Balancing Tradition: Adding Accessibility to Historical Buildings

Old College at the University of Georgia in Athens is the oldest building on campus and a treasured icon. It sits in the middle of the quad, anchoring two green spaces around it. Constructed in 1806, the building has undergone major changes in the last 190 years. In the early 1900s the building was in poor condition and was essentially reconstructed. Then in 1942, the interior was significantly altered. Three years ago Old College was due for yet another renovation; this time the building needed to be brought up to code within the parameters of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Architectural firm Lord, Aeck & Sargent’s Atlanta office was hired to create an accessible path to and through the building that would lead to all key spaces in the structure: “At Old College, the main level was several steps above the ground; approached by two doors with a flight of steps to each door. Underneath that was a partial basement used mostly for storage,” said Susan Turner, AIA, LEED-AP, and an expert in historic restoration and rehabilitation.

Turner and her colleagues solved the accessibility issue by creating a ramp alongside the building that went three to four ft. down to the basement level instead of going up to first-floor level, which would have made it an expensive construction project and impacted the historical look. A new lobby was designed at the basement level after an existing window opening in the wall was cut to make a door. An elevator was constructed in the center of the building that minimized the historical changes to the space. From the new elevator, people now have access to the first-floor lobby. “By bringing this entry sequence to the historic lobby, it helps to create a feeling that everyone enters the building in a similar way,” Turner said.

Old College was fortunate; it had the space to build an elevator. “There are always technical challenges. The biggest one is finding a space that works within the floor plate. Historic buildings are often not that large,” she said. Sometimes an addition like a sub-lobby needs to be created in order to build an elevator.

One-Path Approach
Upgrading historic buildings on college and university campuses may not be as complicated or as expensive as it first appears. ADA, a 1990 civil-rights law that prohibits discrimination based on physical or mental impairments, has allowances for historic structures. According to Turner, an elevator is dependent on the height and floor area of a building and how often the public uses the upper floors. If people have access to all basic functions on the ground floor, then an elevator might not need to be built. “There is often the perception that every door, every restroom, and every break area needs to be accessible. With a historical building you don’t have to do that. You just have to make that one pathway that allows everyone access to all primary spaces,” she said.

Some colleges or universities are interested in the one-path approach in their historical buildings, while others have pledged to make the structures fully accessible to all types of people with challenges. Boston firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott believes the success in finding the best fit lies in the design. “The biggest misconception is that it’s difficult to do ADA changes without disturbing the historical fabric of the building. With a good architect, you can come up with design solutions that provide accessibility for all people,” said Sara Elsa-Beech, project manager, who recently completed a renovation of and an addition to the 1883 Charles Pratt Residence Hall at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Elsa-Beech suggests that using existing landscape features will help reduce costs and integrate with the historic façade more effectively than building a separate ramp. “Using landscape is a powerful design method because it creates a gracious entry without providing a structure. Paving and grading usually cost less than building a ramp structure.”

Amherst College is proactive about campus accessibility; they have an aggressive plan to meet specific students’ needs. For the Charles Pratt Residence Hall project, the college required that all entrances be accessible by people in wheelchairs. The addition has two entrances, east and west. The design replaced the stairs and floor slab by using the hillside landscape and raising the portico up to floor level. The historic entrance portico and steps now provide a flush entrance: “Our project provides a slopping path from the quad to the portico. It’s a path anyone would be inclined to take; it doesn’t scream out that it’s a handicapped-access ramp,” said Elsa-Beech.

Inside the building is a corridor space around core spaces and bathrooms and an outer ring of bedrooms. There is a small lounge on every floor and each floor is linked to the historic building. The elevator is in the addition, at the juncture of the main lobby, and it reaches the two second-floor levels as well as the third floor.

Use the Landscape
Though ramps are the most efficient way to get someone from one level to the next without an elevator, they can be unsightly and take up valuable real estate. Handicapped access is generally one in. of rise for every 12 in. of horizontal distance (not including the landings). If you want to build two ft. up (equivalent to four steps), a 1:12 ramp will be 24 ft. long. To use sloping landscape without handrails, the slope must be no steeper than 1:20, which makes a two-ft. rise 40 ft. long.

“You can make it scream, ‘Here, I’m accessible!’ or you can make it a nice universal design. The challenge is to make it look like good, natural design,” said Patricia DeLauri, project architect for Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott and a member of the Historical Society of Historical Preservation.

A subtle approach to making push-to-open door devices more appealing is to change the colors. The large blue wheelchair-engraved buttons can be reduced to smaller buttons in a bronze color with the wheelchair outlined in blue. Also, placing side lights — panels of glass that frame the door — by all public interior and exterior doors helps to widen the space in front of the door so people in wheelchairs can navigate door handles more easily: “It’s not noticed as something specific for a person in a wheelchair. It’s designed to be part of the character of the building,” said Elsa-Beech.

Easy Windows and Pricey Space
Colleges are always looking for ways to make buildings more energy efficient and user-friendly. When renovating historic buildings, they look for energy-efficient windows that have historic profiles and utilize historic hardware. Such products are available as custom double-hung windows that can be as large as three ft. wide by eight ft. tall, with 12 panes of glass in both the top and bottom sashes. The windows have weights in the jam and a pulley at the top of the bottom sash. When the window moves up and down you can see the chains. These windows are historically correct, which maintains the building’s original aesthetic, but they are double paned so they have insulating qualities. The weights counterbalance each other so they open easily, allowing people with physical challenges to maneuver them.

In order to reduce costs or to focus on the basics of ADA requirements when remodeling historic buildings, experts suggest that you pay close attention to space requirements: “The space it takes to make a bathroom or kitchen accessible is always more expensive based on square footage. But building floor-to-ceiling cabinets and accessible countertops are no more expensive. The cost of the labor is the same regardless of the size or the height. Size of materials is cents on the dollar,” said DeLauri.

Before making any changes to a building, campus officials should check with their state’s code authority or state historic preservation officer. Every code authority interprets codes differently, and every state has its own state accessibility code. Many states adopt ADA codes in their entirety or base parts of their code from it. Most importantly, said the architects, is that decisions come from a collaboration of the client, the building-code officer, and the community. “It’s always a matter of weighting the importance of how people with disabilities can be accommodated,” said Elsa-Beech.