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Ecclesistical & Heritage World No.91

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Ensuring rights of access to heritage sites

In 2010 the Equality Act came into force requiring all buildings to have disabled access. The access requirements go further than just the obvious as they also cover people who are visiting and/or working in the building. Heritage sites must ensure equal access for every user or visitor into all parts, including the historical part of the building. Richard Williams, divisional director of the Assent Group and Oculus Building Consultancy, explains.

Part M of the Building Regulations provides designers with guidance on access to and use of buildings but there are so many intricacies involved with historical sites that to meet every requirement can often be challenging or difficult. This may be due to the building’s layout or the strict planning controls that affect any alterations or works to these types of building.

Access is an important part of a sustainable approach to caring for our historic environment and sensitive alterations will always consider what it is that makes the building significant or special. The guiding principle when it comes to heritage sites is to make them accessible, at the same time as ensuring responsible care of the historic environment. This can be achieved with thoughtful and effective design that is sympathetic to the existing structure.

Part M of the Building Regulations stipulates that the aim is to improve accessibility where practically possible, provided the work does not prejudice the character of the building or increase the risk of long-term deterioration to the building fabric or fittings.

Garden access

When considering alterations to a site, operators, designers and contractors should also be thinking about the gardens that frequently go hand in hand with the building itself. Whilst alterations to the gardens may seem simple, planning permission may be required and, at the very least, professional guidance on appropriate alterations should be sought. It’s about balancing the needs of access with the needs of conservation. Here are some examples of adjustments that should be considered and evaluated:

  • Replacing existing gravel surfaces with self binding gravel to provide a firmer surface
  • Incorporating a level route within an area which has an uneven surface
  • Providing alternative routes and adding appropriate signage
  • Using interpretation or multimedia devices to provide alternative access to areas that remain physically inaccessible
  • Using trained staff and guided tours as an alternative to making physical changes

Historic England has many more suggestions as to the ways in which gardens and the surrounding areas of historic sites can be altered to provide the greatest level of access. You will find this in their guidance document Easy Access to Historic Buildings.

Structural alterations

When considering alterations to the structure of a heritage site, an access strategy will be needed which sets out what it is you intend to do and why. This should provide details of why the solutions being employed have been chosen and give the design team and building owner an opportunity to set out their vision for the finished works. This is particularly important if the suggested design falls outside of the accepted parameters. The strategy should start by asking six simple questions:

  • What needs to be improved – is it the building itself, the way it’s managed or a combination of the two?
  • What would be a reasonable adjustment?
  • What are the statutory obligations that must be met?
  • Which are the conservation considerations that must be considered?
  • Who is responsible for balancing these?
  • How much will it cost and how long is it going to take?

Historic England recommends early consultation with building control, planning departments and in some cases the fire brigade to help ensure that the correct processes are followed and that the design is both sympathetic, compliant and safe for the users/occupants.

Solution for steps

For many heritage buildings, narrow points of entry or steep steps without handrails can cause issues which can be dealt with under the Equality Act 2010. There are several solutions when considering steps, each providing a different way of dealing with access to ensure those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility can gain entry to some of our most historic properties.

The following solutions have all been successfully implemented at heritage sites in the UK. They need to be assessed individually for their suitability for a specific building and should form part of a well-managed environment:

  • Provide flat and level access. This will require significant works to be done to the structure of the building to change the existing access point.
  • Provide temporary ramps. These can be removed at a later point and are not an ideal solution but can provide a short term measure to enable access.
  • Provide semi-permanent ramps. This is particularly useful if a longer-term solution is being sought but the site is holding an event that is likely to increase visitor numbers significantly. Temporary ramps need not necessarily look temporary but re often built from materials such as wood which can be sensitively removed.
  • Provide a permanent ramp. This will either be shallow or steeper in its gradient which will be determined by the building itself and its proximity to other structures.
  • Install a platform lift. Lifts can either have a rise of less than or greater than 1m.
  • Platform lifts are a good way to provide access but there can be challenges around volume of users and speed. Some users can also feel slightly ill at ease in a platform lift.
  • Install a retracting stair lift. The design of stair lifts has improved significantly and they can now be designed to be completely sympathetic to the surroundings, often almost completely camouflaged.
  • Horizontally retracting stair lifts can be installed either with a lift below 1,000mm rise or above a 1,000mm rise. Vertically retracting stair lifts are also available where space is at a premium.

Access to heritage sites is a complex and difficult area to tackle when it comes to making alterations to a building. The best approach is to speak to both planning and building control early in the process and take advice from people who have experience of successfully delivering these types of projects. They may be able to offer insight that saves time and money and delivers a more comprehensive solution.