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Accessibility and heritage symbiosis: Q&A with architects Michael McClelland, Daniel Lewis, and Diana Roldan 

by Alessandro Tersigni

As a culmination of National Accessibility Week, ERA’s Alessandro Tersigni sat down with three of the firm’s architects specializing in accessible interventions in the built environment.  

ERA principal Michael McClelland and architects Daniel Lewis and Diana Roldan discuss the different and changing meanings of “accessible”, the diversity of paths to achieving it, and the natural symbiosis between built heritage and universal access. 

Alessandro Tersigni: How does ERA conceive of accessibility in the context of architecture?  

Diana Roldan: There are so many different angles we can look at accessibility from as architects. The standards, legislation, and guidelines that inform the interventions we work on are themselves in motion and changing. For example, barrier-free access is a well-established standard while the process of universal design — creating accessible spaces not just for people with physical disabilities but also people with hearing loss, vision impairment, and other forms of disability — is still being defined. There’s a huge amount at play. 

Michael McClelland: The broader ideas about what accessibility means in the built environment are also continuously evolving. In The Architecture of Disability, David Gissen makes the fascinating point that discourses about universal access focus more on the concept of inclusion than on disability, which is actually not what a lot of people who are disabled are looking for. They want recognition for their disability. They don’t want to pretend they’re just like everybody else. We need to be asking who the users of spaces are. Who visits them? What are their expectations? What experiences do they need and want access to

Canada Life Building won the Compatible Design Award with London Heritage in 2024. Daniel and Diana are pictured on the left.

AT: When you approach a project, where does the motivation to make things accessible come from?  

Daniel Lewis: It ultimately comes from clients, who can have very different perspectives. For Canada Life London, a single user of the ramp we designed was enough to warrant their investment in it. For other clients, if there’s no legal requirement to achieve accessibility, it often isn’t prioritized. We’ll make them aware of the accessibility opportunities for a particular site, but it can come down to the decisions of individuals, especially in private spaces. 

AT: In the past, heritage and accessibility have often been understood as detrimental to each other. Is this beginning to change? 

DL: English Heritage and others have pointed out that accessibility is basically intrinsic to the heritage of architecture: buildings are living and their interaction with the world and people around them is essentially what makes them valuable. Being accessible to society is a huge part of that. 

MM: In a way, heritage and accessibility are both civil rights issues and should naturally be working together, but often aren’t. For some reason, there’s a false conflict between the two: heritage is viewed as getting in the way of accessibility and accessibility is viewed as compromising heritage. From my perspective, both are vital for helping people feel grounded and like they have a place in the world that’s meaningful. 

The Spirit of York Distillery in the Distillery District had their entrance lowered to at-grade access.

AT: What role can architects play in shaping the practice of accessibility as it continues to develop? 

DR: In 2022, 27% of Canadians aged 15 and older reported having at least one disability. In 2012, it was half that. It’s a mainstream need. I think architects can help make sure we meet it in the most sophisticated way possible. 

MM: And there’s an enormous diversity of ways to do that, which we can work on simultaneously. Take the Distillery District — one of the coolest spaces to be is up in the cupolas, which right now no one gets access to. Maybe there’s a way of making that experience equally accessible to everyone using virtual reality and 360° photography. Thinking creatively about accessibility allows for all kinds of opportunities that enhance everyone’s connections with places they love. 

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The Distillery District Cityscape Development Corporation & Dundee Realty
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7 St. Thomas St. St. Thomas Commercial Developments
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Interior of University College Library from second floor balcony.
University College University of Toronto
Toronto