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Balancing access to historic churches for disabled people with protection of the fabric can be a major design challenge Provision of services

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The Disability Discrimination Act's requirements for the provision of goods and services bears on historic churches, such as St Albans cathedral. These institutions see it as their duty to be open and have been some of the most responsive to the Act. St Albans already has a range of provisions for disabled people, primarily focused on wheelchair use. This is implemented mainly as a series of fixed and moveable timber ramps within the cathedral.

Architect John Penton has now carried out a full access audit for the cathedral and chapter house. He has taken an inclusive view of handicap, the main groups of disabled people of concern being:

wheelchair users

ambulant disabled people

elderly people

those with poor dexterity or little strength

those who lack comprehension

those with impaired vision

those with impaired hearing.

He has also included 'handicapping conditions' of varying degrees of severity:

being of excessively large or small stature

people in charge of small children, particularly those using pushchairs

women in the later stages of pregnancy


those temporarily injured

those who are ill

those who are emotionally distressed or unstable.

People's experiences of the cathedral need thinking through for each of these user groups. In summary, providing dignified and easy access has to address difficulties with day-to-day activities usually taken as normal, involving one or more of:


manual dexterity


the ability to lift, carry and move objects

speech, hearing and eyesight

memory, or the ability to concentrate, learn and understand

being able to recognise physical danger.

Historic architecture

The approach to proposed interventions follows English Heritage guidelines:

first, consider measures that avoid or minimise the need for alteration

avoid alterations that adversely affect the property's special character

alterations should be part of a long-term strategy for building use

alterations should be reversible wherever possible. However, 'reversibility should not be used to justify solutions of an insensitive or ephemeral nature. In some cases permanent, high-quality intervention in a building's fabric may offer a more satisfactory solution'.

Balanced intervention

As a service provider, the cathedral has varied uses. As well as daily religious services, celebrated unbroken since the 1100s, the nave is frequently used for concerts of up to 2000 people, and the cathedral draws many visitors, both to the building generally and to the shrine in particular. There are also around 30 employees, excluding the clergy, some of whom share some of the infirmities of the elderly.

The access audit covered the location and mode of entry to the cathedral, circulation within it and escape from it. Also its facilities - wcs, signage, lighting and accessibility awareness training for staff. For access, the most problematic part of this Benedictine building is that it has 11 different floor levels, generally separated by only a few steps (see plan).

The audit report contains a multiplicity of proposed ameliorations, many quite simple. For example: improving disabled parking; providing a telephone for calling for taxis; some lower-level counter-top areas; making people aware of the assistance available, such as large-print guides, a tactile plan and model; reducing visual clutter from signs, noticeboards, the shop layout and even from some of the existing signage for disabled people; induction loops at information points; lighting at entrances; signage of circulation routes and means of escape; staff communications training.

Other proposals raise more general questions about responding to the need for access.

Entrance levels - The west door is the main example of an entrance from an external flight of stairs. It tends to be used as an exit after concerts rather than as the main entrance. But future accessibility is desirable. The aesthetic concern is that flights of stairs (modest here) give a sense of a building on a plinth, which is lost with ramped access. The compromise proposal is gently ramped stone with black iron drainage gratings attempting to provide the visual stops of separate flights.

For the north nave door (101) the opportunity may be taken to remove the existing internal ramping and make the change of level external instead.

Changes of internal level - The existing ramp system needs a complete overhaul, with some too steep, some too long, some confusing, some needing to be moved into place by the user. The intention is to provide a complete accessible circuit of the church, proceeding via the nave, aisles and ambulatories, taking in the transepts and other areas of interest. Generally, where space is ample and the rise is small (say one or two steps), timber ramps are proposed. The exception of a stone ramp is included at point 2 on the plan where stacked chairs are frequently delivered to and from the nave for concerts. For several-step flights, part of the flight will be substituted with a stub wall and platform lift. For more steps or narrow entrances, stairlifts are proposed. As keyed to the plan, these interventions are:

- Platform lifts - 1, 7, 9, 13, 14, 15, 102

- Stone ramp - 2

- Timber ramps - 3, 5, 8, 10, 12

- Timber scissor ramps - 3, 11

- Stair lifts - 4, 6

While it will be possible to access the crossing and the presbytery from the aisles, there are some points of liturgical significance where ramps are felt to be too obtrusive, notably for the choir-crossing-presbytery progression. Here, pencil beams will be used to cast very sharp shadows on the steps, at least highlighting the changes of level.

Stair nosings - All the stone steps are grey. To help step-users the nosings would be painted white - for 50mm on the tread and 25mm on the riser, for a width of 1.5m to the side of a handrail. This was attempted in the past but 'maintenance' work has muddled the effect. In some cases the painting has been extended across the full tread width, increasing the paint's prominence and losing the directional message. In another case the complete treads have been painted white, losing the useful contrast. There is a message here for facilities management.

Power doors - The most frequently used entrance is the Slype door to the south and thence through a pair of narrow doors into the south transept. All these may be fitted with powered closers, both because they are heavy to use and because closing them properly would help keep out the prevailing winds.

Safety, security, accessibility - This unholy trinity can be a source of conflicts. The fire officer requires that if anyone is in the building then all entrances should be open for escape. Security may be defined as 'impeding access'. So most doors must be accessible to all even when they are little used. Currently, notices on some doors try to direct people to the main entrances. There is no simple resolution.

Priorities - The audit done, no final decision has yet been taken on the works. The cathedral already has a programme of planned maintenance and facilities management which can take on board such changes. It is likely that work will be phased as funds allow. Sometimes the priority may be about giving the greatest help to the greatest number. At other times discussions will be more theological. For example, presented with the choice, would you give priority to providing access to the nave for the many, or to the shrine for the fewer devout?

That is a decision for the client, of course. But it is a reminder that, as with other design activities, an access audit is not a formula but a response to a particular building and its use.

Drawings by David Rust from Widening the Eye of the Needle by John Penton, to be published in the spring by riba Publications

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