In Historical Preservation, Accessibility Doesn’t Have to Mean Inaccuracy

The conservation of historic buildings is an important component of development in many communities, with a growing number specifically turning to adaptive reuse, where they conserve buildings by repurposing to make them useful in a changing world. Adapative reuse retains the character and personality of the structure, while making the inside a usable space; converting an old power plant, for example, to an office building, art gallery, set of apartments, etc. Sometimes the only way to save a building is by remaking it into something new, a lesson numerous communities with an excess of lovely, but useless, buildings are learning.

Accessibility should be an inevitable discussion topic in remodeling and repurposing of buildings, whether it’s an adaptive reuse or simply an update to make a historic home more functional for dwellers. Unfortunately, it’s often not, despite the fact that it is, in many regions, the law. While historic buildings can remain inaccessible, once they are remodeled, any updates and changes should include accessibility modifications. When this topic is brought up, the response is often stubborn resistance and outdated attitudes about accessibility and functional accessible design. Some curators of historic buildings claim that accessibility will result in historical inaccuracies, even in adaptive reuse designs where presumably inaccuracies will be introduced as part of the functionality upgrade.

Modifications for accessibility do not have to be inaccurate. They also don’t have to be obvious. People seem to visualise something garish, ugly, and obvious when they think about accessible building design, but in fact, accessibility is often discreet and doesn’t call attention to itself. Specific modifications for historic buildings can be even more subtle, maintaining a specific look and feel with accessibility readily available.

Take, for example, elevators. The use of elevators in historic homes was relatively unusual, with the exception of small dumbwaiters for carrying supplies and equipment between floors. A big honking elevator is going to be a glaring and obvious intrusion in a historic structure. That doesn’t mean an elevator shouldn’t be installed, though, simply that the architect needs to think carefully about elevator design and placement. A small elevator with a two to three person capacity, large enough to hold at least one motorised chair, its user, and an attendant, is sufficient, and can be discreetly placed without destroying the lines of a building. The same shaft used to hold a dumbwaiter can often be gracefully expanded, or a former cold pantry or similar design feature can be repurposed to hold an elevator, which can be screened behind artfully installed paneling. Accessibility, without being obvious.

Ramping also doesn’t necessarily have to be readily visible. If it’s important to retain stairs to a porch or similar structure, it’s still possible to install a discreet slideaway ramp that vanishes when not in use. Personnel can pull the ramp out when it’s needed to provide accessibility, or button controls could be established to allow wheelchair users to set up the ramp themselves, which is preferable, if possible. Independence is an important part of accessibility and having to rely on others for something simple like getting into a building can be extremely frustrating.

Rails for accessibility also don’t have to be glaring. In fact, they can be an integral part of the design and they can be highly historically accurate. Railings with accompanying finials were often a key part of architecture historically. Some modifications may be necessary to firmly anchor them for people who may need them for balance instead of just artfully trailing their hands on them. It may also be necessarily to slightly modify the profile to make it more grippable. But railings don’t need to be bright brushed aluminum that stands out like a semaphore flag. They can be smooth, polished wood with a flowing finish that fits seamlessly with the rest of the house; there’s a chance railings are already there.

Doorway widening for accessibility will, yes, change the profiles of doors and frames. It’s usually possible to reuse original decorative trim with a skilled contractor, though, and to create a credible facsimile of the original door, just slightly larger. Widening and enlarging frames isn’t just helpful for people with disabilities. It can also be beneficial for larger people in general, as well as staff who may appreciate not having to wrestle through every doorway when they’re carrying large loads, pushing maintenance carts, and so forth.

Light switches are often already low in original structures and may not need modification for accessibility. Bathrooms can be somewhat trickier to modify, but not impossible; a second low sink can accommodate the needs of wheelchair users without looking too peculiar, and bars for toilet transfer can be discreetly blended into the paneling or other architectural features around the toilet. And so forth.

Accessibility consultants are available, and some of them actually specialize in handling historic buildings in particular. They’re accustomed both to the accessibility issues they may encounter, and to ways to handle them gracefully, neatly, and elegantly. A contractor or architect without experience might make a hash of things, or could make recommendations that are not actually helpful for disabled patrons. Consulting an accessibility specialist can provide useful insights into modifying a structure to retain historic character without excluding people. Some features for accessibility might be appreciated by those well beyond the disabled community, which is part of the point; universal design is for everyone. It’s not a special thing, but should be an everyday one.

Structures with artful accessibility modifications can and should become talking points, showing people how to do it right. Seamless accessibility integration can be so artfully done that the casual viewer isn’t aware of it, even though disabled visitors may spot it immediately. Communities should be singling out not just well done, attractive examples of adaptive reuse and historic preservation, but also structures that successfully integrate accessibility from the top down. Accessibility doesn’t have to be expensive when it’s built into the remodel rather than added as an afterthought, something that should also be highlighted for property owners eager to come up with excuses to leave their buildings inaccessible.