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Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities

Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB)

Building Legislation and Norms:
The (Only) Way to Achieve Non-Handicapping Environments

Marttiina Fränti, Ministry of the Environment, Finland

Basic Facts about Finland

There is a basic statute in building legislation concerning public buildings, a so called "flexible statute" of judicial nature, dating from 1973 with the following text:

"In construction of premises designated for public use sufficient attention shall be given to planning such that these premises may also be used by persons whose mobility and ability to orientate is restricted due to age, infirmity or disability."

Based upon the above statute norms have been issued in the form of regulations and guidelines in the National Building Code of Finland. The two basic regulations of the Code, in Section F1, "Planning and Building Premises Designated for Public Use to Accommodate the Physically Disabled", read as follows:

2 Access to Premises

2.1 Regulations
For all premises designated for public use, there must be access by a passageway suitable for use by physically disabled persons. In cases where the premises in question are on different levels and functionally connected with each other by interior passageways meant for use by the public, these different premises must be connected by internal passageways which may be traversed by disabled persons in wheelchairs."

3 Internal Planning

3.1 Regulations
All premises intended for use by the general public shall be accessible to physically disabled persons.
Furthermore, the guidelines present detailed data including illustrations to be used in building design. The numerical dimensions have been taken to accommodate the most commonly used types of wheelchairs. (An unpublished translation of the Finnish Norms into English is available).

The binding requirement of designing and building according to the regulations, however, concerns only new buildings.

The flexible use of the regulation in renovation is stated in the Ministry’s circular from 1982:

If in an existing building the areas for public use are under complete reorganization involving rooms and passageways and if it is not possible to remove all barriers, accessibility in the building or at least to the offices of social services for the disabled should be arranged such that these services are located on the ground floor, if it is not reasonably possible to construct elevators between the floors containing areas for public use.

If during renovation areas for public use are created in a building, accessibility and use of such areas should be designed with the aim of achieving the accessibility standard required for newly constructed buildings.

In Finland there are no building statutes or norms requiring accessibility for disabled persons in housing. Since 1982 the needs of persons with physical disabilities must be taken into account to a certain extent in the construction of apartment buildings that receive state subsidies. If a residential building is four-storey or more, an elevator has to be installed that is large enough to accommodate a person using a wheelchair.

Findings and Visions

All over Europe, our cities, especially the inner core areas, are being built and rebuilt. The greater part of new construction and renovation activity has been carried out, to the present day, for the non-disabled population, that is, those of us who are able and willing to climb stairs inside or outside public buildings, offices, shops or work places. Post-war residential construction was meant for "average" families of one generation only with indoor and outdoor facilities meant for non-disabled children. These apartments are built for people who willy nilly live in multi-storey buildings without elevators in suburban as well as inner city areas. The practice of increasing residential density in order to use land as efficiently as possible forced its way into town planning and building design, disregarding almost totally the needs of old and disabled persons. What had happened to the heritage of functionalism with its low-rise housing, wide staircases and modern technical amenities like elevators!

Today, at the eleventh hour, we are literally caught by the rising demands of equality for all citizens. What is the proper way to plan the still vacant land and the structures that need renovation? Should we establish and enforce building legislation and norms aimed at creating non-handicapping environments? My personal opinion as a civil servant with over ten years of experience in this area is a resounding "yes" to legislation in the form of statutes and norms.

There has been legislation in technologically advanced countries concerning buildings and persons with disabilities since the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the Nordic countries Sweden is a forerunner and serves as an example for other European countries. Its statutes and norms include not only public buildings but also work places and, most importantly, housing to a certain extent. Finland lies far behind. Not until recently did we start to discuss the extension of the basic statute to the area of housing and work places. The first official proposal is expected to be ready by the end of 1987.

But even where legislation and norms exist, there is also violation of them. In Finland, disabled persons have been filing complaints with judicial authorities for more than ten years. Their complaints have mostly been about municipal buildings, city halls or sports facilities, and commercial buildings of two-storeys built without a single elevator. But in spite of this situation, I strongly believe in statutes and norms. If they had not existed for more than a decade in our country, our aims of creating non-handicapping public buildings would have been completely hopeless. We must also remember that in our European judicial system, a complaint cannot be filed without a proper statute to support the claim. I believe that complaints which have come to the notice of the general public lead to more positive attitudes, however negative the case itself may actually be. I also believe in norms as an aid to the architect who can refer to them, should questions of lowering building costs arise. Norms can also be of assistance, for example, in establishing the elevator as a crucial element in building design. The drawings and dimensions given in the guidelines by the authorities are necessary, as architects have a tendency to make up their own "good" solutions which are not always consistent with those needed by wheelchair users. Every now and then positive solutions emerge in new construction and gain publicity. The most recent example in Helsinki is the Municipal Library which received an award from the National Association for the Disabled.


I hereby call on the participants of this seminar to propose in the final resolutions that there should be a basic statute in every country’s federal and/or state building legislation aimed at creating non-handicapping environments, by taking into consideration the needs of disabled persons in public buildings, work places and housing. The statute should be based on the rights of equality for all citizens.

In each country there should be norms based on this statute which state functional and numerical data for building design. Authorities should clearly refer to valid norms or data produced by organizations for the disabled or other experts in the field. Statute and norms should be binding with respect to new buildings, but reasonably flexible in renovation.


Considerations of Special Groups in Construction Guidelines Issued by the Ministry of the Environment

Situation Report March 1987

Within the sphere of activities covered by the Ministry of the Environment, the principle of considering the needs of old and disabled persons in town and construction planning including housing is established in the Construction Act, the Housing Production Act, and the Housing Renovation Act. The regulations in this legislation are, however, general in nature. In the Construction Act and the Housing Production Act, the general goal for the planning and construction of buildings and housing is that they shall be appropriate. No reference is made, however, to the needs of the various user groups.

Because the aims of legislation in this area can in practice be interpreted quite variably, the guidelines issued at the ministerial level and the national boards are, by necessity, flexible. While there are planning programs which include numerical values for individual details, the goal can also be achieved by general inspection for building permits in connection with the approval of loans or grants.

In Finland, guidelines from the authorities are effective only as intermediaries. Implementation depends on architects who are familiar with the practical requirements of special groups.

Supervision of Planning and Construction

The purpose of master plans is to organize land use through zoning by assigning all areas to different purposes under consideration of the future development of the municipality. Zoning is the responsibility of the municipality. Thus, the town plan serves as an instrument for the public to achieve various, sometimes conflicting aims, such as health, safety and esthetics. The extent to which the needs of special groups are taken into account depends on the importance given to them by planners.

The Department of Planning and Construction in the Ministry issued guidelines for town planning and zoning in 1975 entitled "Principles of Environmental Planning" (Guidelines 2/1975). The guidelines attempt to reconcile the demands made on built environments. There are separate chapters on space requirements and location of health and social services, housing and special services for pensioners. The supply of commercial services available to old persons is also taken up.

When issuing building permits it is presently only possible to investigate the extent to which the needs of people with disabilities have been taken into account in public buildings and premises. The National Building Code of Finland which is prepared by the Planning and Construction Department includes Section F1 entitled "Planning and Building Premises Designated for Public Use to Accommodate the Needs of the Physically Disabled". These regulations and guidelines were issued in 1978 and revised in 1985. They include numerical values and detailed plans as a basis for architectural design and cover primarily the accessibility of the premises including movement on the site. Thus, there are regulations for the maximum gradient of ramps, elevator connections, etc. The basic unit for measurement in planning was the space required by a person using a wheelchair.


Chief Architect Aino Virpi Maamies
National Board of Housing

The National Board of Housing issues from time to time revised guidelines for planning and state subsidies in the form of partial loans for residential new production and renovation.

In the planning regulations for new construction issued by the National Board of Housing, one of the special aims is to meet the needs of persons with disabilities, old citizens and children. Practical guidelines and detailed numerical values are specified to create obstacle-free access to yards and dwelling areas prescribing, for example, door widths for wheelchair access. In locating water outlets and drains, consideration has been given to possible future remodelling of personal hygiene areas for use by wheelchair users. Apartment buildings of four or more storeys in height have to have elevators with interior dimensions that will accommodate persons using wheelchairs.

In the planning regulations for renovation (A1.2 1985), the general aims include preservation and improvement of the quality of dwelling units, residential structures and environments. The regulations recommend the removal of architectural barriers and the installation of suitable elevators in residential buildings of five storeys or more and in lower buildings that are particularly meant for use by old and disabled persons.

In granting loans for housing for special groups, the National Board of Housing takes into consideration the physical layout of the loan object, the rental contract, accommodations for the staff, and the cleaning and maintenance of dwellings.

In new residential production for special groups, the physical layout should be that of a normal residence for individual or shared use. Each residential building should have clearly delineated areas appropriately designed for resting, living and dining. Each dwelling unit has to contain personal hygiene facilities, an area fitted with a window for the preparation of food and an outdoor sitting area. Communal dwellings may be built for no more than five persons. Each person living in a communal dwelling should have his/her own separate room, with a door that can be locked.

In the remodelling of old dwellings, those principles of new construction which apply should be followed.

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