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IS YOUR OFFICE SIGN LEGAL?

Offices used to be small and the need for an identifying sign was confined primarily to the firm’s name. Usually the sign was hand- painted on the glass entry door like this: “ABBOTT AND COSTELLO” This basic identification might have been supplemented by a card-board square, attached to a string, on which was printed “OPEN” on one side and “CLOSED” on the other. Then offices got bigger and buildings got taller. Elevator lobbies appeared on every floor. Dozens of individual firms shared a single address–often on the same floor–each with access via long, impersonal corridors. Some offices consisted primarily of labyrinth-like expanses of open-architecture cubicles in layouts duplicating the finest mazes of English landscape design. Security considerations soon dictated that glass entry doors be replaced with solid oak or metal. Badges and access cards proliferated as people started working beyond the traditional nine-to-five workday. The advent of parking lots and ramps necessitated segregating employee parking places from those reserved for visitors and setting aside the choicest spaces for the disabled. Little wonder that for the past 50 years or so, signs have been as essential to navigating office parks and individual office buildings as a map and compass are for backpacking in the wilderness. Then on January 26, 1992, much of the signage used throughout office buildings became instantly obsolete. The reason: Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required the removal of architectural and communicational barriers to the disabled from then existing retail or service facilities such as restaurants, stores or banks, which often were part of a commercial office structure. The new law didn’t immediately affect commercial facilities intended solely for the use of a private business and its employees. However, in mixed-use facilities with offices and public accommodations that could be used by disabled persons, signage in all common areas had to comply with ADA guidelines. The new law also specified that alterations or renovations to privately-owned commercial buildings (or office suites within them) that began after January 26, 1992, had to comply with the ADA technical requirements for accessibility and signage. Further, new commercial buildings completed for occupancy after January 26, 1993, also had to meet the ADA guidelines. Although the law initially applied to employers with 25 or moreworkers, it was broadened on July 26, 1994, to include 500,000 businesses with 15 to 24 workers. Firms with fewer than 15 employees are currently exempt. Unremodeled office suites, not frequented by the general public, are considered to be in compliance with Title III. This applies even if they are occasionally visited by non-employees. But there’s a Catch 22: Title I employment provisions of the ADA. Obviously, if you have a disabled employee on the payroll, you must remove barriers. But Title I also requires that employers make “reasonable accommodation” for job applicants who have a disability and enter and use the facility. This not only means that the estimated 49-million disabled Americans must be able to make full use of a building’s public or common areas, but also that workplaces must accommodate the needs of disabled job applicants who may or may not one day become employees. What exactly does this mean to an office manager? The bad news is that permanent areas such as restrooms, lunchrooms and conference rooms must be identified by signs that use internationally recognized visual symbols and also integrate tactile as well as braille lettering. The good news is if you’re a tenant in an office building, the building owner is responsible for upgrading the parking lot and directional signage within the building, as well as identifying such public facilities as restrooms and elevators. Most sign-making firms are conversant with ADA requirements for typography, contrast, size, tactile lettering needs and the permanency of particular types of signs. But they don’t try to interpret the law. The ADA guidelines cover four categories of interior and exterior signs: * PERMANENT SIGNS designate rooms and space whose function won’t change. They must comply with the highest standards, including tactile and braille lettering. * DIRECTIONAL AND INFORMATIONAL SIGNS are wall-mounted and provide direction to, or information about, functional spaces. They’re not required to have tactile or braille lettering. However, they must meet requirements for character proportion and height, as well as sign finish and contrast. * OVERHEAD SIGNS must meet requirements for clearance, character proportion and height, sign finish and contrast. * TEMPORARY SIGNS include building directories, menus and all other signs that provide temporary information about rooms and spaces, such as the current occupant’s name. These signs aren’t required to comply with ADA technical guidelines. So, are you in compliance? Maybe, maybe not. But can you take the chance? If someone blows the whistle on you, it could lead to a $50,000 civil fine and possible compensatory damage payments. Compliance is most often achieved by modifying existing signs by adding tactile and braille characters or by installing new, compliant signs. Additional signs also may be needed to identify and give directions to accessible facilities such as restrooms. An integrated signage plan is one of the most economical and visible ways to show your facility’s commitment to ADA goals. The cost of upgrading signage to comply with government regulations can be treated as a deduction on federal income tax formsility signage. The Internal Revenue code allows deductions of up to $15,000 for necessary and reasonable expenses associated with the removal of qualified architectural, physical and communications barriers. Small businesses with less than $1 million in annual receipts or fewer than 30 employees can take an annual tax credit of up to $5,000 on qualified expenditures up to $10,000 for complying with the ADA. It isn’t necessary to hire a signage expert to bring your office into compliance, although such firms are less likely than you are to overlook needed changes or additions because they understand the nuances of the ADA act. If color and typography that match your interior decorating scheme are important to you, your best bet will be to work with a graphics firm specializing in customized architectural signage. But if you can make do with plain vanilla products in a limited selection of colors, you can let your fingers do the walking through catalogs and order off-the-shelf signs by mail, including ADA compliant signs, that are priced in the $10-$30 range. Using software templates in Windows or Macintosh formats, a firm can create perforated paper sign inserts on a laser printer. The inserts fit ASI’s injection-molded frames. The great advantage of desktop publishing software is that it can produce inexpensive new signage as needed, thereby avoiding what often amounts to an eight-week delivery cycle for a replacement sign that conforms to your standards. Not all permanent signage, however, must meet ADA guidelines.There’s another class of signs–exit signs–that must meet the requirements of the National Fire Protection Association, National Electrical Code and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Exit signs are mandatory, and more than 100 million are in use. Most are illuminated by 20-watt and 25-watt incandescent bulbs, which run up huge electric bills and maintenance costs because they must be changed three or more times a year. To cut their utility and maintenance bills, many office managers are turning to light emitting diode (LED) light sources. Although LEDs cost $12.50 or more for a single lamp, they have typical lifetimes of 80 to 100 years and use only 1.8 to 12 watts–a fraction of the energy required by incandescent or compact fluorescent lamps. Today’s office managers who fail to get their permanent directionand information signage updated, and in ADA compliance, may eventually find themselves, like Barnum’s naive customers, standing out on the sidewalk, wondering how they got there.

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