Robert Nickola on designing equal access churches

“As religious architects, we have the ability to be holistic and think of the entire church population from Day One,” says Robert “Bob” Nickola, senior principal of Jaeger, Nickola & Associates in metro Chicago.

“As religious architects, we have the ability to be holistic and think of the entire church population from Day One,” says Robert “Bob” Nickola, senior principal of Jaeger, Nickola & Associates in metro Chicago.

His architectural firm operates from the philosophy that a building shouldn’t direct the way people worship. Rather, liturgy should dictate the building.

“We’re all equal in God’s eyes. And we all need access at the same level. In our minds that has always meant making worship spaces available to all, both in where the people sit and where the clergy leads,” Nickola says.

Seek out other perspectives

Incorporating this perspective is often easiest in new construction, because churches know they must comply with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

“It’s a given that we design in a way that welcomes people. The relationship starts in the parking lot, the travel to the building, and the power assisted doors…and continues into the reception and worship spaces,” Nickola says.

But to make sure that congregations follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law, he advises that they plan with those who have disabilities, not just for them. “If there’s a church member who has a disability and is interested in liturgy, we urge them to be on the committee or serve as a resource.”

Feedback from people with disabilities influenced the way Nickola’s firm handles access for those who lead worship. The firm avoids placing ramps or mechanical lifts within the worship space. That way people with wheelchairs or walking difficulties aren’t on public display as they go up or down.

In the new St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Streamwood, Illinois, a wood screen wall hides a ramp that accesses both levels of the chancel platform. The ambo (pulpit used for Scripture reading and preaching) is on a pneumatic piston. Kids, adults in wheelchairs, and standing adults adjust its height by pressing a switch.

Build for everyone

When Peace Lutheran Church outgrew its 1901 building, members could have cut costs substantially by using a smaller footprint and building two floors.

Instead, the congregation in South Haven, Michigan, chose to design the whole church on a single level. Why? They wanted to make the entire worship space accessible so they asked for ideas from a church family that included a wheelchair user.

“That commitment was unwavering as we sought to intersect with the whole South Haven area community,” says Rev. Robert “Bob” Linstrom.

The old church had pews but the new sanctuary uses chairs that can be easily moved to fit wheelchairs anywhere into a row of seats. The aisles and chancel are spacious, and a ramp accesses the chancel from behind the worship furnishings.

“Wheelchairs are an occasional presence, but we have a number of members with walkers, canes, and the like who would be functionally homebound if we were still worshiping in our old facility. New members find our space welcoming. One new family has a child with spina bifida, who uses a wheelchair or special walker,” Linstrom says.

Develop a master plan

Nickola says that platform height is a big factor in retrofitting churches for accessibility. “If the sanctuary floor is dead flat, then the platform needs to be high enough for everyone to see it no matter where they’re sitting.

“For every inch you go up, a ramp needs to be a foot long. Ramps longer than 30 feet need switchbacks and landings, which makes them physically and visually dominant. In older buildings, we look to adjacent sacristy space, so we can put ramps, elevators, or lifts out of sight,” Nickola says.

St. Edna Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois, was first built in the 1950s. Its platform had seven levels. Nickola says that installing ramps for each level would have made the platform look like a skateboard park.

“Our best solution was to take down the platform and make it all one. We put the tabernacle (container for consecrated Eucharist elements) on the main level. We put in a new screen wall, leaving four feet behind for a ramp. The ramp winds behind the screen and emerges behind the pulpit,” Nickola says.

Though St. Edna began planning its renovation before Father Jerry Jacob arrived, he says he’s glad the congregation “truly desires to be a welcoming community. We have a lector who uses a walker. We have several elderly ministers who would no longer be able to administer the Eucharist without this renovation.”

Nickola acknowledges that renovating for accessibility is costly. He advises making a master plan that identifies everything needed to meet all the needs in the congregation. He helps churches prioritize the projects. “If a memorial becomes available, then you have the project defined,” he says.

“I’ve seen parishes achieve accessibility within 5 to 10 years—even on a 1930s era campus that had 4 buildings and 17 levels,” Nickola says.

How a Small Church Achieved Accessibility

Seekers Church in Washington, D.C. worshiped for more than three decades in a building they shared with their “mother” congregation. Knowing that the other congregation would disband, Seekers tried to buy the building. When that fell through, they began looking for a new space.

They’d loved their old location in the center of the nation’s capital. What they finally found was at the edge of the city in Takoma Park, one of the capital’s first suburbs. It was a brick storefront building attached to a century-old house.

Seekers webmaster Jeffrey P. Silverstone says they intentionally chose a location near a subway station, to make the new church more accessible to those who don’t drive.

“Even though, as a church, we are exempt from accessibility requirements, I think there was some feeling that we should hold ourselves to the same standard that everyone else (other assembly spaces) is required to meet,” Silverstone says.

To make their renovated building accessible, Seekers Church:

  • Built an addition with a ramp along one side of the house so it is accessible to both wheelchairs and chair carts
  • Placed this ramp beside the two steps leading from the sanctuary down to the house dining room
  • Continued the ramp outdoors to provide wheeled access from the parking lot behind the building
  • Installed an elevator
  • Made bathrooms accessible
  • Moved a streetside front door 15 feet so it would be even with the sidewalk

Members had many pointed, sometimes painful, discussions about tithing and stewardship. Besides paying for renovations, they also wanted to make the worship area available to other groups seeking accessible space. So according to Seekers staff member Peter Bankson, they made these furniture choices:

  • Asked Peter Danko to design sanctuary chairs that can be stacked on special carts and moved down the elevator to the street level
  • Chose an easily moveable lectern and altar table
  • Put the wooden cross in the sanctuary on a mobile reredos that can be turned to reveal a large projection screen
  • Purchased a concert-capable sound system and technical ceiling that allows for theatrical lighting

The new church was dedicated in June 2004, and many groups and individuals have since used it for accessible gatherings.

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