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Avoid Compliance Traps when Leasing, Buying or Upgrading a Medical Property

  • Posted: September 14, 2016

A simple guide to key rules and regulations you should be aware of relating to a medical property. The five most common issues are:

  • Parking
  • External Disabled Access
  • Internal Disabled Access
  • Toilets
  • Fire Safety

Before signing a contract for sale or commencing works on a new refurbishment/fit out or expansion project for a medical property, it is critical to consider any modifications that may need to be done to make the property compliant with current building codes and regulations.

There are specific requirements that apply to properties being used for medical purposes that do not apply to other uses such as shops or offices.  Some of the more common issues can be minimised or even avoided if consideration is given to the following five points when viewing a potential property.

1. Parking

The local Council will have specific rules pertaining to parking at the property, including the minimum number of parking spaces that need to be provided for both staff and patients.  Every Council is different and their requirements can be found in their Development Control Plan (DCP) available on the Council website. 

The number of spaces the Council require you to provide will be based on either the size of the property or quantity of healthcare consulting rooms.  Typically most Councils also require there to be a dedicated Disabled parking space and sometimes also an Ambulance Bay.  Another important consideration is the ability to drive in and out of the car park in a forward motion so that vehicles are not backing out onto main roads.

Failing to comply with the Council’s minimum requirements for car parking could either result in the Development Application for the medical practice being rejected, or an additional levy payment to Council (called a “Section 94”) being imposed. 

So before you begin to look at the inside of the property, take a look outside first.  Knowing whether you can provide parking that is compliant with Council’s requirements can save you from spending time on properties that are unlikely to get planning approval as a medical practice.

2. External Disabled Access

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) access into the property should be equitable for both people who are able bodied and those with disabilities. For a medical premises, this means that giving disabled patients an alternative more cumbersome pathway into the property ‘around the back’ is not acceptable. When looking at a property consider whether the current entrance enables wheelchair access or does it require modification?  If so, the cost to add an external entry ramp needs to be factored into your budget, these typically cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

3. Internal Disabled Access

The Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 applies to an owner-occupier or tenant who leases the whole building for a healthcare facility to ensure all patients have equal access inside the premises. In your first inspection of a property make a note of whether the floor is one level, or does the space flow over several levels or have multiple storeys?  If the property is not ‘step-free’ you may need to build internal ramps or install a lift. Both options can take up valuable space intended for consulting rooms and add significant expense to the budget. Generally a lift can cost upwards of $100,000, while ramps tend to be around $5,000 to $15,000.

Also, consideration needs to be given to the layout of the property.  If doorways and corridors are too narrow to enable a wheelchair to enter or turn sufficiently then the layout may need to be modified.  This is a common issue with older style properties and particularly former residential houses that have been converted to commercial use, as they were built under less stringent regulations.

4. Toilets

The Building Code of Australia (BCA) sets out minimum requirements for new construction and refurbishment of buildings, including the quantity, type and size of toilets that need to be provided for patients and staff.  The requirements are based on the type of business, number of consulting rooms, number of staff and expected number of patients. 

It is now mandatory to provide accessible toilets so when viewing a property don’t forget to also look at what facilities are currently provided.  If a disabled toilet needs to be added, the cost can be around $30,000 to $40,000.  There are two types of accessible toilets required:

Ambulant Toilet: This a toilet cubicle usually located at the end of the row with a door that swings outwards, width of 900 mm to 920 mm, special dimension toilet pan and handrails provided on each wall.

Disabled Toilet: There is a minimum size requirement of 1.9m x 2.3m (+ washbasin) for new built facilities, but there is a concession to allow existing facilities with dimension no less than 1.6m x 2.0m to remain. There must also be a handrails provided on the walls but this is allowed within the minimum permitted width zone. Careful attention needs to be paid to the various door provisions, but allowances for inward swinging, outward swing and sliding doors can be made. However, a minimum unobstructed door opening width of 850 mm is required to allow a wheelchair to enter.

5. Fire Safety

To get a permit to open your medical practice for business, a building certifier will need to verify that the fire safety measures at the property comply with the current building and planning legislation.  This also applies if you are not planning to refit the property, but just changing the use from a shop or other type of business to a medical practice.

Areas of consideration relate to the condition of the existing fire protection services (heat and smoke detection; emergency alarms; sprinklers; fire hose reels; fire extinguishers); omissions of any mandatory requirements; and if there was to be a fire how people would exit the building, how the fire might spread both within the property and also to adjacent buildings.

It is important to note that the BCA allows for dispensation and rationalisation of any deemed “over the top” provisions. This is considered on the case by case scenario, as all buildings contain variable building and occupant characteristics. A good BCA Consultant will identify any such areas from the outset, and will be able to document the practical way forward. 

In conclusion, whether buying or leasing be sure to take your time inspecting the property and look out for compliance risks to avoid any costly surprises later on.  However, if there is a compliance issue it does not have to be a deal stopper.  In the majority of cases a solution can be found and we recommend that you engage a qualified and experienced building professional to assist you when shortlisting and viewing properties. Health Project Services provides medical real estate and medical property consulting services for our clients.

Health Project Services provides a range of pre-lease and pre-purchase services to healthcare professionals. Our Premises Appraisal service can help you discover the risks with a potential property and explain how to mitigate them.

Input from Shane Berry, Specialist Regulations Consultant at Group DLA.  Group DLA is a Sydney based Building Regulations and Certification Consultancy, providing managed solutions for clients in the property, infrastructure and construction markets.  From an independent, informed position, our Building Surveying Services provide unbiased advice and assistance to the property industry, in order to understand and meet their regulatory compliance obligations. 

Disclaimer: This article represents a broad range of scenarios and we must reiterate that building and planning legislation can be quite complex and requires expert review on a property by property case in order to confirm absolute compliance.   

[icon-info] Please note – this article discusses the laws and regulations that apply to new properties, or existing properties that are being upgraded.  The legislation is not applied retrospectively, and therefore does not affect existing medical premises where no new building work is planned.