Sydney Opera House special conference tour

This contribution is by Nicholas Loder who participated in this event prior to the Universal Design Conference 2016.

Syney Opera House taken from a ship at sunset - the House glows yellow and orangeOn a beautiful Monday morning we were met by Jenny Spinak and Greg McTaggart, who explained the ‘before and after’ of access for events at the Opera House, the difficulties in installing new lifts and the progress made to date in improving access. All within a building with World Heritage listing and built well before accessibility was a major consideration

First we experienced the old access route – walking and wheeling the ‘Green Line’. We wandered our way through every conceivable plant and equipment route possible. Eventually we came out where regular tours begin, still well below any of the theatres. Finally we entered the curved accessway installed in the last 18 months which led to one of the new lifts. The new Opera House access journey had begun!

The whole tour took on a very Harry Potter secret tunnel feel, as horizontal access had to be found before any lifts could be positioned – lifts without a roof needed as headroom was always going to be a challenge for traditional lifts. The highlight for me was the recently completed access into the Bennelong Restaurant, complete with secret panels and a disappearing stair which transformed into a platform lift!

In the Boardroom, which as fantastic views, Greg and Jenny spoke to a wonderful series of slides on the research undertaken into access shortcomings of the House, culminating in staged upgrade plans and new spaces for recently  identified audience needs.

For designers, especially within the Drama Theatre where space is very limited, there are multiple competing issues: the provision of wheelchair seating approaching current Code requirements, with good sightlines, respecting long-held season ticket holders needs, the budgets of each performance season (each new wheelchair spot removes three additional paying seats), and all without impacting adversely on the heritage values of the Sydney Opera House!

Overall the team at the Sydney Opera House has developed very workable plans and strategies for access upgrades and have engaged the very best experienced architects to undertake the work. All looks set for smooth sailing for the House and its patrons for many decades to come.

Note: Jenny Spinak made a presentation at the conference about the work they are doing to make all their activities and performances as inclusive as possible as well as specialised activities specifically for children with a range of disabilities. So inclusion is not just about the building.

Many thanks to Jenny Spinak, Accessibility Manager, and Greg McTaggart, Director of Building Development, for their support in making this site visit a success.