Friday, 24 June 2011

Heritage Revisited Lunchtime Seminar - Wed 22 June 2011

PLACE and Adapt NI’s lunch time seminar on Wednesday 22 June 2011 highlighted the importance of universal accessibility and design for all. The hour long event showcased architecture in which accessibility provided social inclusion for marginalised groups - particularly people with disabilities and focused on how we can allow equality and inclusion without detracting from the quality of the original.

Caroline Shiels introducing the seminar. Photo by Gary Potter

Adapt NI started proceedings with a brief introduction to their work with the built environment ensuring that service providers engage with persons with disabilities. Caroline Shiels (Adapt NI) explained that whilst the built environment profession has improved at engaging with the need to create accessible places there is still more to be done and Adapt NI continue to produce research projects such as “A New Way In” - on display at PLACE until 31 July. The principles of good accessibility are highlighted in the exhibition and show how the built environment has become more successful in addressing the needs of disabled persons.

Adapt NI work to ensure that not only new buildings are fit for purpose but historic refurbished buildings address accessibility whilst protecting their aesthetics and historic value.

The first presentation by Rita Harkin of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society focused on her experience in Scandinavia and North America where she researched how best practice accessibility has been achieved at key heritage sites.

Rita Harkin presenting. Photo by Gary Potter.

Whilst researching Rita explained that she came across schemes that produced polarised debate around accessibility and heritage. In some cases there was an unwillingness to look at the potential opportunities arising from improving accessibility, such as drawing in new people. Rita also suggested that in Northern Ireland many of the responses to accessibility issues are panicky responses that are not tailored to the individual building. In some circumstances temporary measures are still in place for years after implementation.

Looking at Rita’s examples in Scandinavia it was clear that those designing accessible buildings place a strong emphasis on “access with dignity”. Examples such as Kronborg Castle were cited by Rita as good examples with practical but sensitive solutions. Small features such as smooth tracks through cobbled areas provide for prams or wheelchairs.

Harvard University buildings were also shown to be highly accessible with quality materials and simple finishes that ensure dignity of access for people with disabilities. The University website also has plenty of information outlining the institutions commitment to accessibility at

To showcase two contrasting examples Rita explained how Boston Public Library’s subtle ramps with no railings compared with Sweden’s Royal Palace in which “brutal solutions” involved lifts which were not sympathetic to the historic building.

In closing her presentation Rita suggested Sweden’s Lacko Castle was a particularly good example of accessible built heritage. She also concluded that it should be assumed that there is no conflict between accessibility and the built environment and that it should be taken as an opportunity to increase enjoyment and grow businesses.
Lacko Castle, Sweden informs visitors of path gradients.

Next to address the lunch time audience was Mark Hackett, an architect, founding member of Forum for Alternative Belfast and a member of the Adapt NI Board. Marks presentation, entitled, “Bladerunner or Pastiche: or somewhere in between” introduced some interesting thoughts for the day.

Mark’s presentation highlighted the significant change in Belfast in the last number of years due to development and the continued demolition for the past 40 years, particularly of social housing. To highlight this Mark displayed a figure ground map to the audience which illustrated the huge areas of terraced housing and mills that have been replaced with cul-de-sacs and large roads projects. Mark believes that Belfast as a car dominated city has caused a lot of destruction and left walking a difficult task in many areas. Whilst there is new paving in the city centre he believes that in many outlying areas the pavements are inaccessible to many people due to high curbs and large radii at junctions.

Forum for Alternative Belfast's 'Missing City' map.
Credit: Mark Hackett (Forum for Alternative Belfast)

Key routes have been lost and their importance diminished and Mark believes that barriers in Belfast must be addressed and repaired. Simple measures suggested include narrow radii, trees and improved pavements. Dunbar Link was used as an example of a vast wide expanse of car dominated land which could be revitalised to become a well used boulevard when the new University campus opens. Mark expressed a fear that we are losing a network of people, jobs and commerce that the compact lived in city provided. In 1939 Belfast was a compact city with a population of 470,000 people, whereas it is now a shrinking city with just 270,000 people.

Dunbar Link as a less car dominated, people friendly boulevard.
From Forum for Alternative Belfast's 'Six Links' document.

To rebuild and stitch the city back together again to create a successful place Mark believes that landmark buildings are essential. He cited Sinclair Seamen's Church and Harbour Commissioners Building as landmarks which will become vital to regenerating the area and recreating an urban street form. Mark and Forum for Alternative Belfast believe that we must influence government and developers to understand that landmark buildings and key routes are important to creating successful urban streets with a flow of people. He provided the example of Garfield Street in which the listed building should be protected but it is not being fixed up and a tarpaulin keeps rain from coming in the roof whilst trees are growing out of the roof. Mark also explained that Berry Street is vital to reconnecting the city, as is North Belfast’s proposed heritage route past from Donegall Street to the Crumlin Courthouse. A route that is not working but has unlocked potential and can provide great value for the area.

Mark believes that older landmark buildings produce a sense of urbanism and when they come together they create streets and forms that are essential to creating a successful place. Mark therefore believes that facade retention is a good thing in Belfast and complimented the Four Corners project at the corner of Waring Street and Donegall Street.

Four Corners facade was retained during redevelopment in 2007/8.
Photo by Gary Potter

Mark also believes that the Athletic Stores is part of an important corner in Queen Street’s urban street scene which provides definition to the junction. Forum for Alternative Belfast believe, taking into consideration the economic argument against refurbishment, that façade retention with two additional levels on top would be a better alternative to demolition. The Athletic Stores future is yet to be decided….

41 - 49 Queen Street - Athletic Stores. Photo by Gary Potter

The final speaker of the day was Sarah Villiers of Consarc Design who presented The Braid as an example of a local project which addressed the issue of accessibility. The Braid project involved refurbishing and providing a modern extension to the listed Town Hall in Ballymena which had been unused for some years. Sarah explained that at the time of commission the design team worked closely with disability groups as she believes that accessibility is vitally important in every building.

Sarah presenting the Braid in Ballymena. Photo by Gary Potter.

With the project completed three years ago Sarah revisited the building to discover how it was now accessed and used. Sarah presented a series of photos highlighting the success of the Braid through the use of tactile surfaces, natural light through void spaces and atriums, and well planned signage. She also highlighted the importance to studying how people move within a building, especially in a project such as the Braid which performs functions as wide ranging as providing a museum, an arts centre, tourist facilities and council facilities. She stressed that routes should be simplified as much as possible in buildings to ensure there is good accessibility for everyone.

Natural light fills the inside of the Braid. Credit:

To end the days lunch time seminar questions were invited from everyone in attendance. The first question queried how the Copenhagen examples of ramps with no railings could be implemented in Northern Ireland whilst still passing a building control audit. A representative of the Department for the Environment explained in reply that Building Control are obliged to take into consideration special circumstances of historic buildings. It is also down to interpretation by the building control officer and how the case is presented. It was also mentioned by another person in attendance that Adapt NI will provide as much assistance as possible to projects seeking to adopt unique approaches to accessibility.

The next question asked if a map existed which identified Belfast’s Victorian buildings still standing. Mark answered by explaining that there was not but that it was something that would be interesting to see and in his view no buildings from that era should be demolished and there should be a presumption against demolition of them.

And that concluded our very successful Heritage Revisited event in association with Adapt NI. We would like to thank everyone who took part and attended.


Related exhibition:
A New Way In is an exhibition of Adapt NI’s accessible heritage project, running until 6th August 2011 at PLACE. Connecting young disabled people with the legacy of our shared heritage was the aim of the Accessible Heritage Project. A group of young people from St. Gerard's Resource Centre visited local heritage buildings as a basis for their research into society's attitude to disability, including Belfast City Hall, the Ulster Museum, Downpatrick Museum and Carrickfergus Castle.

The exhibition is a celebration of the young people's excellent work during the project and highlights the heritage transformations and challenges faced in ensuring best practice in disability equality.

In association with Adapt NI. Supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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