12 to one or 8 to one; that is the question

International Residential Code changes are controversial

Anyone who has ever tried to navigate a too-steep ramp will want to weigh in proposed building code changes that will be voted on September 21. A lobbying and public education effort is underway to make sure the changes aren’t implemented.

The International Residential Code (IRC) is the building code that governs construction involving one and two-family homes in 46 states, including Minnesota. A proposal has been made by Rick Davidson, director of Building Inspection Services for the city of Maple Grove, to change the language in this code to allow wheelchair ramps that are too steep to be safe for the large majority of mobility device users. The change is being proposed as both a cost-savings measure and as a way to clear up ambiguity in the current code language. But disability advocates are worried that the change could create barriers to ramp users. If the change is adopted it could become a standard throughout the United States. Individuals would be getting advice from contractors that are just following the code, not the ability and safety to use the ramp.

The decision to approve or disapprove this change will be made September 21 at the International Code Council (ICC) annual meeting in Minneapolis. Several advocates and people with disabilities will provide testimony to the ICC members who will be voting to approve or disapprove the new language. The advocates hope to persuade the council to keep the standard for the slope of ramps for homes at 1 to 12. The ICC is a non-profit organization that develops the various codes used around the country.

Davidson’s proposal deals with the maximum or steepest slope allowed for ramps for access to single-family homes and duplexes. It would change the current code language that requires a 1 to 12 in most cases to code language that states “Ramps shall have a maximum slope of one unit vertical in eight horizontal.” Slope is determined by how many inches or feet of sloped surface (also called run) there are for each unit of height. For example, if the entrance to a home is 1 foot above the ground, an 8 foot long ramp creates a 1 to 8 slope and a 12 foot long ramp creates a 1 to 12 slope. The math also works by measuring both height and run in inches. It is important to remember that more units of run create a more gradual ramp and fewer units make the ramp steeper.

Jim Williams of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL) and Bob Zimmerman of the Minnesota Rehabilitation Services Independent Living section are coordinating efforts to block the Davidson proposal. The Statewide Council for Independent Living, the Minnesota Association of Independent Living Centers, the South Eastern Minnesota CIL and MCIL are co-sponsoring a booth at the ICC meeting. The booth will provide information regarding proper slopes for ramps.

Much of the public education efforts centers on a video, produced August 23 with the help of about a dozen volunteers. The video will provide powerful testimony about the problems and potential dangers caused by steep ramps. The volunteers, using a variety of mobility devices, were filmed using both a 1 to 8 and 1 to 12 ramp. All agreed using the steeper ramp was more difficult. In some cases, volunteers said the steeper ramp was even scary. Comments like “I had no idea pushing a wheelchair up a ramp could that hard” and “It’s really hard to maintain control going down this ramp” were common. The sound of wheelchair footrests scraping the floor when getting on or off the 1 to 8 ramp was often heard, with no similar occurrence on the 1 to 12 ramp.

The code current code language and the proposed change both establish the steepest allowable slope and do not prevent anyone from building a more gently sloped ramp if desired. According to Zimmerman, who has designed more than 3,000 ramps in the Twin Cities area since 1992, “a ramp with a 1 to 8 slope is so steep it will be difficult or dangerous for most people to just walk up and down. Changing the code language as proposed by Davidson will create the false impression that a 1 to 8 ramp is the right ramp to build because it is the code.”

Advocates note that building code officials are seen as sources of reliable information and many people confronted with the need to install a ramp at their home will contact their local code official to find out what to build. The official will tell them what the code is and many people take that to mean a 1 to 8 slope is what they should build. They will only find out it is too steep for them after it has been built.

The web site www.iccsafe.org has complete information about the International Code Council and how it develops the codes. Anyone can submit a code change proposal. The proposal is then reviewed by a committee and members of the organization vote to accept or reject the proposal. David-son’s proposal and 20 public comments requesting that it be disapproved can be found by going to the ICC website. In the drop down menu for Codes and Standards choose Code Development then choose 2007/2008 Code Development Cycle and scroll down to and select “Final Action Agenda”, scroll down to IRC residential code and click on RB2 – RB105 and in this section scroll down to RB 57.

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