Member Expertise: TOLA Architecture on How to Meet ADA Requirements in NYC Renovation Projects

TOLA WC lift progress photo

Architects, engineers, interior designers, and other design professionals are one of our coworking space’s biggest customer segments here at Brooklyn Creative League. Many of BCL’s architect members specialize in home renovation throughout Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods—Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Boerum Hill, Ft. Greene, and Clinton Hill.

But Keary Horiuchi and Lisa Mann, the husband-and-wife team behind TOLA Architecture, have carved out a unique niche among their peers: renovation projects for handicap accessibility and aging in place.

We sat down with Keary recently to talk about his firm’s work, the challenges of designing for accessibility in New York City, and how homeowners should think about the tradeoffs involved in renovating for accessibility.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

TOLA Architecture Helps Your Home Renovation Project Meet ADA Requirements

Tell us a little bit about TOLA Architecture.

Keary Horiuchi: TOLA has been in existence for about 15 years, and I’d say that 90 percent of our work is residential renovations. The work my partner, Lisa [Mann] and I do is pretty different than the work we did earlier in our careers with was all very big: big companies, big offices, doing a whole lot of big stuff. We’re a much smaller company now, and our work is mostly smaller, high-end residential projects—everything from combining apartments and condos and co-ops, to renovating single-family houses.

How did you get into designing for accessibility?

Well, I’ve been interested in accessibility ever since I started my career as an architect. In 1987, the city adapted its building codes sort of dovetail with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, and those guidelines have kind of permeated just about every sort of design type—residential, commercial, and institutional. So when we worked at other offices earlier in our careers on those bigger offices and institutional projects I mentioned earlier, we had to accommodate wheelchair accessibility and all the ADA requirements. As we shifted into residential work after starting TOLA, we found that a lot of our experience with ADA compliance was incredibly relevant to projects in multifamily buildings.

Tell us more. Are all multifamily buildings subject to ADA compliance?

“Typically, if you’re doing a major renovation in an apartment building with four or more units, that needs to be ADA accessible.”

Well, it’s a little complex, but typically, if you’re doing a major renovation in an apartment building with four or more units, that needs to be ADA accessible.

If you’re an owner of a three-family house or smaller, you are basically exempt. If you have a house that doesn’t really comply and you’re not truly affecting it in any way substantially that requires permits, you can kind of grandfather it. But most people want to do that renovation when they buy a house, and it oftentimes entails putting in ramps or sometimes elevators.

Consider Accessibility as a Good Long-Term Investment

“More people are viewing it as a good long-term investment.”

Does designing for accessibility make your home more valuable? How do you measure the return on investment for a homeowner who is considering an ADA-compliant renovation?

That’s an interesting question. Five to ten years ago, I would have told you that, if you’re going to make the investment towards accessibility and ADA compliance, it was really kind of a personal decision because you had certain needs—either yourself, or your family, or perhaps others. But now, one of the things that I’m discovering as I get into ADA for homeowners—especially those who have one- to two-family houses—is that more people are viewing it as a good long-term investment.

Why do you think that more people are viewing it as a long-term investment?

For a lot of homeowners, it’s about tradeoffs. A couple of years ago, a client asked us to do a feasibility study for putting in a handicap ramp in a two-family house in East New York. And the situation was, a Hofstra professor had a father who was going into a nursing home in North Carolina. The nursing home was going to be wildly expensive, so she hired us to help her figure out if it made economic sense for her to renovate her two-family home so her father could move into her second unit. It might have made financial sense, but she couldn’t negotiate the change in elevation from the curb to her front doorstep.

She was trying to figure out how much it would cost to get that wheelchair lift in the house for her father. We did a quick study. I talked to some lift manufacturers and a few contractors, and, at the end of the day, it was probably going north of $100,000 all in, permits, fees, construction.

Architects Can Help Find Affordable Solutions for Accessibility Needs

“The challenge for architects is to find creative, affordable solutions to help our clients age in place.”

You can spend $100K just for the elevator?

Just for the lift. And she decided, you know, “I just don’t have the money upfront to do that.” Instead, she talked to her sister, who wasn’t interested in bringing in their father, but there was no choice, so they ended up going for it because it was cheaper in the long run than paying for a nursing home.

Fast forward to 2018, one of my contractors had a 77-year-old client who needed to have a lift installed. I warned them, “You know, you’re looking at six figures, you’re looking at a lot of permits, do you wanna do it?” And she said, “Absolutely.” Her daughter had moved in two blocks away and she wanted to see her grandchildren grow up. She didn’t want to move to Florida, or New Jersey, or the burbs. She was heavily invested from a personal standpoint. Even though she had a one-family house, installing a lift was the best way for her to ensure that she’d be able to stay around to watch her grandchildren grow up.

This is a larger trend. On one hand, New York City’s housing stock doesn’t lend itself naturally to wheelchairs. But, on the other hand, you have a growing population that wants to stay in the city as they get older. So the challenge for architects is to find creative, affordable solutions to help our clients age in place.

What are the top three-to-five items homeowners should consider when they’re designing for accessibility? What questions should they be asking their architects?

A lot of this really comes down to money. Installing a lift can run over $100,0000—and that’s a big chunk of change. Now, it can be feathered in a little more easily if they’re thinking of doing a larger renovation for the interior of their house, not just the exterior accessibility. The indelicate question is how long are you going to live? Then, based on all of your estate planning, all of your retirement plans, all that sort of stuff—then you have to decide if that six-figure investment is worth it. Money, mortality, proximity to family, physical mobility—these are thorny issues for a lot of people.

Consider What Your Life at Home Will Look Like in the Next Few Years

What are some of the no-brainer things that architects and homeowners should do? Perhaps using door handles instead of knobs or leveling transom saddles so rooms are wheelchair accessible?

“Spending $10,000 now could help save $100,000 years from now.”

Both the ADA and its municipal equivalent—Local Law 8758—explicitly require those types of things. In multifamily buildings, we have to show door hardware—both locations as well as push and pull specifications—but also door swings that can accommodate wheelchair turn radiuses. Those are all things that I’d love to see as standard in single-family and two-family renovations. Because that is something that you can do early—and at relatively little cost—that will lay the foundation for larger, more substantial renovations undertaken decades from now when your needs change. Spending $10,000 now could help save $100,000 years from now.

What are the top three challenges you contend with when you design for accessibility?

The key driver for most of this is real estate. We live in a city where the cost of land is dear, so all the buildings are built really tightly so as to maximize every square foot. Accommodating for wheelchairs means you need more room. And that’s really a tough sell for people who want bigger living rooms or bigger bathrooms. What is going to give in terms of the finite footprint? Are you willing to shrink your bedroom so you can have wider, wheelchair accessible hallways?

Some of it is value engineering. Perhaps making a hallway wider in certain areas but not others. Then, if there is a subtraction from, say, a bedroom, how can you use that subtraction to create value. Maybe it’s creating a closet niche out of “wasted” space. Basically, all the tricks of the trade that architects learn in terms of trying to squeeze every square inch to meet clients’ needs.

I want to close with an open-ended question: What project are you most proud of and why?

I’m actually proud of this one wheelchair lift. I mean, it’s not a high design project but it really meets my client’s needs. And at this stage of my career, I appreciate the balance that brings to my work. I’m not just thinking about designing high-end trophy kitchens for the 1% that—although I love that work, too. But the 77-year-old woman has multiple sclerosis, she’s a fierce advocate for handicap accessibility throughout the city, and she’s willing to pay a lot of money so that she can see her grandkids. Helping her do all of that is very gratifying.


We look forward to bringing you more member news and project updates in the New Year. Want to share projects, accomplishments, and advice with our community? Reach out to Neil or Erin!