LOC Restroom Fixes Called a Washout

Posted February 19, 2010 at 4:58pm

After renovating half of the restrooms in the John Adams Building at the Library of Congress with the goal of making them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and safety codes, the Architect of the Capitol failed to fully achieve either objective.

A recent internal report from the Office of Compliance outlines several issues with the 12 renovated restrooms, including doors that are too heavy for disabled individuals and visual alarms that are insufficient.

The office found “that a potential hazard was created by failing to install accessible doors on restrooms designated as ADA compliant because persons with mobility disabilities could become trapped inside,” OOC General Counsel Peter Eveleth wrote in a recent letter to officials at the Library of Congress and the AOC. “We also found that failure to mount the visual alarms at the correct height constitutes an [Occupational Safety and Health] violation.”

The report also outlines dozens of more minor violations, including toilet seats that are too high, stalls that lack enough space for wheelchair users to maneuver and toilet paper dispensers that obstruct grab bars.

“The OOC recognizes that remodeling restrooms to make them ADA compliant can be difficult in a building as old as the John Adams Building,” inspectors write in the report, later adding: “Nonetheless, many of the ADA access problems that continue to exist in these restrooms do not appear to be due to technical infeasibility.”

AOC officials would not say how much they have spent to renovate the restrooms, but in an e-mail, spokeswoman Eva Malecki called the OOC’s findings “minor construction punchlist items in a small percentage of the renovated restrooms.”

“The AOC has developed an action plan to correct these items and will be implementing these actions over the next several weeks,” she said. “A small number of items cannot be fully addressed because of structural limitations of the historic Adams Building. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes allowances for ‘reasonable accommodations’ and when these actions are completed, the restrooms will be fully accessible.”

OOC officials stressed that the report was “preliminary” and declined to answer questions on the issue until a final report is released in the coming months. Usually, the office would only conduct an inspection during their normal biennial review of ADA compliance in Congressional buildings. But the LOC Professional Guild requested the office look into the renovation after discovering that the construction would lead to almost 40 fewer toilets and urinals for Library employees.

The report found that the number of toilets meets federal guidelines. But it seems clear that, at the very least, AOC officials will have to modify the restrooms’ heavy doors.

In the report, OOC inspectors include e-mailed complaints from Library employees. One describes a librarian who now has to ask her co-workers to accompany her to the bathroom to open the doors and “make sure she could get out of her wheelchair.”

Officials are still discussing what changes will need to be made. So far, the AOC has completed two of four corners where the restrooms are located on each floor and is in the middle of renovating a third, Malecki said. The fourth will be renovated next year.

The main reason for the significant construction was to “improve building egress” from the stairwells in the Adams building. The original restrooms open directly into the building’s stairwells — a violation of current fire safety law. The renovations aimed to fix that violation while also improving ADA access and installing more energy-efficient plumbing.

But one of the main renovations — an empty “vestibule” between the restroom and the stairwell — appears completely unnecessary, according to the OOC report.

“No one could explain how this would improve fire safety,” OOC inspectors wrote in the report, though they note that the installation of a fire door on the restrooms abates the original fire code violation. “The current vestibule configuration does not meet fire code requirements for an alternative to direct access due to the vent in the inner door.”

The vestibules, they write, “are not required, and as installed, provide no significant additional protection during a fire emergency.”

That fact bothers some LOC employees, who have complained of the significant reduction in bathrooms because of the renovation. Women’s bathrooms were especially hard-hit, with the number of stalls decreasing from five to two. The main reason: the installing of the vestibule.

Saul Schniderman, president of the LOC Professional Guild, said the union and LOC officials have come to an agreement over the number of restrooms. For example, officials will switch one men’s restroom to a women’s restroom, and a “joint team” of LOC management and union members will inspect the completed bathrooms and make recommendations.

But many of those plans are on hold until the OOC investigation is complete, he said.

“We’re disappointed,” he said. “We’re disappointed in the whole project in the Adams building, from the design to the implementation.”