New Baby, New Perspectives: Accessibility in My City

If you are able-bodied and independent, you walk easily on most sidewalks and enter/exit stores without problems, other than the occasional surprise of a very heavy door or pushing/pulling when you should be doing the opposite. Cobblestones, bricks, steps, small doors – none of these bother you. Some stores might have small aisles, but other than it being cumbersome at times, it doesn’t slow you down too much. At least that is how I moved about my city – with ease.

Yet, over the past 4+ months, I have navigated the sidewalks and stores of Burlington, VT with a stroller. Suddenly, I gave thought to the condition of the sidewalks, the types of entrances, and the width of aisles. Frankly, the sidewalks of Burlington are horrendous if you are on wheels. Stores are a mixed bag of accessibility. I have plenty of appreciation for stores that are stroller friendly and plenty of empathy for anyone attempting to get around with a stroller or in a wheelchair.

Generally when you pushing a stroller, people are very kind and will hold open the doors for you. And you learn the turning radius and proper spatial distance needed for your stroller. You get better at avoiding sidewalk bumps because you don’t want to wake the sleeping baby, nor jostle her fragile head. You know which streets are best to take. And the list goes on.

(The building block above would be easy to make accessible.)

However, there are some limitations with a stroller, and I would imagine with a wheelchair. I spend a fair amount of time stroller walking. Depending on weather, I might pop in and out of stores to browse or run errands. While Christmas shopping, I realized that I could not take my baby into a few of my favorite shops because there were not accessible entrances (read: only steps, no ramps). Sometimes entrances are elsewhere in buildings, but if there is no sign, that does not help, as I cannot leave the stroller on the sidewalk to go in and inquire. Additionally, some stores have accessible entrances yet the aisles or displays are so close together that even my narrow stroller has a tough time navigating between everything.

(It’s hard to see in this photo, but my favorite building block has a few stores without accessible (or at least obviously found) entrances.)

I wondered about how many people face this challenge. Is the percentage of lost customers so small that it doesn’t affect the businesses? What if you’re in a wheelchair, what do you do?

Most businesses have modified their entrances to accommodate all customers. Unfortunately, this often replaces character defining features of historic entrances, or obscures them. The National Park Service Brief 11: Rehabilitating Historic Storefronts discusses the importance of entrances and their rehabilitation, but its only suggestions for access issues are as follows:

Alterations to a storefront called for by public safety, handicapped access, and fire codes can be difficult design problems in historic buildings. Negotiations can be undertaken with appropriate officials to ensure that all applicable codes are being met while maintaining the historic character of the original construction materials and features. If, for instance, doors opening inward must be changed, rather than replace them with new doors, it may be possible to reverse the hinges and stops so that they will swing outward.

(How would you make the above entrance accessible?)

It makes sense that this would be a case-by-case basis discussion; however, I think we need a collection of good examples. And a discussion. What are the challenges to improve entrance accessibility? Are small businesses at risk of losing business if they cannot improve accessibility? Does this affect you? As historic preservationists, how can we find the balance between character defining entrances and not limiting accessibility? What haven’t you considered in your environment until you had to consider it?

Preservation Training Opportunity in Vermont

Looking for an excuse to head to snowy, beautiful Vermont in January? If you’re interested in historic buildings, rehabilitation of buildings, and would like to learn more about building codes and ADA, then plan on visiting Vermont in January. This workshop is a great deal, you earn AIA credits, and you’ll be much more informed about the confusing rules of accessibility. See details below.

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Historic Buildings, New Accessibility Rules & Codes Training Day

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

7:30 am – 3:00 pm

Vermont Technical College – ‘Old Schoolhouse’

Randolph, VT

  • Some of the most common questions builders and designers have are about new accessibility requirements, modifying historic buildings, and in particular modifying historic buildings for greater accessibility.
  • This seminar seeks to clarify Vermont’s building codes by bringing together three experts: from ADA-New England, the preservation community, and the Division of Fire Safety. Presentations and discussions will focus on case studies suggested by participants.
  • All participants in the workshop will receive complimentary membership in BSA-VT.
  • This course earns 6 AIA-HSW CEUs.

OBJECTIVES

Upon completion of this seminar, participants will be better able to:

  • understand and apply Vermont’s current Access Rules (based on the new version of ADA, 2010)
  • understand Vermont’s categories of new construction and renovation, including which codes apply
  • apply Chapter 43 of NFPA to existing and historic buildings
  • evaluate the balance between requirements for new and existing construction, as well as accessibility, with historic structures
  • discuss strategies for design/construction with building officials, owners, and other professionals.

INSTRUCTORS

  • Kathy Gips, Director of Training, New England ADA Center
  • Judy Hayward, Executive Director, Historic Windsor and Preservation Education Institute
  • Bob Patterson, Deputy Director, Vermont Dept. Public Safety’s Division of Fire Safety

SUBMIT YOUR PROJECT QUESTIONS & CASE STUDIES! 

Please email your questions about specific code and construction circumstances for review during the session to: Sandra Vitzthum

REGISTRATION

$60 per person includes the full day of training, continental breakfast, lunch. To sign up, please visit http://www.buildsafevt.org/

STORM ARRANGEMENTS

We have made arrangements to re-schedule the event to Jan 16 if necessary; the meeting will be held in Berlin VT if this happens. Final decision will be made by 8:30 am 1/14 and emailed to all participants. You can also check our website for updates.

Building Accessibility

Accessibility to historic buildings is often a necessary code upgrade, not to mention important to insure that everyone can enjoy the building. Inside we see chair lifts on railings, elevators, ramps. On the exterior we see elevator shafts and accessible ramps of all materials and interesting placements. Sometimes a ramp will block the facade or detail of a building. That is not to say that a building should not have a ramp, but perhaps more creative planning would help.

Consider the Leicester Meeting House (1836):

Leceister, VT

Leicester, VT. Can you see the ramp? It blends into the landscape. Note the red landscape and the window that was partially converted to a door.

Closer view.

Closer view. See the bridge from the ramp to the building. The railing and the bulkhead doors match.

Leceister, VT

Leicester, VT: 1836 Meeting House

What do you think? I think it’s one of my favorite ADA solutions that I’ve seen. The approach to the building on both sides is pleasant and open to the town green, neither the front or side hidden (an ADA entrance should not seem like a secondary entrance).

Historic Sites, Modern Dilemmas

The collision of historic sites and the need for modern amenities is certainly not a new topic, yet it remains in relevant discussions about historic preservation and heritage stewardship. I’d like to continue that discussion and hear comments from others.

Where is the line between accommodating present visitors and maintaining the historic atmosphere? How much can you “get away with” on either side of the line, and how much is appropriate? By our American standards, insurance, and regulations, buildings (including historic sites) require up-to-code utilities and parking and accessibility modifications. It is our understanding that these amenities attract visitors, perhaps even those who are not typical historic site goers. At the same time, it is also our subjective opinion that telephone wires, parking lots and 21st century vehicles terribly detract from the setting and feeling of the historic site and landscape. Yet, we cannot have a profitable site without modern amenities. We need them. What do we have here, but a Catch-22 situation?

The question is: how do we enjoy our significant heritage sites while protecting their historic integrity at the same time? It is a very fine line, because change happens in unnoticeable increments. Before long, the site or building could look completely different. A few generations from now, preservation professionals may wonder just what we thought we were doing.

As to successfully integrating historic and modern, is the problem our perception? Maybe when we think of historic and modern, we should be thinking of it as a continuum of time rather than having a distinct boundary. The past connects us to our ancestors; it doesn’t separate us from them. Though, do we like historic sites as a way to step out of the present? Do we often perceive historic sites as removed from the present? So perhaps the problem lies wherein we begin to separate the past and the present too much, which creates that bubble of nostalgia. But, is there a proper way to look at history? If so, who gets to determine the etiquette? Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate methods for presenting history, but how someone considers it is an entirely different subject.

Consider parking lots again, in terms of perception. If you are looking at photographs of a historic site from, say, the 1940s, do you find the cars less obtrusive than those in a picture from 1990 or 2000? Pretend it is an early nineteenth-century historic house. Are you losing the historic feeling with the cars nearby? If not, is that because the 1940s are further removed from us and therefore, more believable as historic? Does 1990 seem like it will ever be historic? Of course it will, but it seems strange to think that, doesn’t it? And if the cars bother you no matter what the decade, why, do you suppose, has no one figured out how to integrate the clashing cultures?

Let’s take a step back. An important distinction, which I’ve yet to make in this post, is between historic properties that are museums and historic properties such as your house on the National Register. Both are significant, but have very different audiences and purposes. Excuse the generalization, but I will simplify the distinction to museums and non-museums.  Museums will exist in their own bubble of history, whereas non-museums must be incorporated into their surroundings.  Thus, there will be more restrictions on museum environments and more give-and-take outside of the non-museum world, of course. Non-museums, those that aren’t public buildings, are not subject to all amenity requirements.

But, distinction aside, how much “interference” of modern amenities is too much and how much is acceptable? Should there be cases in which nothing modern is introduced? And then, do we run the risk of ostracizing our sites because they are not welcoming to present day visitors? Is our view of historic sites entirely an American point of view?

Some more questions for thought: Have you been to historic sites that are sorely lacking in welcoming amenities or sites where the line has been crossed and integrity harmed? Parking lots may be the biggest offenders, but how can we visit sites without them – at least in this autocentric country? How can we train ourselves and each other to see time as more of a continuum, one that blends past and present?

This remains an important topic of discussion because historic preservationists often get accused of preventing progress and disliking change, when really we carefully consider what is appropriate change. Of course we cannot be opposed to progress; that’s ridiculous. Our existence is part of the world’s progress, if you will think so boldly. Preservationists recognize that change without thought is careless and results in a negative quality of life. Thus, we must be alert as to what to protect and what to adapt with the rest of progress. If every site accepts all aspects of modern amenities, how will we know how it used to be?

Your turn: what do you think of the collision between historic sites and modern amenities? Ramble on.