Is a Woodworking Sub Responsible for ADA Compliance?

If you catch potential Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations in a set of plans, advise the architect, and help out with corrected working drawings, are you now on the hook for some kind of liability? Here's a long and thoughtful discussion. March 12, 2009

I am just about to start production on a commercial millwork job (coffee bar/deli). I agreed to submit drawings for the scope of my work. I have had to redraw one area over completely due to the client making a major change. I am subcontracting from the GC. There is also an architect subcontracting the overall remodel project drawings. The architect also has a commercial kitchen specialist under him that drew the plans for the cooking station/food service area.

This is an open air food service operation behind an ordering/service bar. According to ADA rules, the bar has to have an ADA ordering area. I had a feeling that the bar ADA area would not pass inspection. I went to the planning department and found out it needed to be redesigned to meet ADA code. The architect said it was my job to take care of the final details after he "roughed it in" with the plans he and his sub drew. So, I redrew and submitted revised drawings (again) for the affected plan and elevation views of this bar.

My question is, where is my responsibility as to things like other clearances in walkways, ADA seating clearances, etc? The general contractor is building pony walls that will support bar tops provided by me as well as wainscoting as a bar wall facing.
If the inspector finds insufficient clearances between the bar and other walls, tables, etc., am I liable in any way? If I had built and installed the bar ADA area as shown by the architect on his drawings, would I have had to remake it free of charge? Is there something that should be in my contract to protect me from the mistakes of other careless parties? Like not enough clearance between the edge of the bar top and the tables and wall nearby (the building is long and narrow). Again, the bar tops are supported by a wall that will be laid out and framed by the GC. I am not looking for a way to shirk my responsibilities, just want to know who is responsible in this case.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor J:
In my experience, if you admit to being a carpenter or someone with knowledge of woodworking in any form, all parties involved will be pointing all 10 fingers at you, if something is amiss that could affect the project passing code or holding up an occupancy certificate. I recently did an insurance office, just this side of BFE, that I constructed per the architect's plans, that were in fact drawn and built to American ADA specs, that were subsequently turned down by, get this - a "Texas" ADA inspector. Good enough to pass American ADA, but not good enough for some Texas hick with a rural jurisdiction. By the way, my phone was ringing off the wall, from the architect and the GC.

From contributor D:
I always ask the same question. I do a lot of furniture for a hospital. They told me if we buy it we own the legal responsibility. Just in case I put on each contract "not liable for my designs or code requirements, purchasing party is." Let them hire an architect/engineer/GC to approve my drawings. That's what they get paid for.

From contributor R:
Be real careful with ADA. I would not take on that responsibility at all. Why the hell do architects go to school for so many years? Put in your contract from the get go that you will build per plans and that all code or ADA requirements are the responsibility of the designer. Now that you have redrawn the plans, you may be in a bad place. That was not good. You might have assumed some or all of the responsibility for whatever you drew.

ADA is very strictly enforced. Here is an example of how far this can affect a business: There is a disabled man that travels around in California and goes into businesses looking for ADA violations. He has a clever butthead lawyer helping him with the details and they take the business to court and, get this, they have won most cases. It makes just about everyone PO'd at the situation, but the law is the law. This guy has made millions and, as far as I know, nothing can stop him unless he can't find violations. Do you want to go to court and be a part of something like this?

I have been a general building contractor and cabinetmaker for almost 25 years. In that time I have been involved with a bunch of pass-the-buck jerks. Don't fall for any of it. Make your contracts very clear right at the start. This is the kind of stuff that can put you out of business or worse. I can't emphasize that enough.

From contributor H:
My opinion is this. You are not the architect or the GC on the job. You are a sub. You should be the one receiving the revised drawings from those above you. Do not stick your neck where it does not belong. They will be all too eager to lop off the head of anyone willing to take the blame for their oversights. Scapegoats are already too easy to come by; don't be one more. It is your job to build what they say to, and install it as they say.

From the original questioner:
Thanks to all for the responses. You are helping me see the error of my ways. I agree that I have been doing way too much drafting on this project. One reason I did it was that I had trouble getting the architect to provide the necessary elevation and section views of the ADA area at the bar. After e-mailing the architect several times and requesting the missing views here is what he finally wrote in an e-mail addressed to me, the restaurant owner, and the GC:

"For the record, on all of the restaurant projects I have worked on with a bar component (8 so far), we have only provided the rough layout and the millwork sub has taken it from there with shop drawings based on field measurements. These drawings show detailed layout, finishes, and construction details."

So, I felt forced into the position of drawing the elevation and section myself to then be submitted to the architect to get confirmation that it was what he meant with his vague drawings. Was I duped? Should I have continued to insist that the architect needed to provide at least a front elevation of the ADA? Isn't it part of my job to provide detailed drawings of my scope of the project?

From contributor J:
There's a line of people in front of you being paid to interpret, draw, and supervise adherence to codes and laws - namely the guy with the degree, and to a lesser extent the GC. However, they're also the ones most likely to dodge work (usually shows up at the job with his golf bags in the car) and the first to point fingers your way when something doesn't pass muster. Do yourself a favor, and let everybody step up.

From contributor Z:
I totally agree with contributor J. The only thing you are responsible for is your work! You build from their plans and specs. If those plans, etc, fail to meet code, it's not your problem. Specify that in big print in your contract. The archy gets big bucks to assure everything is built right. The GC gets big bucks to oversee the project and resolve issues to keep things going right.

From the original questioner:
Okay, this is getting interesting. It just struck me how the process has changed since I began in this trade. You older guys will remember the "story stick" or "story pole." The first shops I worked in laid jobs out and developed cut lists with the use of these. Now we have CAD drafting programs. After I learned to draft with CAD, I left the story stick and the drafting board in the corner of the shop and forgot them. I started using CAD to lay out my jobs and develop my cut lists. I would have left it at that (shop drawings only) but the Big Box Competition was giving prospective clients drawings. So, I began giving prospective clients drawings. Now it seems that the GCs consider drawings to be part of my service and expect it. What is the consensus here? Are we required to submit detailed drawings for cabinets and millwork as part of the job?

From contributor J:
I use story sticks, or layout sticks, to generate my shop cutlists. I have Cabinetvision for perspective views if required; they also require padding in the job. You could make aesthetic revisions to the architect's drawings. If a change in dimension is needed, the architect needs to revise it and submit it to you, not the other way around. He's at about the #10 tee box right now, and if you need him, you can probably reach him on the GC's cell phone.

From contributor R:
I think most of us create drawings for our customers. The real issue is, do you take the responsibility for the ADA and code issues? I say no. Make your contract clear that you will produce the drawings, but the specs for these little ankle biters is not your part of the deal. You simply put into your drawings what the architect has spelled out in his notes or whatever.

You are very zealous in your desire to be the all encompassing cabinet man. Just don't let your passion to please get you into trouble. Stay with what you know. Make those that went to school for so long tell you what to put in the drawings. I don't think anyone is saying don't do drawings for your customers. Just leave the specs to the spec guys.

From contributor G:
I think that now the drawings have been submitted, I would ask the architect to sign off on the drawings, confirming that they are up to the spec he requires.

From contributor V:
This is the way I know the process to work. The architect is responsible for overall space design. That includes complying with building codes regarding use and occupancy. The engineers are responsible to make sure that design works. The GC, with his vast experience, is responsible for putting it all together and because he is so experienced (according to architects and engineers), he is responsible to catch areas in the architect's design that conflict or are impractical.

The construction documents, plans and specs have the general design information in them. Subcontractors are required to use those documents to produce detail drawings of the product (shop drawings) they are supplying and submit them along with product information for approval by the designers, the GC and the owners. It's not just the millwork contractors that are required to do this. Usually every trade or supplier has to provide shop drawings or other submittals for review. It is the architect's responsibility to review shop drawings and determine if they fit with their overall design. The GC's responsible to determine that the design dovetails with the other trades. The engineers review for compliance with their design and the owner may review to see that they comply with their demands.

I generally install millwork, I don't manufacture it. When I install, I always install to the shop drawings, but I use the architecturals as well for information such as placement of cabinets within a room.

Shop drawings are a pain but they tend to protect you more than incriminate you. If they are reviewed and stamped, no architect or GC can come back and tell you your product isn't what they wanted or doesn't comply with the contract.

From contributor C:
You really need to read your contract. Many GCs will have everything and the kitchen sink in your contract. There is nothing worse than having a discussion about these things and then they pull out your contract and it is in plain writing and you signed it. So the answer is, you are responsible for what your contract says you are responsible for, nothing more, nothing less. In most contracts you will see the clause that your shop drawings do not supersede the contact drawings. Your shops are how you are going to build the contract drawings. All this goes back to the contract. Please read it before you get hit over the head with it. Just my experience from the playing golf side and the working side.

From contributor L:
Most contracts put the responsibility for verifying code on the GC. The GC may try to get you to take responsibility for that part of the GC's job. Your contract with the GC is an addendum to the master contract, and if the GC has put in the contract that it is the sub's jobs to submit code compliance, and you signed that contract, that may have become your responsibility.

Otherwise, the GC is the person responsible for ensuring as-built meets code. Architect is supposed to design to code, and their plans should all be to code, but that's why they have errors and omissions insurance and you don't.

The proper chain is supposed to be that the sub makes note that some part of their scope of work will not meet code, and reports that to the GC. The GC verifies that code is or is not being met, and notifies the architect. The architect then draws a proper set of plans that shows all the elements that need to meet code.

Your shop drawings are not supposed to be code check drawings. They are the specific designs of how the cabinets and parts will be built and installed, because the architect doesn't tell you whether to build your casework with dowels, M&T, or KD hardware (except in special circumstances).

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the great information guys. To be clear, I have not submitted any drawings to the planning department. I went to the planning department with a take off drawing on which I added my millwork to what the architect had roughed out. I did this because I was fairly sure it did not meet ADA standards as drawn by the architect. I could get no response from him (architect) except for him saying all the info I needed was on his drawings.

The planning department inspector whom I spoke with and showed my drawings to confirmed to me that it (the ADA) would not pass inspection if built like it was drawn and dimensioned. I thanked him and left with my drawings and some ADA specifications he gave me. The reason I went through this much trouble was because I am a one man operation and this is a large chunk of millwork. The GC wanted me to get started before hand so that I wouldn't hold up the opening of the restaurant.

So, all of my drawings have been sent to the GC who then forwards copies to the owner for approval and also to the architect for the purpose of ensuring that I intend to produce what he has been instructed to draw.

After I redesigned the bar ADA area, the architect's comment was he was glad somebody double checked and caught the error. It was that which prompted me to write the post. He had refused to submit missing elevations and sections when I requested them several times. Now he was glad I caught his mistake. So, I started wondering if I would now be liable for that ADA code or any other codes on the project. I am used to being responsible for codes in residential kitchen work because there generally is no architect and I make sure all walkways are up to code and remind the GC about electrical outlets in islands and so forth. I think from what is said here that I am probably doing the residential incorrectly too.

From contributor L:
I don't know... there's that line between being helpful and doing someone else's job. I do much the same as you, figuring that there is a partnership aspect to any project, and being a useful partner is better and more desirable than just being a supplier.

But, when an architect is involved, they are the ones who are supposed to be on the hook for that stuff. That's what they are being paid for, and what they are insured for. They are the ones in charge of producing, maintaining, and modifying the official record of what is planned and built.

In the absence of an architect, that job falls to the GC. The structure of management is simpler at that point, and often a little less formal, but it's still important to keep the line of responsibility clear, and that is always the GC, in the end. Being helpful and providing drawings is fine so long as the GC is still the one responsible for verifying and accepting them. Then anything later called a mistake is on the GC, not you.

From contributor R:
There is basically a 100% consensus here that says you should not take on the responsibility to correct code mistakes that were made by the architect.

Granted, the architect owned up to the mistake(s) but he should have listened to you in the first place and made corrections to his own plans. Best is to skip doing shop drawings until he corrects his mistakes.

It is good that you spotted the mistakes prior to doing the work incorrectly. But don't be bullied by the GC to get started until "they" correct the ADA errors. It's a CYA world and you best do so.

From contributor Z:
Yes, please watch your butt. The simple fact that from the get go you spotted a problem, reported it to the powers that be, and the architect that is responsible for this job did not respond...? When the crap hits the fan, everybody will come knocking on your door.

From contributor N:
I confer with most here. You should get something in writing that describes your role as a contractor to be something like a limited liability partnership.

From contributor V:
You mentioned that you caught ADA design deficiencies when you did your shop drawings and prior to that you RFI'ed the architect for more details. The fact that you caught the deficiencies shows that the system worked.

You aren't responsible for the general design or complying to codes - that's the responsibility of the designers and the GC. If there was a problem, though, and it went to court, you can bet you would be named in the suit and it would be up to you to prove you weren't responsible.

The fact that you RFI'ed the architect and submitted shop drawings that were reviewed by all the relevant parties proves that you did all you could to insure your product complied with the designer's plans and you have a firm paper trail to back up your argument.

In your case the architect owes you a debt of gratitude because you picked out a mistake in his design that could have been very costly if it wasn't caught until occupancy. I would say the architect owes you at least a bottle of single malt.

From contributor C:
It's all in the contract. Everyone involved should be knowledgeable about the subject. If you're going to build something for someone, it's your responsibility to build it correctly. Don't wait for a judge to figure out who is right and who is wrong. I believe you did the correct thing by designing the cabinets yourself in order to comply with ADA regs. Not all cabinets have to comply with ADA regs. Make sure your contract puts the burden on the architect and discuss it with him/her prior to accepting the job. You can be sued even with the correct contract. It should not be your responsibility for design clearances. If your furniture plan does not have dimensions for aisle ways or separations from other objects, you can request the designer to provide them prior to you bidding on the job.

From contributor W:
We do a fair amount of commercial, lots of shop drawings, and over and over, we feel in the end it's the responsibility of whoever - arch, GC, or customer - that signed off on and okayed the drawings.

From contributor I:
Every architect firm I have worked with always lists or draws in the requirements for ADA. Architects have guidelines when drawing plans for residential and commercial. For this person not to be able to produce these makes you wonder why GC's continue to go back to him. Sounds as if he doesn't want the responsibility for what he is getting paid for.