If you design or approve reception desks and service counters, you need to ensure they are accessible to everyone. Find out about design issues and solutions, as well as what complies with the Building Act.
This information provides guidance on good design solutions for counters and desks that can be used by people with disabilities. It has been produced by MBIE in association with the Barrier Free New Zealand Trust. The Trust offers guidelines for constructing accessible counters.
Counters should be constructed so that everyone visiting a building can use them. Good design can achieve a functional result and be pleasing to look at in an architectural context. Good design means the provisions for people with disabilities do not appear as an addition or afterthought.
Approaching a reception or service counter or desk and interacting with staff is a normal activity within many types of building. In addition, a writing surface is needed when forms must be filled in.
The Barrier Free Trust recommends that where a series of identical counters is provided, such as in a bank, the best solution is often for all of them to be equally accessible for people with disabilities. The Trust also says people with disabilities do not want to be treated differently from other customers, and staff need flexibility over which counter they attend. Accessibility for people with disabilities should be incorporated as part of the overall design and not seen as something 'special'. Everyone should be able to use desks and counters.
The critical questions are:
- what sort of building is the counter intended for? For example, it could be a bank, office, shop, supermarket or hotel
- what tasks are to be performed there?
Good design takes into account height, reach and sight-line requirements to accommodate the physical differences between all users.
New Zealand Building Code and G5
Building Code Clause G5 Interior Environment says:
Objective G5.1 The objective of this provision is to: [...]d) Ensure that people with disabilities are able to carry out normal activities and processes within buildings.
The clause also says:
Functional requirement G5.2.1 Buildings shall be constructed to provide: [...]c) Accessible spaces and facilities.
Performance G5.3.4 Where reception counters or desks are provided for public use, at least one counter or desk shall be accessible.
G5.3.4 applies to:
- communal residential (including hotels and motels)
- communal non-residential (including cinemas and museums)
- commercial buildings (including shops, offices and banks).
MBIE publishes acceptable solutions that provide one means of demonstrating compliance with the clauses of the Building Code. Acceptable solution G5/AS1 does not provide any guidance on the design of accessible counters. NZS 4121 is also a means of compliance and includes a section on counters and desks.
New Zealand Standard NZS 4121
In NZS 4121:2001 Design for access and mobility, section 11.1 refers to public counters and desks. It says:
Reception counters and desks for public use on an accessible route shall have at least one space for use by people in wheelchairs as visitors and staff working in the reception area (see figure 36). Such a space shall be at least 900mm wide.
Figures 36 and 37 in the Standard provide examples of public counters in public bars and shops, and of supermarket checkouts, along with an example of a desk. These examples provide only one solution and designers are encouraged to be creative in exploring alternative solutions, taking into account the dimensions required for usability (see 'Counter dimensions' on page 8).
Definitions – counters and desks
The term 'reception counter or desk' is not defined in the Building Regulations or in the Building Act 2004.
The dictionary definitions of 'counter' refer to a 'fitment' or 'table' across which 'money' or 'business or goods' are transacted with customers.
While there is slight variation in wording between the Building Code and NZS 4121:2001, the intention behind the phrasing in both documents is the same. This was clarified in Determination No. 2004/65 made by the former Building Industry Authority, which states:
The Authority takes the view that the difference in wording between counters or desks and counters and desks is of no practical significance. The essential point is that people with disabilities must be able to carry out the normal activities and processes for which counters or desks or both are provided.
People are not all the same height, and not everyone visiting a building is on foot.
Everyone needs to:
- see and be seen, as it is important to be able to make eye contact with a staff member, and be in hearing range without being obstructed by the counter
- reach items at varying heights, particularly electronic transaction terminals (only a stretch of half an arm's length should be needed to transfer documents and use electronic terminals)
- sit or stand at a desk or writing shelf when filling in forms
- easily see and understand signs.
Wheelchair users or people of short stature, including children, cannot be seen by the receptionist. Reach is restricted by a counter height of 1200 mm. The lowered section at the end is not seen and is usually filled with despatch material. The counter could have been designed with the lowered section in the centre.
Counters come in all shapes and sizes. The only guidance on dimensions for accessible counters is given in NZS 4121:2001. However, Barrier Free Trust research has shown that other design arrangements are possible and should be encouraged, providing the principles of usability are followed.
Some guidelines for usability are given by the Barrier Free Trust as follows:
- depending on the purpose of the counter, knee and toe space is usually needed so that a wheelchair user can face the counter rather than being forced to make a side-on approach. Exceptions are supermarket and similar checkout counters
- some counters can be 'stepped' because when a person is seated their knees do not require as much depth under a horizontal surface as do their feet
- counters can be at two heights with an accessible lower level, but only when neither section is seen as the main part of the counter and both are equally visible when the counter is approached
- a counter with a lower section that is tucked out of sight or 'around the corner' is a poor solution. A staff member should be able to attend a customer at the lower section without having to disengage from attending customers at another part of the counter
- a 1200mm or 1300mm high reception counter in an office or hotel is acceptable for an average-height person standing, but a counter this high can become a separation barrier for many other people and for wheelchair users. Often a high counter is used to provide security or privacy for staff, but it is always possible to provide a good design solution that meets everyone's needs
- research has shown that a 900mm high counter is practical for wheelchair users. It is a usable height for people standing too, so sometimes the whole counter can be 900mm high, such as in a shop or food outlet
- a shelf 250-300mm deep, lower than the counter top, can be a substitute for providing knee space.
Critical dimensions are:
- knee space at least 250mm deep, along with toe space 250mm deep and 300mm high
- vertical clearance under the counter top (or shelf) of at least 700mm.
Even in this electronic age, there are situations where people need to write or fill in forms, such as at insurance offices or banks. Everyone can use desks suitable for wheelchair users.
In NZS 4121:2001, Figure 37 shows that the height of a desk top or writing surface should be 775mm with a minimum under-bench height of 675mm (700mm is preferred) and a depth for knee/toe space of at least 540mm.
Determination 2004/13 Access and facilities for people with disabilities in a tavern, concluded that the counter in a bar that was 1100mm high for its full length did not comply with Clause G5 of the Building Code as it made no provision for people with disabilities.
Determination 2004/65 Accessible counters in a commercial building. Accessible facilities in a separate room from the tellers' counters were not considered to comply with the Building Code. The determination concluded that people with disabilities must be able to carry out the normal activities and processes for which counters and desks are provided.
Determination 2012/047 Dispute about the provisions for access and facilities for people with disabilities to a cinema complex
Determination 2003/9 Access and facilities for people with disabilities in a new motel