How to Design ADA Compliant Living Green Walls

ADA compliance is something that every interiorscaper, architect and interior designer needs to think about when they design, specify and build living walls. It’s boring stuff, but knowing the rules is essential to creating a successful living wall installation that passes building inspection.

First, a bit of history. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) and its subsequent Amendments prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation. These sweeping regulations have made an enormous impact on building design, construction and renovation.

I’m certain that almost everyone reading this post has come across the dreaded phrase “ADA compliance” sometime in their career. In fact, I was in middle school when I first learned about ADA compliance. My school district was expanding and needed to enlarge the high school (built in 1957) to accommodate new students. However, in order to renovate and expand the school they would need to bring it up to code with ADA compliance. It ended up being cheaper (at least, that’s how this story goes) to build an entirely new school rather than retrofit the old building. I’m proud to say that I was in the first class to graduate from the new high school.

How does all this apply to living walls? Most living walls (especially in retrofit situations) are considered “Protruding Objects” under the ADA regulations since they are mounted to and stick out from the wall. To prevent hazards to people with vision impairments, the ADA limits the projection of objects into circulation paths. These requirements apply to all circulation paths and are not limited to accessible routes. Circulation paths include interior and exterior walks, paths, hallways, courtyards, elevators, platform lifts, ramps, stairways and landings.

Here’s the official language from the ADA:

​307 Protruding Objects
307.2 Protrusion Limits.
Objects with leading edges more than 27 inches (685 mm) and not more than 80 inches (2030 mm) above the finish floor or ground shall protrude 4 inches (100 mm) maximum horizontally into the circulation path.

​​106.5 Defined Terms
​​Circulation Path. An exterior or interior way of passage provided for pedestrian travel, including but not limited to, walks, hallways, courtyards, elevators, platform lifts, ramps, stairways, and landings.

ADA Language

So what does this all mean for your next living wall project? Here’s the simple summary:

  • A living wall unit that’s mounted on the wall with a leading edge more than 27″ above the floor cannot protrude more than 4″ from the wall. However, side partitions or panels and wing walls can also be used to make protruding objects compliant as long as the bottom edge of the panels or partitions extends to or below the 27” threshold.
  • A living wall that’s mounted on the wall with a leading edge less than 27″ above the floor can protrude any amount. However, the ADA also specifies a minimum clear width of 36″ for any hallway, so the protrusion of the living wall cannot make a hallway less than 36″ wide.

Plant material is a somewhat grey area of the regulations. In my experience, only the solid portion of the living wall system counts as a protruding object (since brushing against plants is unlikely to injure someone).

ADA compliance is not a problem for most full scale living walls since they typically go all the way to the floor (or at least below the 27″ threshold). Protrusion limits do come into play for many of the smaller, self contained living wall units since they are usually mounted at eye level like a picture frame.

In conclusion, I would suggest that every interiorscaper read and understand the ADA regulations that pertain to their work. Arm yourself with knowledge of the relevant regulations so that you’re prepared for these types of questions from clients, architects or builders. Put an “ADA compliance checkbox” on your living wall planning checklist.

I invite you to comment below with your own personal ADA compliance stories.

Now get out there and build more living walls 🙂

Author’s note:
I’m not a certified building inspector nor have I received any formal training on the ADA regulations. I just wanted to share these observation with you so that you have something to think about before your next living wall installation. As always, please seek professional opinions from local architects and contractors who are well versed in the ADA regulations as well as other national and local building codes. On that note, if you are one of those professionals, please let me know if there’s any way I could improve or expand upon the information in this post.

References and further reading:
ADA Advisory Protrusion Limits
United States Access Board – Chapter 3: Protruding Objects 

Eric Westerduin is a co-founder of Suite Plants, a manufacturer of living wall systems. Eric is a registered Green Plants For Green Buildings trainer and presents the accredited Advanced Living Walls continuing education course to architects & interior designers across North America. Eric earned his Bachelor's degree from Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. To learn more about Eric or Suite Plants please visit www.suiteplants.com

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