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Napoleon vs Universal Design - Who Wins? (Part 2)

Should, and Could, the Building be Universally Remodelled? - By Olav Rand Bringa, Senior Adviser in The Norwegian Ministry of Culture

Even before the renovation, the manor house had an accessible entrance to the first floor Billiard Room, reached via a bridge from the garden (see Figure 3). But visitors who could not climb the stairs lacked access to the second floor and the most important room of all: The Constitutional Assembly Hall. To give visitors an understanding of what was upstairs, the staff of the historic site provided a book on the first floor with pictures of the rooms on the second floor.

The renovation team had to grapple with challenging questions: Is it acceptable for a significant part of the citizenry to be unable to visit the nation’s foremost symbol of democracy and human rights? And at the same time; is it justifiable to make the second floor accessible by installing an elevator in this very sensitive and protected, historical environment? And finally; is a universal solution possible, or is basic accessibility the best that can be achieved?

The ambition was clear: universal design was the objective. Visitors with disabilities should be able to enter the building by the same entrances as other visitors and without barriers on both floors.

But renovation options had to balance the potential impact on historical and building archaeological values against goals of universal design. Universal design would require an accessible main entrance, an easy to find, step-free route to the second floor, good illumination and standardized signs for escape routes, and more. None of this was present in buildings in the early 19th century and none of the prior renovations to the Manor had addressed these issues. After studying various options, it became clear to the team that ideal universal design solutions wouldn’t be possible. For example, the team decided that it was not possible to make an accessible route into the main entrance to the first floor and that the existing accessible route into the first level would need to be maintained as the step-free route into the building. Once this was decided, the next daunting task was to figure out how it would be possible to get people from the first floor to the second floor of the Manor House. Could some type of lift or elevator be used?

Finding a Place for the Elevator

The search for a place to put such a piece of equipment without reducing the building’s historic value became the primary problem. The team had to assume that all parts of the building had some historical significance and that even the servant’s hidden passages in the walls between the rooms were of value.

Project manager Peter Moltke-Hansen in Statsbygg, the Norwegian government's key advisor in construction and property affairs, had the overall responsibility for the restoration project. He recalls: “We discussed several alternatives. The main challenges were to find a solution suitable for people who used wheelchairs and acceptable for the Directorate for Cultural Heritage. We focused on finding a location with easy access but as less visible as possible. It was essential that the solution fitted the building and did as little harm to the building as possible. We had participation from a variety of perspectives, including people who used wheelchairs.”

One option was to place a lift in a separate tower 5 to 10 yards away from the Manor’s façade with a bridge connecting to the building’s second floor. This was technically feasible but required an expanded window. The team decided that the tower would be too dominant and that the necessary changes in the façade were unacceptable.

Inclined platform lifts inside the Manor were also considered. The staircases in the servants' hidden passages were too narrow for a platform lift. The only staircase wide enough was the curved main staircase. The technical and aesthetic consequences were investigated, but the wish to keep the staircase as authentic as possible was very strong. A platform lift on the main staircase would be a jarring visual element, and this alternative was discarded.

But a vertical lifting device inside the Manor building might also require radical building renovations. The hunt for a suitable location soon focused on an area close to The Constitutional Assembly Hall. A room called the Valet’s room had never been finished. It had the shape of a corridor and had in modern times been used to display weapons. The team determined that the room lacked a particular relationship to the historic value of the building itself and played no discernible role in the 1814 work on the constitution. In addition, the first floor had a storeroom right underneath the Valet room. The place for an elevator was settled, but the oddly shaped space did not allow the use of a standard-sized elevator which could take a wide range of wheelchairs

A specially designed two-stop elevator from the first level to the second floor was produced by the Finnish company KONE. (see Figure 4) While it does not have the minimum standard interior dimensions that would otherwise be required (about 48” x 84”), it is a through-route elevator with doors at each end. The interior dimension of the elevator is very tight, about 32” x 57”.

The location of the elevator is slightly out-of-the-way. Nevertheless, the team made the decision to maintain the elevator’s modern design, materials, panels, and other equipment, not attempting to match the building’s historic interior materials and appearance. The team decided to make the elevator an honest addition to the building, standing out as a distinctly modern element.

Windows in the elevator cabin are a unique feature that allows users to understand the building's structure by revealing the wooden beams inside the walls.

This shows the route of travel for someone using the accessible side entrance to gain access to the first floor of Norway's Constitutional Assembly Hall. The route shown takes one to the newly installed elevator, which ascends to the second floor of the building. The second floor has the actual meeting room where the discussions and votes took place.

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