Ian Streets, Managing Director of About Access, examines the balance between making changes to improve the accessibility of heritage sites
As the gap widens between the age of our heritage sites and their need to project themselves into the future, the spotlight is inevitably on the challenges of making their facilities accessible.
It’s not just researching and obtaining a listed building permit for the alterations needed to make a castle, country house, church or anything else properly accessible.
There are also questions such as purpose and practicalities – what kind of facilities are needed and why, and how can they be introduced with maximum impact and minimum disruption?
These are among the issues we considered when reviewing plans to provide lift access to one of the heritage sites we visited for English Heritage.
Important reasons to install elevators
As a service provider and employer, an organisation, whether public, private or third sector, has a public duty to make reasonable adjustments if the environment, products or services disadvantage a person with a disability compared to a non-disabled person.
Such property is also covered by the Public Sector Duty of Equality requirements, which means that there should be equal opportunity for all to have access to all areas open to visitors.
Another reason is that making the property as accessible as possible is simply the right thing to do from the perspective of the people involvement and business benefits that are essential to the sustainability of the site.
Options for installing an elevator: pros and cons
There are pros and cons to all of the options considered.
One idea is to install a single elevator to connect three floors. The proposal to move it away from main traffic lanes is helpful in that it makes the project less intrusive, but potentially problematic if it deprives users of the same experience as able-bodied people.
Another option is a single elevator in a different location, but that could mean putting some of the specialized space in the building out of use. A third possibility is to install an elevator to connect the ground floor to the first floor and another to connect the first and second floors. This would open up more areas of the building, but likely at a higher cost and complication.
The fourth proposal is for an exterior lift which would provide no more benefit than the other three options and which would require additional work to make the ground floor tracks accessible.
All options would require the installation of a lifting platform to allow access to certain areas of the second floor. Each proposal includes the addition of an accessible WC to the building facilities, with various suitable locations identified depending on the elevator option selected.
How can the public access new facilities at heritage sites?
At the heart of all possible solutions is the need to consider how the public will access new facilities in a historic environment. Within this is the question of whether visitors should be accompanied by staff, with the preference always for the lift and toilets to be suitable for independent use.
Similar thought processes should be followed when planning the addition of modern amenities to all historic properties.
These can be as simple as building ramps to create step-free access or they can be more substantial and involve structural changes and even new construction.
Whatever modifications are made, it is essential that they are not considered in isolation but considered to improve access to the property and its attractions, but without creating new barriers.
We have already written how development works can sometimes lead to modifying the layout of a site and leading visitors to a new pedestrian route which, even temporarily, can present obstacles in terms of steps, uneven or loose surfaces. , elevation or even distance.
The placement of any new features should be planned carefully
Most likely there will be regulations or at least guidelines on minimum dimensions – there certainly are with toilets and lifts. Consideration should also be given to the number of people using the lift and, of course, evacuation procedures when the lifts cannot be used.
It’s also worth doing some research to find examples of best practices, including thinking about other improvements that could be made at the same time. After all, who wants to go through life aspiring to the bare minimum?
Putting time, effort, and attention to detail into the planning stage will almost always lead to a smoother, more profitable outcome. Done well, it can increase visitor numbers, improve the experience for all visitors, and make an important contribution to the business plan while respecting the history of the surrounding area.
Ian Streets advises public and private sector organizations and businesses on accessibility legislation, issues and best practices.
About Access Ltd
63 Wilson Street, Anlaby, Hull,
East Yorkshire, HU10 7AJ
Tel 01482 651101