A day in the life of accessible design: the case of the invisible lift – Part 2

This review was written after a one night break in December 2015 at GreyFriars Hotel, Colchester, sharing the experience with Will Hawkesworth who is a wheelchair user.

According to GreyFriars Hotel’s accessibility statement:

On reaching the automatic sliding glass doors at the North Entrance, you will find a call button for assistance if needed on the wall to the left of the doors. Reception is at a higher level approached by four limestone stairs here. A retracting staircase lift is provided here for wheelchair users and anyone with mobility difficulties who is unable to negotiate the stairs comfortably.

On pressing the call button, Reception will activate the retracting staircase, revealing a base platform. Once the visitor is on this platform, the platform will lift you to the top of the stairs and from there level access is provided through a glazed automatic sliding door to Reception, to the restaurants, bars, private dining and meeting rooms and cloakrooms, and via a lift to guest rooms on the upper floors of the main GreyFriars building. (http://greyfriarscolchester.co.uk/about/accessibility/)

From an onlooker’s viewpoint the entrance to the hotel does not give any clearly visible indication that the steps, on the north side into Reception, retract to allow a platform lift to be called upon. Most visitors would not be aware that floor markers conceal a powered vertical lifting platform, which can be used by persons who wish to access and use Reception and other parts of the building beyond. They might be wheelchair users but equally people with baby and pram, people carrying shopping or luggage, and cleaning staff transporting cleaning trolleys, would find this a useful way of getting up and down steps. Critically a key tension is in who controls the button box which operates the lift. In this case a member of staff has to be requested to operate the lift and a degree of supervision is required in order to avoid an accident. Safety is an essential component in the overall design of the lift space.


This was our first visit to a classified luxury hotel which has been created through a redesign of Grade II listed buildings, opened in 2015. Our bedroom was situated at ground level, below Reception, restaurants, bars, private dining and other spaces. Each time we wished to visit Reception and seating areas, or return to ground level, we had to request or seek Assistance in order to use the lift. Unfortunately, on one such occasion, returning to our bedroom, Will manoeuvring his wheelchair was not correctly positioned on the demarcated area close to where a rising steel safety barrier was to emerge. The barrier descended towards his foot which he managed to extract (not before getting bruised) before the mechanism continued on its journey into the floor. The tension here was that neither this one member of staff on duty or us as visitors had adequate training to use the retracting staircase, safely. Further, although attractively designed, the design features of the retracting stairs reinforced feelings of our dependence on hotel staff for assistance in order to move around the building. We might have felt happier if as a user we could have put our ‘finger’ firmly on the controls. Arguably, this unobtrusive and universal design of a retractable stairway lift is a clever use of space – readers may read about an example of this type of lift at: http://www.universaldesignstyle.com/sesame-retractable-stairs-to-platform-lift/


Feature by Marian Hawkesworth, independent researcher in the social sciences