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Improving access to heritage buildings

March 17, 2017 Posted by Heath McNab
Improving access to heritage buildings

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This article was developed in collaboration with one of NSW’s leading Access Consultants, Michael Eisenhuth of Code Performance.

Heritage buildings in NSW need to provide equitable and dignified access for all people. This includes wheelchair users and people with a disability, parents with small children, the elderly and people with impairments due to illness or injury. However, in many cases, improving access requires making alterations that may compromise the heritage significance of a building.

This is an ongoing challenge for custodians of heritage buildings, who recognise that typically, one must take priority over the other. To help you manage the conflict between these competing requirements, we’ve provided an overview of some key considerations outlined in ‘Improving Access to Heritage Buildings’, a guide published by the Australian Heritage Commission.

The Disability Discrimination Act

Providing access to buildings for people with a disability is required under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), regardless of the building’s heritage status. However, the heritage of a building can be taken into account when determining the extent of the required access upgrade.

This doesn’t mean heritage concerns outweigh the need to provide equal access under the DDA. But it may provide some justification for the approval of a Building Code of Australia (BCA) or Access Code Performance Solution. This can demonstrate the suitability of an outcome which doesn’t necessarily comply with BCA Deemed to Satisfy (DTS) provisions.

From 1 May 2011, a standard came into effect which serves as a valuable tool for benchmarking compliance with the DDA on building work to heritage buildings. This standard is The Disability (Access to Premises—Building) Standards 2010 (Premises Standards).

The Premises Standards apply to all new building works and affected parts of existing buildings, helping councils, certifiers, access consultants and BCA consultants clarify the extent of heritage building upgrades necessary to comply with the DDA. If access to a building is provided in accordance with the Premises Standards, then the provision of that access (to the extent covered by the Premises Standards) will not be unlawful under the DDA.

Considerations for Heritage Buildings

The Australian Heritage Commission suggests a five-step approach to identify and implement accessibility modifications that also protect the integrity and significance of a heritage site:

  1. Review the significance of the place and identify the elements of greatest significance. This is likely to be defined in the site’s conservation plan. If a plan doesn’t exist, these elements should be defined at the start of the project.
  2. Undertake an access audit to determine existing and required levels of accessibility. This will identify all barriers and issues that need to be resolved in the development, from parking and site entry, to circulation within the building and use of facilities.
  3. Evaluate access options within a conservation context. This involves consultation with authorities and approval of proposed actions. Solutions can then be developed that consider access and heritage significance.
  4. Prepare the access policy or action plan. This should comprise a statement from the heritage site about its commitment to improving access, as well as outcomes for this policy and a strategy for achieving them.
  5. Implement the necessary action. This can be phased over time if required, with interim solutions implemented in the short term. It should also include training for staff and volunteers, so they understand how to support people with disabilities and their families or carers.

Finding the Right Balance

If the focus is conserving the heritage significance of the building, it’s important to ensure alterations are sympathetic to the original building and can be reversed. New materials should be evident on close inspection and if a compromise is required, items of higher significance should be preserved.

To prioritise access to a heritage building, the main entrance (or a suitable alternative entry) should be made accessible where possible. There should also be an accessible path to all areas in the building, including toilets and facilities (at least one should be accessible to serve people with disabilities). 

While these elements won’t necessarily protect you from an action under the DDA, it provides a framework for understanding how to balance disability access and heritage values. Ultimately, each development needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, with careful analysis of the costs and benefits in collaboration with stakeholders.

To learn more, view the Australian Heritage Commission’s ‘Improving Access to Heritage Buildings’ or the Australian Human Rights Commission’s FAQs on access to premises.

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