Lifts in Listed Buildings: The requirements, considerations and challenges


by Alastair Stannah, Managing Director, Stannah Lifts

Working in a listed building presents unique challenges, as the property needs to be maintained and its original structural design preserved, and yet improvements still need to be made.

There are 400,000 listed buildings in England, grading a building as ‘listed’ helps protect it so future generations can enjoy the buildings and also helps to save buildings from demolition. Historic England fully recognises the challenges providing accessibility for everyone poses, however it is also key to ensuring our historical buildings remain culturally important and significant.

Traditionally, disabled access to historic, listed and religious buildings can be challenging and ensuring the installation does not interfere with the building’s features and meets planning requirements is paramount.

Nowadays – many listed buildings have been turned into shops, hotels, homes and even restaurants! This presents a new problem for the businesses or homeowners living within such properties – what happens when disabled access is required?

Legislation and guidance
Three main items outline the best practice for making a building accessible, namely;
1. The legal framework, the Equality Act
2. The building regulations, Part M Vol.2 in England or Section 4.2 of the Technical Handbook for Scotland
3. The design guidance, recently updated British Standard BS 8300: 2018 - Part 1 & 2.

These all help to outline the legal requirements, what lift to consider in a new building and the preference and  guidance on ensuring an accessible lift, with the latter two highlighting specific lift requirements and preference between different types.

In addition to the above, those working on heritage buildings must also consider Conservation Principles: Policies and Guidance for the Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment, which sets out a consistent approach to making decisions about all aspects of the historic environment and the National Planning Policy Framework, which sets out the planning policies for England, providing a framework for sustainable development and conserving and enhancing the historic environment.

Access options through lifts
Historic buildings were generally not built to accommodate wheelchairs, they have changes of level frequently, and access points can be narrow, high, or twisted. Over time, paths can be disrupted, and routes made uneven. These limitations to physical access can be avoided by clever planning of accessibility solutions.

For many historic buildings, the problem arises where aesthetic preservation is just as important as future accessibility. Sometimes, traditional methods of access, such as ramps and passenger lifts, are not suitable. Picking the right solution for a listed building is important as applying for planning permission can be a lengthy process, so you need to ensure you explore all options available.

Unique design considerations for historic buildings
In addition to the typical design considerations involved in placing a lift into a building, they are as follows:

1. Preserving the fabric of the building and status - One of the most important 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 avoid disrupting the design and craftsmanship of the structure, the lift needs to be able to blend seamlessly with its surroundings.

2. Structural Care - 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 no longer used in modern buildings. Finding the best location to install the lift might be a challenge, but it means that it will not interfere with the features and character of the building.

3. Lift Design & Aesthetics - After choosing the right place, you must also think about the design of the lift itself, not just its functionality. All types of lifts can be painted, clad, or styled to ensure they enable access but do so in a sympathetic manner.

Lifts in historic buildings
There is a broad range of different types of lifts that are available for supply and install, from dumbwaiters aiding serving food in a Grade II listed guest house to passenger-carrying varieties which we focus on below:

Passenger lifts in historic buildings
Generally speaking, passenger lifts are most common in new-builds where it is easier to build a lift shaft to take the loads required, have space for a pit, and is designed in the overall building layout. In historic buildings, once a suitable space is identified, typically a full site survey is  undertaken to assess the feasibility and often a solution to minimise building changes is proposed.

Like this Grade 2 Chapel at Royal Victoria Country Park (Pic), 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.

Passenger lifts are the ideal solution for buildings where lifts will be frequently used, either due to the size of the building or where the lift will be the primary method of travelling between floors.

Platform lifts in buildings
Platform lifts tend to be the most 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 space required.

Generally speaking, vertical lifting platforms tend only to be used as an alternative where it is not possible to fit a passenger lift, or where traffic flow means the lift is used solely to provide access for persons with impaired mobility. This is referred to in Sections 3.25 and 3.35 of Part M, Vol 2.

A key feature of a platform lift is that you have many more options to modify them to suit a specific style or interior design scheme. Either making them less conspicuous or more in keeping. In particular, choosing a RAL colour to blend in, or another popular option is to change the landing doors, typically to timber or other styles too.

Moribund and on the Buildings at Risk Register, Cross basket Castle, Grade I Listed tower house (Pic) installed a platform lift as part of its restoration to give access  between the ground-floor hall and mezzanine balcony. The lift was painted in RAL 8016 mahogany brown to complement the surrounding woodwork, aged fixtures and fittings of the main building.

Whitchurch Silk Mill, a Grade II*-listed Georgian working watermill (Pic) had both historical and environmental restrictions. With the design solution comprising a projecting shaft structure supported by struts on the mill’s exterior, river-facing wall. By reducing the headroom, this shaft structure blended effortlessly with the roofline. In the interior, the landing doors were specifically designed to be sympathetic with the museum's decor.

Access stairlifts in building
If a staircase is a significant aesthetic benefit to the building, yet it is your only means of access, you require a solution that's sympathetic to the environment.

Wheelchair stairlifts work by travelling up the flight of a staircase and are generally used in exceptional circumstances, provided its installation does not conflict with requirements for means of escape. One key benefit is that they fold flat when not in use.

Often these inclined platform stairlifts are used to provide access to an annexe, or sub-section of a building. These lifts can be installed either to the wall or floor, preserving areas as required.

Like a replacement platform stairlift, we installed at Castle Howard, a Grade I-listed (Pic) 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 matched the lift colour with the natural stone walls.

The ongoing maintenance of any lift is also worth considering. Choosing a UK based supplier and maintenance provider will make parts easier to source and ongoing maintenance covered from the outset.

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. Certainly, 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, as they need to provide customised options, that not only benefit their customers, but are completely specific to their unique requirements.

With 150 years of our own Stannah heritage, we truly believe we can help any access requirement. Find out more on



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