Lifts for listed buildings

Stannah lift at top floor of Winchester Cathedral / Kevin Gover

Traditionally, easy access to historic, listed and religious buildings can be challenging and ensuring the installation does not interfere with the building's original structure and meets planning requirements is paramount. 

What is a listed building?

There are 400,000 listed buildings in England. Grading a building as 'listed' helps protect it so future generations can enjoy it and also helps to save buildings from demolition—key to ensuring our historical buildings remain culturally significant.

Do listed buildings have to have disabled access?

Yes, to ensure they comply with the Equality Act. Although modifications to listed buildings can be challenging, Historic England supports owners wishing to install high-quality and architecturally fitting disabled access, provided the building's structure is not damaged. Those working on heritage buildings also need to consider the specific planning policy requirements, which vary depending on the building's listed status and historical significance. 

What accessibility solutions can you place in a listed building?

Overcoming limitations to physical access in a heritage site poses a unique challenge as it requires conserving historic parts while still improving access in the listed building. 

Historic buildings were generally not built to be wheelchair accessible. They frequently change levels, and access points can be narrow, high, or twisted. Over time, paths can be disrupted, and routes can become uneven.

Ramps are quick to install and inexpensive. Standard guidance advises a maximum gradient of 1:12 for a distance of up to 2m between level landings. An Access Statement is required for anything steeper, and the ramp can become hard to use (as noted in Historic England's Easy Access to Historic Buildings guidance). 

For many historic buildings, aesthetic preservation is just as important as future accessibility, which means that traditional methods of access, such as ramps and passenger lifts, are sometimes not suitable. Picking the right solution for a listed building is vital as applying for planning permission can be a lengthy process, so you need to ensure you explore all options available, ideally with a lift company that can support you with the right lift project and adapt construction plans to meet regulatory requirements.

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What size does a lift have to be in a listed building?

Historic England notes that the size of a lift car has to be large enough to hold any type of wheelchair—a passenger lift measuring 2000mm by 1400mm deep will provide access to most scooters and enable wheelchairs to turn 180 degrees. Platform lifts can also be carefully installed without damaging property if a passenger lift is not possible or practical.

This London heritage project ensures the Hippodrome Casino, a Grade II listed building can provides access for visitors or staff behind the scenes (3)Making historic buildings accessible with a lift

Besides the typical design considerations involved in placing a lift into a building, there are some additional considerations as follows:

Preserving the fabric of the building and status

One of the most critical factors involved in the installation of lifts in listed buildings, if not the most vital, is the need to preserve their original architecture and status.  

To preserve architectural integrity, structural modifications or specialist construction techniques may be required to conserve the original fabric of the building. The most common challenge is limited pits and headrooms. 

Another factor to consider is the structural integrity and materials of the building and any possible damage that a lift installation could cause. Listed buildings may be delicate or made from unusual materials that are no longer used in modern buildings. Many modern lifts have multiple structures and load-bearing options to ensure lift installation is possible. 

Before advising on the most suitable type of lift, a full-site survey should be undertaken, considering factors such as lift location, load-bearing walls, available space, and the impact on the building. 

Lift design & aesthetics

After choosing the right place, you must also consider the design of the lift itself, not just its functionality. All types of lifts can be painted, clad, or styled to ensure they align with the listed building's architectural features and prioritise inclusive design for wheelchair users and the visually impaired.

Types of lifts for historic buildings 

Passenger lifts or platform lifts are both well suited to listed buildings, provided the pits and openings for lift shafts are carefully considered to prevent loss or damage to historical interiors, archaeological remains, and decorative surfaces.

Many listed buildings have been turned into cafes, hotels and restaurants. Back-of-house service and goods lifts such as dumbwaiters and trolley lifts can help protect staff at these types of venues from carrying heavy items between floors. 

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Lifts in more detail …. passenger lifts in historic buildings

queen-victoria-country-park-SMALLGenerally speaking, passenger lifts are more common in new builds. In historic buildings, once a suitable space is identified, typically, a complete site survey is undertaken to assess the feasibility, and often, a solution to minimise building changes is proposed.

We can even work with modern-day evacuation lift requirements! Like this Grade 2 Chapel at Royal Victoria Country Park, situated in an existing stairwell, the 8-person passenger lift had to be installed within Historic England guidelines.

This meant the guide brackets could not be fitted to the Chapel's historic walls, so the lift was supplied and fitted within a structure to reduce the loads imposed on walls. Also, BS 9999-compliant, the evacuation lift plays a vital role in an evacuation strategy for those less ambulant.

Lifts in more detail …. platform lifts in historic buildings

Platform lift access in Crossbasket castlePlatform lifts are a popular solution in historic buildings as they do not require as much fixing support or a lifting beam. This means they can be installed either with a small pit or none at all, making them unobtrusive with a minimum of space required.

Moribund and on the Buildings at Risk Register, Crossbasket Castle, a Grade I listed building, installed a platform lift as part of its restoration. The lift was painted to complement the surrounding woodwork and aged fixtures and fittings of the main building.

Stannah platform lift provides access at Whitchurch Silk MillWe also put lifts in a grade 2 listed building, like Whitchurch Silk Mill, a Georgian working watermill with both historical and environmental restrictions. The design solution comprised a projecting shaft structure supported by struts on the mill's exterior and a river-facing wall, reducing the headroom to blend with the roofline. In the interior, the landing doors were explicitly designed to be sympathetic to the museum's decor.

Wheelchair platform lift helps support mobility requirements at Castle HowardIf a staircase is a significant aesthetic feature, yet it is your only means of access, you require a solution that's sympathetic to the environment. Like this replacement platform stairlift, we installed at Castle Howard, a Grade I-listed ancestral home of the Howard family. In keeping with English Heritage guidelines, the conservation architect, curator and the Howard family insisted that no further drill holes were made into the historic and protected Grand Staircase. Stannah was very open to this and installed the lift stanchions to the fixing points of its predecessor, also closely matching the lift colour with the natural stone walls.

A summary of lifts for listed buildings

In light of all this, it becomes necessary to choose the right lift for installation, preferably one that can be customised to fit the building to perfection. Indeed, a degree of heightened respect and a very tuned-in mindset is required when working on these kinds of projects.

The importance of using an experienced company to find the right solution for each heritage project should never be underestimated. With 150 years of our own Stannah heritage, we truly believe we can help with any access requirement.

Image credits: Historic England & Nick Cox Architects

With over 50,000 installations across the UK and nearly 100,000 units in our service portfolio, we offer a wide range of lift solutions and services to move people and goods. Take a look at our product range or simply get in touch.

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