Providing Access to Historic Properties

The Americans with Disabilities Act

Texas State Capitol, ramp at north entranceThe Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted by Congress in 1990, is a broad civil rights statute, of which only a portion deals with building and site design. The law is meant to eliminate, as much as possible, unnecessary barriers encountered by persons with disabilities, whose ability to engage in gainful occupations or to achieve maximum personal independence is needlessly restricted. Contrary to a widely held belief, historic buildings and sites are not exempt from compliance. The spirit of the accessibility laws can virtually always be met, if carefully planned, without destroying the historic characteristics of a property. The Texas Historical Commission (THC) can assist property owners and architects in finding solutions for accessibility issues at historic buildings and sites.

The U.S. Department of Justice enforces ADA requirements at the federal level. In Texas, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) enforces ADA as it relates to building design. Rather than use the federal design guidelines, Texas adopted its own version, the Texas Accessibility Standards (TAS). Please note that the 2012 TAS became effective on March 15, 2012 and supersedes the previous 1994 version of the TAS. Both versions can be found on the TDLR website.

Some architectural issues covered by the code include: entrances, door widths, restroom sizes and fixtures, elevators, service counters, and signs and parking, among others. TAS requirements apply to newly constructed or substantially renovated buildings. Publicly owned or leased buildings are covered by the requirements, while private single-family residences are not. Privately owned buildings considered "public accommodations" are also covered by the law.

Examples of buildings considered to be public accommodations:

  • An inn, hotel, motel or other place of lodging, except a lodging with no more than five rooms for rent that is also the residence of the proprietor (for example, a bed-and-breakfast)
  • A restaurant, bar or other establishment serving food or drink
  • A theater, concert hall, stadium or other exhibition or entertainment venue
  • An auditorium, convention center, lecture hall or public gathering place
  • An establishment for retail sales or rentals
  • Service establishments (lawyer, barber shop, etc.)
  • Public transportation facilities
  • Recreational spots such as parks, zoos or amusement parks
  • Education facilities, all levels, and both public and private
  • Social service centers
  • Places of exercise and recreation

Enforcement Procedures

Construction or alteration projects costing more than $50,000 must have architectural plans submitted to TDLR prior to construction. Smaller projects are still subject to the law but do not have to submit plans.

Historic Buildings

Buildings being altered require less accommodation than new construction. Historic buildings are expected to comply with the requirements for altered buildings to the fullest extent possible. If full compliance with the TAS code would threaten or destroy the historic or architectural significance of the building, then alternative minimum requirements can be used for that item or feature. A letter from the THC is required to be submitted with a variance application in this case. Other variances may be available from TDLR if compliance is economically infeasible, generally considered to be more than 20 percent of the project cost. Variances are also possible if compliance is technically infeasible when, for example, structural members are in the way, or the space is not large enough to meet the requirements. Due to the complexity of the TAS regulations, the THC recommends that the owners of historic buildings and sites planning a construction or alteration project utilize the services of a licensed architect and/or Registered Accessibility Specialist.

For more information on providing access to historic properties, please contact your county's Division of Architecture project reviewer.