A brief survey of studies on costs and benefits of non-handicapping environments

Presentation at the International Congress on Accessibility in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 1994. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/cib/cibrio94access.html

Presentation at the International Congress on Accessibility
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 1994

by Dr. Adolf Ratzka
Associate Coordinator of CIB/84 "Building Non-Handicapping Environments"
Department of Building Function Analysis
School of Architecture and Planning
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden


At the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm Professor Thiberg and I coordinate the Working Commission "Building Non-Handicapping Environments" which is part of the CIB network. CIB is the abbreviation of the French title of the International Council for Building Research, Studies and Documentation. CIB's purpose is to facilitate and develop international cooperation in building, housing and planning research, studies and documentation, covering not only the technical but also the economic and social aspects of building and the related environment. CIB, with its over 100 Working Commissions, works through congresses, symposia and colloquia.

Working Commission W84 "Building Non-Handicapping Environments" was founded in 1984. In the 10 years of our work we have had a number of international seminars in several world regions. At these events altogether some 500 persons participated and over 200 papers were given on various aspects of accessibility in the built environment. The proceedings of the meetings have been published by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. The documents present a wealth of information, studies and reports representing the state-of-the-art in access research in 40 countries.

Among the many issues taken up in the proceedings of our working commission one recurring topic is the cost of barrier free construction compared to the costs of building inaccessible environments. In the first part of my paper I will briefly summarize the results of a number of papers presented or referred to at our W84 events by researchers and practitioners from different countries. In the second part of my presentation I discuss some studies which put the additional costs of accessible construction in relation to the benefits that can be expected from barrier-free environments. I will conclude my paper with a few observations on the topic of costs, expected benefits and the politics of accessibility.


Accessibility standards

In discussing barrier-free design we first have to agree on the level of accessibility on which we base our comparisons. Shall we consider a building to be accessible where a wheelchair user with strong arms and hands can move around in a manual chair all by himself or herself? Are we looking at the level of accessibility needed by persons using power chairs like myself? Shall we assume that the access needs of persons using crutches or canes are also covered by design which is geared to wheelchair users? Do we include the access needs of persons with sight and hearing impairments? Shall we also consider the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities who might have difficulties in finding their way in a larger building? And, finally, what about the growing number of people who are allergic to various substances?

Which activities shall a barrier-free design support? Is it enough to enter and move about in a structure or do we include in our definition also the use of a building's facilities such as toilets, water fountains, telephones, vending machines, etc.? In residential structures, do we consider "visitability" as the standard or "liveability"?

These are only a few questions that come to mind in discussing accessibility in the built environment for persons with disabilities. The present paper is based on a survey of other studies which all are based on different access standards. For these reasons it is not possible to make exact comparisons between them nor is it possible to directly apply their results to other situations.

Macro vs. micro design

The concept of macro and micro planning, to my knowledge was first introduced by Selwyn Goldsmith (1981). Historically, people with disabilities have been isolated and shut off from society in the form of micro solutions, i.e. solutions specifically and exclusively geared to this group. Examples are special kindergartens, special schools, sheltered workshops, special and segregated housing, that is institutions. Our present cities are full of micro solutions: one accessible housing complex or shopping street in a whole city. one accessible phone booth in a row of inaccessible ones, one accessible public toilet within several city blocks. Macro planning, on the other hand, takes into account the needs of all citizens. As a consequence, the built environment will enable disabled people to participate in every aspect of society.

In the present paper I am discussing macro solutions, i. e. accessible structures and other environments that are not special purpose built for disabled persons.

Costs of barrier-free design

Organizations of disabled persons all over the world are demanding with growing indignation that their needs have to be taken into consideration in building our societies. They claim that accessibility is a human and civil right. They also maintain that an accessible built environment is a better and safer environment for all. A common answer to these arguments is that while accessible transportation, accessible public buildings, accessible housing, streets and parks, etc. would surely be good to have, we simply cannot afford it. In the struggle for barrier-free construction we have to meet this wide-spread attitude with solid facts and figures. Is universal design more expensive than "conventional" design and, if so, by how much?

Cost comparisons can be done in two way. One, an existing inaccessible building is to be brought up to a certain accessibility standard through renovation. What does this renovation cost compared to the original construction costs? Two, given an inaccessible building, what would have been the costs, if it had been constructed with universal access right from the beginning? Below I provide a brief survey over available studies that are referred to in the proceedings of our CIB W84 expert seminars. Most often, the studies only take up one type of comparison.

Public buildings

In a US study (Schroeder and Steinfeld, 1979) different types of existing structures were subjected to the two comparisons. The results are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Cost increases due to accessibility in public buildings. Renovation and original barrier-free design compared to conventional (inaccessible) structures.


  Col 1

Cost increase due to accessible renovation

Col 2

original barrier-free design

Col 1/Col 2
Convention hall 0.12% 0.02 % 6
Town Hall 0.2% 0.05% 4
College Classroom 0.51% 0.13% 4
Shopping center 0.22% 0.006% 35

Source: Schroeder and Steinfeld (1979) The estimated cost of accessible buildings.
US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Regarding the first type of comparison, what is the cost of accessible retrofitting compared with original construction costs, the estimates range from 0.12 per cent to 0.5 per cent. The other comparisons, how much more it would have cost, if the structures had been designed without barriers right from the beginning, range from 0.006% in the case of the shopping center to 0.13% in the case of the college classroom.

A 1980 study by the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority referred to by Harrison (CIB W84 Report 1993) used a type two cost comparison for a large center consisting of commercial offices, multi-storey car park, food center and market). A controlled costing exercise was carried out to compare the cost of the building with and without facilities of access for disabled persons, and the conclusion was that these could be provided for an additional 0.11 per cent of the total cost.

Residential construction

Housing involves more functions than office buildings, classrooms or supermarkets. Also, housing structures tend to be smaller and access features will make up a larger portion of total construction.

Regarding multi-family housing, a French study referred to by Armani (CIB W84 Report 1993) estimated the additional costs for bringing up multi-family housing to accessibility standard, on an average, to between 0.5 and 1.0 per cent of total construction costs in new construction. The same estimates for multi-family housing have been made by the Swedish Building Research Council for Sweden. Almost identical results are reported by Wrightson and Pope (1989) regarding Australia where the Australian Uniform Building Regulations Coordinating Council had undertaken comparative cost studies. Wrightson and Pope comment that for new projects the exercise to identify extra costs of access features might be more expensive than the design time required to include them.

Phillipen (CIB W84 Report 1993) reports from German studies on multi-family housing that the difference in cost between traditional (read inaccessible) construction and the new type of barrier-free building construction is negligible. The studies resulted in additional investments of between 3.01 to 3.2 per cent of total cost which, according to Philipen, can be neglected since rearranging of financing and logistics in a building project, can very well compensate for this minor increase.

Research on single-family units has been carried out in Canada. In Ottawa, 9 specially designed units in a project of 54 townhouses cost 8 - 10 per cent more than the others but added only 0.5 per cent to the overall project cost. The effect on rental scales is therefore negligible. (This cost comparison does not involve universal access, since the other 45 townhouses apparently were not accessible.) A report by the Canadian Mortgage Housing Company of 17 case studies indicated that, in most cases, the accessibility features added 0.39 - 0.53 per cent to the building cost. (Champagne CIB W84 Report 1988) Dunn (CIB W84 Report 1993) reports that in an actual project, Project Open House, an average of only $1,500 was spent in 1986 to adapt existing homes of consumers to make them accessible. He also refers to a US study by Bartelle Memorial Institute which found that if accessibility is incorporated into a design prior to construction, the cost of making 10 per cent of the units accessible is less than 1 per cent of the total constructions costs. (Again, a comparison not based on universal access design.)

Various studies by U.S. HUD have estimated the costs of "adaptable" housing, that is housing with basic access features that easily can be complemented by individuals as needed. The findings were about one-half of one per cent of new construction costs. A recent H.U.D. study for guidelines for the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 showed an average cost increase of 0.5 per cent in typical single-family homes in four suburban projects. (Park CIB W84 Report 1993)

The US study conducted by Schroeder and Steinfeld (1979) already referred to above also contains housing examples shown in the following table.

Table 2. Cost increases due to accessibility in residential buildings. Renovation and original barrier-free design compared to conventional (inaccessible) structures.


  Col 1

Cost increase due to accessible renovation

Col 2

original barrier-free design

Col 1/Col 2
High rise tower multi-family structure. 1.0% 0.25% 4
Single family homes, one floor 21% 3.0% 7
College dormitory 0.40% 0.10% 4

Source: Schroeder and Steinfeld (1979) The estimated cost of accessible buildings. US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The results of this study indicate that accessible renovation amounted up to 21 per cent of the total construction in single-family units and to a maximum of 1 per cent in high rise multi-family apartments. Designing the structures from the very beginning barrier free would have cost only 3 per cent in their single-family example and 0.25 per cent more in the high-rise complex they studied.

In analyzing the studies presented so far we can derive several conclusions. For one, whether making an existing building accessible or designing it from scratch without barriers, the smaller the unit of comparison, the larger the additional costs due to access features. This explains why it will cost more to make housing accessible than public buildings, and single-family housing more expensive than multi-family housing.

The most consistent result is that renovating existing buildings is much more expensive than building the same structure with barrier free design from the beginning. The latter is between 4 and 35 times cheaper (see Col 1/Col 2) in the tables.

Single-family home builders often point out that even in the case of new construction the additional costs due to access features will be far too high for the market, implying that nobody would buy their accessible houses. When analyzing their cost estimates Park (CIB W84 Report 1993) has found that often builders have not changed their thinking and see access as a matter of adding on extra features rather than incorporating access already in the basic design. "Stretching old plans to meet particular elements of new design requirements makes them more expensive than re-designing anew. A relatively small investment in architectural costs will result in lower construction costs for access. Inevitably there are some transitional costs associated with any change in codes and regulations. With public accommodations we have seen these smooth out once suppliers begin to provide standard products and materials that meet access requirements." (Park CIB W84 Report 1993) This requires major rethinking on the part of all actors. If building laws and regulations at all levels incorporate disabled people's needs in the every-day design practice and on-site construction work, the whole industry including planners, architects, suppliers of fittings and materials will be forced to change. Standards for materials, such as doors, for example, and new routines will change to meet the new specifications. Thereafter the difference in costs of products between the old and new standard will be negligible. A 80 cm wide door blade does not cost that much more than a 60 cm wide one. A wider door means fewer bricks for the wall, and the differences in cost disappear.

We can conclude from the studies presented so far that access legislation would raise new construction costs in public buildings by less than 0.1 per cent, on an average, in multi-family housing by up to 3 per cent and in single-family homes (single floor) also up to 3 per cent. It is probably safe to assume that once architects', builders' and suppliers' experience with universal access design has become deeper and more wide-spread, costs will come down considerably.

Benefits of barrier-free design

The built environment represents one of the largest investments in any country. There is no other industry that is more capital intensive than the real estate industry. As with all investments the amounts to be invested have to be seen in relation to the expected gains. Thus, the additional costs of making structures accessible, have to be compared to the expected benefits.

What then are the expected benefits from barrier free design? There are basically two groups: tangible ones, that is those that can be expressed in dollars and cents and so-called intangible benefits which are more difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

Among tangible benefits will be reduction in accidents, their related costs in terms of health services and loss of production. The reasoning is that accessible environments are also safe environments (see Wrightson and Pope). Examples are ramps rather than steps, elevators instead of staircases. According to the World Health Organization "accidents cause more deaths than any single illness except cancer and cardiovascular disease" (quoted in Ratzka 1984). The number of accidents due to stairs and the associated costs to society can be and has been estimated (see for example Ratzka 1984).
Another tangible benefit is the increase in housing quality which most access features entail. Elevators are a convenience, the wider doors and hallways, kitchens and bathrooms are also quality increasing features which the housing market values in the form of higher rents or property prices.

Among other tangible benefits is the decreased demand for institutional residential living on the part of many older persons who often are forced to leave their own inaccessible dwelling and move to nursing homes or old age homes. Given an accessible environment in their old home, however, many of them would be able to manage longer by themselves and stay out of institutions. Dunn (1993), for example, refers to a study which found that 50 per cent of the applicants to a residential center for the aged in Boston were capable of functioning in the community with appropriate supports and accessible housing.

In some countries old and disabled persons are eligible to use public home help or personal assistance services. Again, an accessible environment will reduce the need for such services with savings to the public as a result. In places where such services are provided not by the state but by the family, a barrier free environment results in less work for the relatives - often the daughters or wives - who will have better opportunities on the labor market outside the home which results in higher production and gains to the national economy.

Other benefits are more difficult to quantify such as the improvement in disabled persons' freedom of movement and social mobility. Given barrier free environments more persons with disabilities can educate themselves and enter the labor market. I am aware that inaccessible transportation systems, schools and workplaces are not the sole reason for the sky-high rate of unemployment among persons with disabilities. From my own personal experience, however, I would not underestimate the daily expenditures of physical and mental energy and monetary costs that are needed to pursue gainful employment in handicapping environments.

Cost-benefit analysis

Cost-benefit analysis is a tool to compare the magnitudes of the costs of a given investment to its expected benefits over time in order to assess the desirability of projects. Given the scarcity of resources, those projects would then be given priority where the ratio of expected benefits over costs is higher than in other projects.

There are only a few studies which have tried to apply cost-benefit analysis to investments in accessibility. The first of its kind, as far as I know, is the study commissioned by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and carried out by Chollet (1979). It focuses on accessibility of a specified level, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard A117.1 of 1978. Cost comparisons between institutional and community living for older persons and people with disabilities are used to estimate the benefits of renovating existing buildings and removing architectural barriers. The analysis contains case studies of three types of residential structures: high rise apartments, garden apartments, and single-family homes. Only easily measurable economic costs and benefits accruing to disabled individuals are included. Cost estimates refer to bringing up the structures to the ANSI standard. The estimated benefits are the market value of personal assistance services that disabled persons are now able to provide for themselves due to the absence of architectural barriers. The findings are that in the instances studied, renovating housing without barriers yields benefits which amount to 13 to 22 times the level of the renovation costs. These overwhelmingly positive results, however, are due mainly to a decisive limitation of the study: the assumption was made that the renovated units would be rented to disabled tenants only. In that way the study avoids the difficult methodological issue of assessing the rate of utilization by disabled tenants but loses much of its value as an argument for universal access design. It assumes 100 per cent utilization, that is ghettos. Universal access design on the other hand, implies that a structure is made accessible regardless of who will move in and when. Universal means just that: all housing is to be built accessible as a principle.

The only study, that I am aware of, which incorporates a universal design philosophy is Ratzka 1984. In that study a large actual housing area in the city of Stockholm consisting of three-story walk-up apartments built in the 1940's and 1950's was analyzed. In the 1980's the units had to undergo major modernization and the question was raised whether the opportunity should be used to equip all these buildings with elevators. By that time Sweden had developed a technology of retrofitting this type of apartment structure with elevators. Each elevator would serve only nine apartments in the study area. The costs of the installation was known. The question asked was, what does it cost not to install elevators. The costs of not installing elevators are the lost benefits in the form of reduced number of accidents, reduced demand for residential institutions by the present tenants, reduced demand for municipal home help services and the market valuation of elevators as an amenity. The benefits were estimated using the calculated probability that a given apartment would be occupied by a household with an old and disabled member. In other words, it was not assumed that all apartments would be occupied all the time by disabled persons, as the H.U.D. study did. Despite these very hard assumptions, however, the results of the study allow the conclusion that society would gain from elevator installation. Applied to new construction of apartment housing, the results of the study suggest tremendous gains to society by making all new housing construction barrier free.

"Intangible" costs of handicapping environments

Studies of this type seem always unsatisfactory, since they have to leave out many factors that are impossible to quantify but are decisive nevertheless. Some of the most important costs of handicapping environments fall in this category. In the following I would like to briefly summarize some of the social costs of inaccessible environments.

Inaccessible environments not only discriminate against us in very concrete ways, they also affect us in more subtle ways. An example: Assume that you as the employer are interviewing a job applicant for a staff position. Your office can be reached via a flight of steps only. The job applicant is a wheelchair user and has to be carried upstairs. In this situation, is it not likely that the applicant's helplessness in climbing stairs might also affect your assessment of his or her mental abilities? And is it not possible that a person who all his life is made dependent on other people at every step will begin to see himself dependent on other people also in other respects? For the people around us and even for ourselves it is not always clear that the problem is not within us, is not because we are incompetent and passive, but because architects, planners and politicians deny us our equal rights.

Micro solutions, that is isolated examples of barrier free design that are limited to one particular building or area, will not do. In a micro society disabled people will be reminded at literally every step of the limits that somebody else has imposed on them. Micro solutions represent accessible islands in an otherwise inaccessible ocean. Outside these islands people with disabilities appear helpless and are made to feel helpless. In a micro world people with disabilities are made dependent on the choices that architects and planners consider sufficient for them.

The physical and mental energy spent on coping with our inaccessible cities, the imposed restrictions in life style, occupational and social opportunities are costs borne not only by disabled people, their families and friends but by all citizens. The economist will call these costs "intangible", but to the actual people involved they are as tangible as a flight of stairs.


I am afraid that studies of the type I have summarized here will not convince property owners to make their structures accessible. The costs of the modifications are borne by the individual owner, most of the gains, on the other hand, benefit somebody else. What matters to the individual owner is the cash-flow that he sees in his bank account, not the gains that accrue to such a diffuse entity as "society".

The policy implications of this brief survey on the relative costs of accessibility seem to be that in the case of renovating existing structures the state, that is the entity that includes all those who benefit from investments in universal access design, must provide economic incentives in some form of other. When it comes to new construction, the additional costs of universal access design, if any, are so negligible that they can be borne by the owner who, in turn, may pass them on to the users. Thus, as economist, I have no scruples to suggest comprehensive and effective legislation that guarantees all new construction, both public buildings and residences, to be barrier free.

I want to close with a personal observation. Although I am an economist by training, I have difficulties in using economic arguments when it comes to such basic human rights as freedom of movement and the right to participate in society on equal terms. Human and civil rights cannot be expressed in dollars and cents. If our countries can afford to invest billions in the most sophisticated weapons to kill and disable other human beings, then our governments surely have enough money to invest in a barrier free society, a more democratic and human society for all.


More recent cost-benefit studies are available from
Prof. Edward Steinfeld
Adaptive Environment. Lab.
112 Hayes Hall, 3435 Main St.
Buffalo, NY 14214
United States


Deborah J. Chollet (1979) A cost-benefit Analysis of accessibility. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington.

Steven Schroeder and Edward Steinfeld (1979) The estimated cost of accessible buildings. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington.

Selwyn Goldsmith (1981) The built environment - who does it handicap? Proceedings of the research colloquium: The built environment and the handicapped. Department of Housing Design Chalmers Technical University, Gothenburg.

Adolf Ratzka (1984) The cost of disabling environments. Swedish Council for Building Research D9:1984, Stockholm.

William Wrightson and Campbell Pope (1989) From Barrier free to save environments: The New Zealand experience, World Rehabilitation Fund Monograph #44, World Rehabilitation Fund, New York.

Report of the International Expert Seminar 'Building Concept for the Handicapped' in Stockholm, April 10-12, 1984 . Stockholm: The Royal Institute of Technology, Dept. of Building Function Analysis, 1987.

Renewal of Inner Cities and Accessibility for Old and Disabled Citizens: Proceedings of the Second CIB W84 Expert Seminar 'Building Non-Handicapping Environments', Prague, October 15-17, 1987. Stockholm: The Royal Institute of Technology, Dept. of Building Function Analysis, 1988.

Accessibility in Developing Countries: Proceedings of the Third CIB W84 Expert Seminar 'Building Non-Handicapping Environments', Tokyo, September 8, 1988 . Stockholm: The Royal Institute of Technology, Dept. of Building Function Analysis, 1989.

Access Design Solutions and Legislation: Proceedings of the Fourth CIB W84 Expert Seminar 'Building Non-Handicapping Environments', Budapest, September 3-5, 1991. Stockholm: The Royal Institute of Technology, Dept. of Building Function Analysis, 1993.

Access Design Solutions and Legislation: Proceedings of the Fifth CIB W84 Expert Seminar 'Building Non-Handicapping Environments', Harare, January 7-9, 1992. Stockholm: The Royal Institute of Technology, Dept. of Building Function Analysis, 1993.

Legislación sobre accesibilidad - Soluciones de diseño, Documentación del CIB W84 "Building Non-Handicapping Environments" Seminario-Taller , Montevideo, Uruguay, Mayo de 1992, Royal Institute of Technology, Department of Building Function Analysis, Estoccolmo, 1993.


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