Steps to Victory
AAADM’s Joe Hetzel on the 10-year journey to update IBC accessibility standards
Blog 1, January 2021
The International Building Code (IBC) for 2021 includes a provision long sought by accessibility advocates: the mandated inclusion of automatic doors for entrances to public buildings. We spoke with Joe Hetzel, technical advisor to the American Association of Automatic Door Manufacturers (AAADM), who played a crucial role in the creation and passage of the update to IBC 1105.1.1. Here is a summary of his thoughts on that decade-long journey.
I remember one particular trip to Washington, D.C., for another International Code Committee (ICC) accessibility standard meeting. It had already been an exhausting road as we championed automatic doors as an accessibility solution. I was taking a walk afterward and ended up standing in front of the White House. That’s when it struck me, that here in the nation’s capital, we were on the cusp of bringing greater freedom to people with mobility issues and other physical challenges. I took out my phone and called into the AAADM office. I said, “I think we’re finally making headway.”
This was 2013, five years into our effort. It would be another five years before automatic doors would be a requirement in a model building code.
My point with this story is not to criticize the committee. We all know that change takes time. My point is that, if you stick to it, stay positive, and celebrate the little victories along the way, you can eventually accomplish something that will positively impact people’s lives—in our case, under the mantra of “automatic doors enhance accessibility.”
When we first started talking to the committee about a mandate for automatic doors on public buildings, we heard many viewpoints. Committees give voice to a wide variety of opinions so nothing happens in a vacuum. There were a few members who thought we just wanted to sell more automatic doors. But from day one, I was adamant that the issue here was accessibility (hence our mantra).
I was long aware that traditional, non-automatic doors can pose problems for people living with a broad spectrum of challenges. And it’s not just people with mobility issues that are impacted. Automatic doors make life easier for the blind and even for the elderly, who might not have the physical strength to open certain non-automatic doors, especially those in vestibules where a vacuum can be created.
Sometimes all it takes to provide forward momentum is the support of just one other person. Here, I owe a debt of gratitude to Marsha Mazz. She is an influential member of the governmental Access Board, and a key participant in the accessibility standard and the International Code Council (ICC) code development process. She was the first member to truly “get” what we were trying to accomplish.
Her influence was important because Marsha is no pushover. She was critical of our initial efforts. But she took the time to give us some much-needed advice. Marsha’s involvement was the difference-maker in helping us navigate the procedures and bureaucracy inherent in any large undertaking like this. She helped us be precise in our language and get our A117.1 and IBC proposals in front of the right people.
With her help, we were actually first able, in 2015, to successfully insert some “pointer” language in the A117.1 standard (explanatory language on the use of automatic doors at public entrances) to raise awareness of automatic doors. Around the time the A117.1 “pointer” language was approved, Marsha and I had the watershed moment we were seeking.
We landed on the idea of incorporating a table containing building occupancy thresholds into the International Building Code (IBC), the model building code published by the ICC for nationwide adoption at the state and local level. The thresholds exempted smaller businesses and organizations with less foot traffic. It helped us strike a balance that helped as many people as possible and kept our proposal economically feasible.
It took two ICC code development cycles to accomplish our goal, one beginning in 2015 and the successful one beginning in 2018. The day we received approval obviously came with a feeling of accomplishment. But more than that, we were gratified that so many more buildings were going to have improved accessibility as a result.
It was a long ten years. Each time we submitted a proposal and it was rejected, we learned something that made the next submission that much better.
We talked to so many people over the years who took an interest in what we were trying to achieve. That’s what you need to bring about change. It starts with one person and one idea then gradually gains momentum and support. I often think of that day, standing in front of the White House. It was the first day I had a sense that we just might be able to do this. There was still a long journey ahead of us, but you just need that crack in the doorway to step through to tomorrow.