A day in the life of accessible design: the case of the invisible lift – Part 1

The idealised format of modern living and design requires space, light and a lack of clutter in design and spatial planning. This ideal has evidently been at the forefront of the thoughts of the designer (s) of the foyer area of the GreyFriars Hotel, East Hill, Colchester. As a result, the entrance foyer is an open and airy design, where the emphasis on a lack of “clutter” has extended to the use of an invisible lift to allow access from the entrance foyer to the reception desk area; the protective barriers being invisible by sinking into the floor. This is fascinating to watch and use. Yet there is no signage as to how to use the lift, and wheelchair visitors need to shout up to the reception desk (or get their friend to ask/press a button externally) to gain help as the operating system is also hidden. Reception staff must interrupt what they are doing to open a small cupboard to reveal controls and operate them for visitors.


The invisible lift embedded into the floor

I managed to make successful use of the invisible lift about six times in total, including my initial registration on arrival. However, on one of my descents to the floor where my bedroom was things went sadly awry. Staff on Reception had changed when I requested assistance to use the lift. I rolled my wheelchair into what I thought was an appropriate position; and the member of staff eventually came to operate the lift controls. The guard barriers rose and then began their descent and to my horror I found my left, paralysed, foot was trapped beneath the descending barrier. I tried to pull it away, but the barrier continued its descent beginning to crush my trapped limb. A loudly shouted warning to the operator requesting a halt in action was responded to by the unhelpful response that there was no ‘stop’ button (alternatively this was a first time operation for this particular member of staff). By now more than a little frantic and anxious, I managed to release my right hand wheel brake and lurch away from the lift ‘guillotine’. Fortunately, in spite of bruising and pain no long term damage has been suffered.

I appreciate that designs have to work for multiple users as they evidently did at GreyFriars –we watched a cleaner load her trolley on to the lift and move it up one level. However, I would infinitely prefer to operate lifts myself as at the British Museum, for example, or Caffè Nero in Williams & Griffin, Colchester. If others have to undertake the assistance please can they be properly trained and have instant halt devices installed on control consoles (or know how these work if available).


Feature by Will Hawkesworth, who was formerly East Colchester Project Manager