Designing Balconies for Disabled People

Approved Document M (ADM) gives guidance on how to comply with building regulations when designing visitable dwellings, accessible and adaptable dwellings and wheelchair user dwellings. It also highlights the need for accessible dwellings now and in the future. We are an aging population and we should be looking at access that accommodates the lifespan of a resident’s occupancy through inclusive design.

Legislation, regulations and best practice

To start, it is important to understand the relationship between legislation, regulations and best practice guidance. Within the context of inclusive design, building regulations are statutory and recognised as a minimum standard. The Equality Act 2010 is largely concerned with public rather than private space, therefore considerations of shared balconies or terraces may require detailing beyond the obligations in ADM Volume 1.  

It should be noted that discrimination legislation does not have a technical standard. The regulations in both Volume 1 and 2 of Approved Document M are statutory. However, Volume 2 states meeting ADM does not necessarily equate to compliance with the obligations and duties set out in the Equalities Act.  

Regulations are only one area of guidance and many aspects are not covered in detail within ADM, including, sizes of balconies, views and materials. The new BS 8579 covers some of details of balcony design and further guidance can also be obtained from BS 9266 and BS 8300 Volumes 1 and 2.  

Regulations vary between England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, so for the purposes of this article we are considering England. Part M of the Building Regulations requires that all new dwellings should be designed to a minimum of M4(1) visitable dwellings, and that local authorities can opt into, or switch on, requirements for M4(2) and M4(3) via Local Plan policy. A consultation took place in late 2020 which may result in changes to planning policy and it will be essential to establish which level of regulations are likely to be applied to the development to ensure that the correct standards are identified at an early stage of design.  

There may also be obligations under Approved Document B and the Regulatory Reform Order where they are located on a means of escape route, further guidance should be sought from an appropriate body.  

Requirements of inclusive design 

There are a number of key elements when we consider the requirements of balconies/terraces with regard to inclusive design. These are the size of the balcony, access to and exiting, safety, materials, details and sightlines. 

 To ensure equality in use, adequate space is required to provide access to enter, use and leave an area, including a balcony. There should also be a level threshold, sufficient door width, with correct detailing and an opening force of less than 30N. 

For balconies linked to individual dwellings the Building Regulation requirements vary between the three categories of Approved Document M.  

M4 (1) requires reasonable provision to approach, enter the dwelling and to access habitable rooms and sanitary facilities on the entrance storey. There is no mention of private balconies or external spaces.  

M4 (2) requires step free access to any associated private space directly connected to the entrance storey. For all external doors to balconies, connected or integral to the dwelling should provide: 

  • A door width minimum opening 850mm and, where these are double doors, the main or leading leaf provides the minimum width.  
  • There should also be a minimum 300mm leading edge to the door and that this is maintained for 1200mm. 
  • The depth of the reveal on the leading edge of the door is a maximum of 200mm. 
  • The threshold is accessible. Accessible is level, or if raised is no more than 15mm with chamfered upstands, where they are higher than 5mm. 

M4 (3) requires step free access into every private entrance to the dwelling and to every associated private outdoor space and communal facilities intended for the occupants to use. For all external doors to balconies, connected or integral to the dwelling, should provide: 

  • A door width minimum opening 850mm and where these are double doors the main or leading leaf provides the minimum width.  
  • There should also be a minimum 300mm leading edge provided to the leading edge of the door and that this is maintained for 1800mm. Depending on the type and direction of door opening, this may therefore impact on the required depth of balcony. 
  • A minimum 150mm nib is provided to the hinge side of the door.  
  • Additionally, there is a requirement for a minimum 200mm nib to be provided to the following edge and is maintained for 1500mm.  
  • The depth of the reveal on the leading edge of the door is a maximum of 200mm. 
  • The threshold is accessible. Accessible is level, or if raised is no more than 15mm with chamfered upstands where they are higher than 5mm.  

External private space should also provide a minimum clear width of 1500mm, a minimum 1500mm turning circle and ensure that all paved areas have a suitable ground surface. Door handles, lock, latches and catches (ironmongery) are required to be easy to grip and use and fitted at a height of 850-1000mm above floor level. 

Exceeding the minimum standard 

ADM4 (1) notes that there is no obligation to adopt any particular solution contained in an approved document, but as stated previously, regulations should be seen as a minimum to exceed rather than meetThe document is laid out to show that any text with a green background sets out the legal requirements. The key terms identified in Appendix A need to be considered carefully as the obligation is to meet these. Within the requirements for the various categories, the text identifies those aspects which are a legal requirement in green. However, there will be a balance to be struck between obligations and practicability; air pressure and water tightness on doors for instance, being the two most pressing elements. At higher levels this may be more problematic, but wherever possible level thresholds and opening pressures should be optimised. 

As designers we should be encouraging buildings to include access for all and health and safety should be the starting point.  As an example, a number of concerns have been raised on projects over the last few years for which guidance is not as clear cut as we would like. For example, some balcony doors have been installed which are very difficult and heavy to operate due the need to disengage two handles either side of the glazed door which then requires a person to push the door outwards and then slide it sideways. Once opened there is also no handle for a person to grip on the external door leaf.  

We would recommend that where these are included, whilst they may meet the regulations; there are dexterity and safety issues for young and old alike. The opening force of a balcony door should be such that they are accessible, power assistance should be considered, to enable the opening and closing of balcony doors.  

It is crucial that we design balconies with all of these documents in mind as well as seek feedback from disabled residents and end users. 

This article is based off an interview with Jane Simpson. Jane is a chartered architect and registered access consultant on the National Register of Access Consultants, and director of her own company. She has 27 years’ experience in inclusion and has represented RIBA on BS8579, assisting in advising on meeting regulations and outlining the legislative obligations and best practice guidance.  

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