-span dwelling project, we interviewed three architects employed by the Norwegian State Housing Bank. We conducted a half-day seminar/discussion between the representatives of the housing bank and a variety of organizations for people with disabilities, and we organized site visits to 21 completed dwellings in 19 different projects. These were accompanied by a person using a manual wheelchair, representatives of the Housing Bank and a developer.

The site visits were in both studies prepared through critical analysis of drawings. We devised simple systems for annotating plans and used plans annotated in advance as guides through each project and every building, supplementing the advance annotations as visits progressed.

Specifications for access

Instrumental in the implementation of policy decisions, building regulations and life-span dwelling criteria need to be well defined, well edited and easy to apply. Good intentions not withstanding, we found problems of application and practicability both in the life-span dwelling criteria and in the building regulations - to the extent that serious obstacles to accessibility may be difficult to avoid.

The building regulations define the lowest legal level of accessibility. They have wide application - to all buildings - but low definition and insufficient detail specification limit their practical workability. The life-span dwelling criteria are better defined than the building regulations. They are linked to a considerable economic incentive which also carries a certain marketing value. The criteria have proved instrumental in changing dwelling layout and design. Our studies show:

Building regulations

Problems of editing
Access demands are split up and spaced far apart, thus complicating cross referencing, and causing disregard of important details.

Parts of regulations are vague or give insufficient detail, thus their practicability is reduced or in some cases negated. Lax practice in granting exemptions from regulations is common.

Building types
The most common types of housing are not covered by the access regulations. Public spaces (e.g. restaurants) are insufficiently covered.

Life-span dwelling criteria
Attention to detail and to continuity of access from car parking through entrance to bedroom and toilet is needed.

Due to the problem mentioned in the previous paragraph, life-span dwelling criteria have had greater importance on dwellings than the building regulations. As life-span dwellings make up 33 per cent of dwellings financed through the Housing Bank, it can be estimated that some 15 per cent of all new dwellings have life-span standard.

Problems of wording, editing and practicability will in many cases have the effect of neutralizing even costly measures for accessibility. The results on site show that insurmountable barriers occur where details have been overlooked or disregarded.

Results of planning

Demands for accessibility have led to better planning. Planners are more knowledgeable than before, their buildings show that attention to access problems are taken seriously. There can be no doubt that planners' awareness of barrier-free design has increased considerably in few years. Interviews, plans and buildings show clear evidence of this. Measures which would have been highly unusual earlier are planned and executed, partly because the building regulations demand them and partly because of the economic incentives afforded through the larger state subsidized loans to life-span dwellings. As a result, knowledge which formerly belonged to the realm of specialists has become a general planning tool.

The planners' main objectives, providing circulation areas, doors, elevators, toilet facilities, etc. in correct positions and with sufficient dimensions, are in all major respects taken care of. Almost all necessary functions can be reached. This 'almost' causes concern, as nearly every project had unnecessary barriers, many of which represented insurmountable obstacles. The nature of these barriers illustrates a need for better control, and - of primary importance - a need for change in building practices. Both are largely questions of workmanship and may be achieved through a higher level of competence, i.e., information and education, particularly as regards craftsmen and site workers.

The interviews disclosed that accessibility in housing is generally not achieved through the present wording of the building regulations. They apply to larger structures, i.e., blocks of apartments. Construction of high- and medium-rise housing has decreased in recent years and is hardly found outside the capital. It is, however, interesting that parts of the timber frame housing industry develop all new house types according to the criteria for life-span dwelling standard.

Control functions

Control functions are routine matters for local authorities and the Housing Bank. The former have rights (but no duty) of control on all building, while the latter only controls dwellings financed by the bank (a little less than 50 per cent of all new dwellings). As control covers both the design stage and the building process, one might assume that accessibility is ensured. In practice, most buildings have serious faults.

Local authorities check drawings and follow up on site at various stages during construction. The Housing Bank checks drawings for life-span criteria and visits dwellings immediately after completion. Both control systems should, consequently, give ample opportunity for pinpointing and correcting any and all obstacles to accessibility.

The practical functioning of control systems hinges on specifications (given in rules and regulations) and individual competence and attention to detail on the part of the controllers. Our interviews give evidence that practice varies. The building regulations are far from specific, but open to interpretation. Thus, a building approved by one local authority may well be refused by its neighbor. An additional problem is that due to vague wording. Some regulations have never taken effect. The life-span dwelling criteria, although better defined and enforced by a more centralized authority, are similarly criticized.

Our principal aim was to map the consequences of rules and regulations on finished products - built environment in residential areas. With surprising regularity, we found a series of typical faults.

Serious obstacles due to building faults are overlooked. In general, these are faults of detailing rather than planning or layout. The striking feature is that typical faults of detailing are repeated on a majority of the buildings, regardless of building type or function. Although our sample is small compared to the total amount of new construction, the studies show a regularity of typical faults which indicates that the problem is general and may be found in most, if not all new building.

The acuteness of this problem is further underlined by the fact that the typical faults pose obstacles which in a majority of cases negate other investments for accessibility. This may be taken as proof of a severe shortcoming: knowledge of correct building details is severely lacking - detailing for accessibility is a comparatively new skill and it contrasts strongly with established building practice on several important points. Typical faults and obstacles are the subject of the following chapter.

Result - buildings in residential areas

The purpose of the site visits was to investigate how planning for accessibility is carried out in building practice. The abundance of building faults constitutes a serious problem: wrong details seem almost a norm, typical faults were repeated on nearly every of the forty buildings visited.

The studies illustrate that defects of planning are no longer an acute problem - Norwegian planners do a fairly good job - but workmanship and on-site control has fallen behind. Obstacles which do not show up on elevations and floor plans can easily be found on site. Although the majority of these obstacles clearly contradicts rules and regulations, controllers will rarely take notice and make demands for improvements. Consequently, a number of severe barriers were found in buildings meant to be accessible. The life-span dwelling project gave the best illustration, as all buildings were "tested" by disabled persons in manual wheelchairs. Another positive effect of the visits was the experience imparted to representatives of the local authority or Housing Bank.

Obstacles and faults could be observed externally, on main approach routes to the buildings, and in the spaces inside. 

Common problems

External obstacles

Access roads and paths
Where demanded by rules or regulations, drawings show gradients of maximum 1:12. In some cases, the actual gradients were steeper, but more often would a stretch of 1:12 footpath have sudden, short portions with a steeper gradient. Thus, well-planned paths were made inaccessible.

Access ramps
Although clearly specified in access legislation, access ramps are often too steep and/or lack landings at the top. Landings that interrupt long stretches of ramps are particularly rare. The life-span dwelling project also illustrated a need for alternative solutions to ramps. Where provided as access to private houses, ramps are removed by the users.

Changes of level
Inadequate solutions, particularly of changes of level between landing at entrance door and finished floor inside, were among the most common faults. This is a particularly good example of the need for change of established building practices. Level solutions have not been commonly sought earlier. They are, however, provided when clearly demanded. Examples are entrances to supermarkets.

Internal obstacles

Being the most important means of access, doors also pose frequent obstacles. Typical examples are:
Heavy (fire) doors, which in effect block corridors, passages, entrances to underground car parks and in many cases also entry to apartments. This contravenes legislation, and is a legislative problem, as products - lighter doors - may not be found on the market.
Positioning of doors causes problems; wrong positioning reduces door width, space necessary to reach door handles is often forgotten.
Thresholds are traditional in Norway, and are sometimes still demanded by local authorities, although legislation specifies otherwise.

Changes of level
The most important problem is access to bathrooms. Provision of floor drains and floor heating cause increased thickness of construction, and, consequently, change of level between bathroom floor and adjoining rooms. Various solutions are tried for life-span dwellings. For other dwellings, a paragraph in the building regulations might apply, but is disregarded because of unclear wording. Other changes of level occur, often as consequences of inaccuracies in building. Normal tolerances are often insufficient, if full accessibility is to be achieved.

Lack of logic
Some faults can be explained by lack of logic in the wording of rules and regulations. An understanding of accessibility as a continuous circulation system running from car park through all important functions of buildings seems rare and is not brought out in the specifications.

Conclusion - future development for better accessibility

The studies show that better accessibility - or indeed compliance with legal requirements - in Norway now depends chiefly on better workmanship and better control on site. Both issues are questions of competence: better attention to detail on the part of controllers and increased knowledge of correct working details on the part of building site workers. Improved legislation may then easily follow. Coupled to this is the need to keep planners' awareness alive.

Competence improvements
A policy for inclusion of accessibility in education for the building professions has been agreed on recently. This provides a necessary framework, so that accessibility may be introduced more systematically in all fields of education related to building planning and practice. Thus, better execution of building details may be achieved.

Changes of legislation
Weaknesses of legislation account for some of the access problems found through our studies. The life-span dwelling criteria will be adjusted within the next few months; the adjustments will likely follow our recommendations closely. Altering and improving building regulations is a slower and more difficult process. A chief aim is to move their content as close to the life-span dwelling criteria as possible. It is doubtful whether this is at all feasible today. A more pragmatic approach would be to aim for full implementation of the regulations which are in force - and to improve the wording of paragraphs that are disregarded. Implementation depends, however, on control and the decentralized control systems are not easily reached. Pressure for improvement of building regulations has proven effective, although slow, in the past and is continuing.

Changing building practice
The building trades are by nature conservative and changes are difficult to effect. A lot more work is needed, though stumbling blocks are numerous and hard to overcome. Both our institute and the Housing Bank are trying to catalogue and evolve new and better building details from which simple, economic and easy to follow recommendations may be published. It would seem that this aspect is lagging behind the other two main issues for better accessibility in the built environment.


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