Friday 21 February 2014

The Curious Tale Of The West Dunbartonshire Ramp

This is a story about a campaign to make a house accessible for a disabled child which should get all designers thinking about inclusive design.

The ramp as viewed from the house.
Photo from Clydebank Post.
The story is essentially that a 7-year old girl, who uses a wheelchair, was not able to leave the house because of a flight of steps. Her family had been campaigning for access improvements for their house and West Dumbartonshire Council eventually installed a ramp, which certainly meets the requirement for access, but is not pretty.

The first thing to note is how different the national press and local press have reported the story. The Guardian report is fairly factual, but relies on "local builders" to cost the work at £40k without any comment from the Council - for my mind, pretty sloppy. There is also an opinion piece from Frances Ryan which really has a go at the Council "you want a ramp, I'll give you a ramp" - I suspect she doesn't know the full details and like me, she is fully engaged in armchair punditry.

View from the street.
Image by Hemedia/ Mark Sutherland via The Guardian.
The local paper, Clydebank Post, may be more balanced - it turns out that the family moved in with the full knowledge of what the access was like and then campaigned for the access improvements. Now the works are complete, the family is not happy because the Council won't install a gate. The Metro has the story as a snippet, but which actually gives a decent photo of the context of the work and is of most interest to me as an engineer.

A picture paints a thousand words!
Image by SWNS via The Metro.
I find the reporting rather sad as the important person in all of this is a little girl who is constantly referred to as "suffering" from the condition which means she relies on her wheelchair. 

The only thing she is "suffering" is the minor media scrum of opinion which is quick to condemn the local council in showing off a £40k "eyesore" and dare I say it, a fuss created by a family who took on a house knowing the lack of access - did they fully put their daughter's interests first?

OK, the trouble with news like this is that it is a bluster of sensation and it quickly moves on and apart from the council being slow there isn't really a story here. We never learn of the full details and so it is hard to draw any proper conclusions. The family may have taken the house because it was close to family or friends, or it was convenient for schools; despite the obvious issue of trying to get their child and her wheelchair up a flight of stairs to a front door over 1.5 metres (at least) higher than the street. 

What was the alternative here? OK, the ramp might have been more attractively designed, but the system used will have kept costs down (it will have been less than £40k). A lift would have involved digging a trench into the garden with a lift shaft next to the house. Alternatively, a lift could have been provided from the street entrance with a high-level platform to the house (a little bridge if you will). The problem is maintenance. A ramp takes very little.

The council in following its duty to provide access (something I think campaigners should challenge their local authorities more about) has met the requirements - something the mother even admits to. But, the outcome is not pretty. Ramps are installed at houses all over the place without comment or debate, the only difference here is that of scale.

The steps slide back to reveal a lift, with a second one inside the
main entrance to the building.
Image from
One Great George Street (OGGS) in Westminster is the headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). The Grade II listed Edwardian building in common with many of the era and indeed in the area, has steps up into it. Quite a few! 

Some years ago, the Institution decided that sending those who couldn't easily access the main entrance to the building round the back was no longer acceptable and so the main entrance was remodelled to include a clever hidden lift system which allows access for all via the main entrance. 

There was a fuss by some members at the time because of the cost involved (amongst other things, we members pay towards running the place!), but the scheme went ahead and these lifts are now not unusual at all. A video of how it works can be seen here and given how accessible the place is for an old building, its success as a conference and events venue clearly vindicates the original decision to install the lifts both from an access and financial point of view!

When the the house in West Dumbartonshire and OGGS were built, inclusive access didn't exist. The house was built on an estate sitting on a hill and the layout will have sought to minimise excavations with many dwellings sitting well above the street. For OGGS, it was built in the era of grand staircases being used to enter buildings and of course, raising the ground floor makes a basement easier to build.
In 2014, we should never build anything new which cannot be accessed by everyone - and this doesn't mean a separate entrance, it means the same entrance. This goes for trains, buses, buildings - everything. Our retrofits are now much cleverer and as the ICE showed, we can make a building accessible without affecting its look. Of course, in West Dumbartonshire, we have what compromise looks like and perhaps we still have some way to go.


  1. What ever the reason that thing is not just monstrously ugly, it must be a complete pain to use. Imagine a similar scenario of having to cycle up on to a pedestrian bridge where you need to cycle up one or more ramps with sharp turns like that, it's not pretty. Wheel chairs need to stop and turn too.

    It doesn't have to get more complicated than this:

    A fairly common fixture in most modern Swedish buildings.

  2. Quote "A fairly common fixture in most modern Swedish buildings."

    IN being the operative word. How common are they OUTside Swedish buildings?

    Andy R

    1. I still can't believe there is no better alternative if someone actually would have paused to think and not just installed the most cumbersome solution out of almost seemingly spite.

  3. Yes, external lifts totally possible, but would break down I bet. A post on thinking, rather than right or wrong answers I suppose.