New Research Shows Retrofitting for Accessibility Can be Cost Effective

Darryl Condon doesn’t mince words when it comes to addressing barriers in the built environment.

As an Advisory Committee member for the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) program, Darryl firmly believes accessibility is a fundamental right, asserting that everyone should have the freedom to navigate any space – regardless of ability.

“It’s a social justice issue,” emphasized Darryl, Managing Principal for Vancouver-based architecture and design firm, hcma. “Designing buildings for the public is a privilege, and with that, comes a responsibility to eliminate as many barriers to participation, for the widest range of people, as possible.”

While provisions for universal access and inclusion are increasingly being considered in the early project planning stages, they have yet to become the widely accepted or implemented standard. Darryl indicated  fear can often prevent people from thinking outside the box.

Shas Ti Kelly Road Secondary School, Prince George BC – credit Martin Tessler

“There’s a worry that designing for access and inclusion can interfere with one’s creativity – a notion I completely reject. Architects and designers are creative people; we are constantly asked to create optimal solutions that consider a wide range of criteria and constraints,” he said, “Accessibility should just be another requirement of design.”

A lack of awareness may also be a barrier to implementation, Darryl suggested, pointing to research – empirical evidence and data-driven insights – as one way to inform and encourage industry professionals to do better.

Such research – exemplified by two recent cost comparison studies published by hcma in 2020 and 2024, in partnership with the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) – found that even small considerations for access and inclusion could yield significant benefits, without much added cost.

“There are all these typical excuses that are used as to why buildings aren’t accessible. It’s too hard or too difficult or too expensive. But, with intent and awareness, it’s not difficult,” Darryl said. “This research makes it clear that the barriers that get put up are false, that it’s not a cost issue.”

The Growing Need for Accessible Spaces

To make the case for increased accessibility in Canada, one needs only to look at our changing demographics. According to the Angus Reid Institute, nearly half of Canadian adults have a permanent or temporary disability – or live with someone who does. This trend is predicted to escalate as our population ages.

Retrofits and Upgrades Cost Study: report cover – credit hcma architecture + design

Legislation is beginning to respond, as evidenced by the federal government’s 2019 Accessible Canada Act and other recent provincial legislations around accessibility. To date, however, the focus has been on eliminating barriers in new construction, and glaring gaps remain when it comes to ensuring meaningful access in existing buildings.

A recent report from the Canadian Urban Institute states, “the vast majority of buildings we will need by 2050 are already built.” While this report is primarily commenting on environmental sustainability and the need to convert existing structures to zero-emission standards, a compelling argument can be made that truly sustainable spaces must also be accessible and inclusive.

“It’s often said, and I think it’s true, that the most sustainable building is the one that already exists,” said Darryl. “There’s an increasing focus on retrofitting existing buildings instead of building new. The environmental and sustainability priorities are leading us in that direction, and I would agree that over the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see even more focus on retrofitting.”

If building owners and operators are already doing the work to upgrade their facilities from an energy efficiency standpoint, there is no better time to consider accessibility, added Darryl.

A Toolkit for Access

Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility CertificationTM (or RHFAC) is one tool designers, decision makers, and building operators can use to ensure we’re building a future that includes everyone. The program measures and ranks meaningful accessibility of a building or site to encourage design and operational best practice.

To achieve RHFAC Gold – the highest rating tier – a given site or building must meet prerequisites and receive a minimum score of 80% under the program. The ratings are conducted by designated RHFAC Professionals, and the program offers a variety of accessibility training courses for organizations and building industry professionals.

In addition to accessibility recommendations for mobility, hearing, and vision disabilities, the latest version of the RHFAC Rating Survey (v4.0), released in January 2024, includes considerations for neurodivergent individuals. The Rating Survey was created in consultation with a diverse group of experts, including people with disabilities.

Little Improvements Make a Big Difference

In an effort to debunk some of the myths that have commonly prevented people from tackling accessibility upgrades in existing buildings, hcma has spent more than a year exploring the associated costs of achieving RHFAC Gold under v3.0 of the Rating Survey.

The team started by looking at the building types where many of us spend the bulk of our waking hours – school and work – conducting accessibility audits of 10 RHFAC-rated office towers and 10 RHFAC-rated schools.

For the purposes of the study, all the buildings were constructed between 1974 to 2019 in Ontario and British Columbia (in or near large urban centres), with researchers developing prototype buildings based on typical conditions and features of these sites to determine average costs to retrofit.

Researchers calculated the estimated cost – per unit of gross floor area – to reach RHFAC Gold, determining the cost to be $1.50 per square foot for office buildings (base building spaces only) and $9.00 per square foot for schools. When upgrades are completed over periods of five, 10, or 15 years, these costs are even lower, dropping to as low as 10 cents and sixty cents per square foot, respectively.

“The cost to achieve a meaningful level of access is remarkably low when building owners amortize the cost over time,” said Darryl. “Owners are constantly investing money to maintain and update their buildings. Dedicating cents per square foot to make these buildings more inclusive should be standard and expected.”

Even more encouraging, the research found there were numerous ways to enhance accessibility at minimal or no expense. Of the 99 potential upgrades identified for office buildings and the 167 identified for school buildings, approximately 60% cost $50,000 or less.

Low-cost modifications included implementing assistive listening systems, such as hearing loops, at reception desks; adding braille to directory boards and room signage; installing directional signage with prominent colour contrast; and moving washroom features to accessible heights and locations.

No-cost improvements, meanwhile, could involve relocating furniture or waste bins to ensure sufficient clearances for moving and turning for people using mobility devices, such as wheelchairs or crutches.

Awareness Is a Good Starting Point

While retrofitting for accessibility may seem daunting, it need not be overly complex.

“If you have understanding and awareness, along with a strategy to take these upgrades on over time, many of the improvements are economical. With an existing building, identifying the needs is one thing, but then there’s a whole series of approaches you can take to actually implementing and improving,” said Darryl.

“That’s where the study also shows a tremendous amount of flexibility for building owners to achieve higher levels of accessibility in a manageable way. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Important factors for owners and operators to consider when deciding which accessibility upgrades to undertake include life and safety; dignity; overall impact of upgrades; and integration with other currently planned upgrades.

Check out the full research report for more details, or the summary infographic.


The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.