This started out as a Facebook post, but I’m trying to do right by my youngest brother and keep those under 500 (1,000?) words. You’re welcome, M—. I hope you’re reading this. My apologies for the regrettable photo quality; this is all I could find for an unexpected post on staircases.
CityLab just shared a short blurb on the benefits of making shared/public staircases more attractive and accessible as part of improving public health. Luckily, I’m already full of thoughts on that, as someone who takes the stairs by (cranky, contrarian, health-and-environmental-awareness) default, even when I have to brightly and repeatedly ask where they are. Not only is it better for my long-term health and the environment, taking the stairs gives my brain the little extra oomph of some quick cardio that we’re finding out is so good for thinking, problem-solving, and generally being human.
When it comes to CityLab’s suggestion of better designed stairwells, architects are, again, in luck! Many stairwells are firmly in the camp of “low-hanging fruit.” As a default user of them, my biggest concern is personal safety. Many staircases are deserted, out of the way in back corners, with blank doors, thick walls, windowless, with no visual differentiation from floor to floor (so it’s disorienting), and often with locked floors so I have to go back up/down stairs to exit (making me feel trapped). Sometimes they aren’t climate controlled, or only heated inadequately. They often smell funny (since they connect to working building maintenance spaces). The lighting is often poor, maybe florescent, like a parking garage. They hold and reverberate sound in strange and unpredictable ways, so you don’t know how close the door that opened was to you. They often have open centers, or lowish/wide railings, open to many floors below. I’m frequently a stranger to the building with no idea of who else I might encounter, if anyone. It’s all often nightmarish. This is what we need to retrofit and it’ll take work.
We have elevators to make life accessible for those who need them. They may also have proven tempting, and with possible public health consequences, for those who don’t, but when it comes down to it (or up! via stairs or elevator!) I don’t want us to get so caught up in designing awesome staircases that we relegate those who are in wheelchairs or have mobility issues to the forbidding corner where the stairs are currently located.
The Solution (Physical)
I can only throw out the things I’ve noticed or thought about. For the most part, these apply to the retrofit stuff. The new-design is where the fun’s at, so I’ll leave that for the actual architects. Here are my suggestions for what they’re worth. If possible:
1. Design the space as you would any room, with natural light and good lighting generally, quality materials, a layout that gives clues about usage, and sound absorption.
2. Make usage clear. All doors and exits should be clear in what they connect to and with early indications as to whether they will open in a non-emergency situation. A user should never reach a landing only to realize it isn’t connected to another floor.
3. Connect to other parts of the building (interior windows?) so that they cannot feel “dangerously” deserted.
4. Be visually interesting, but also give a sense of movement. They should fight against disorientation, especially in buildings with many floors. They should use the visual (and not just large numbers) to indicate usage and to give a sense of distance.
5. Function as interior spaces, in line with the rest of the interior. They should be ventilated, heated, cooled, and lighted, appropriately.
6. Offer stairs wide enough for faster users to pass slower users with users going in both directions.
7. Offer rest spaces for users who might need or want a break before continuing, so that they are not only the province of the fit.
8. Limit the distance a person could fall.
9. If they are likely to be periodically deserted even with above options, pay extra attention to lighting, sound, and visible integration with the rest of the building. Mirrors to see around corners could be used.
The Solution (Social)
I take the stairs knowing that I might get winded. I’m okay with that–I’m a human, I breathe, and I breathe more heavily when I exert myself. But I’ve talked to others who feel shame/worry about that. We need to make sure that we are normalizing human physiology and working with it (perhaps some rest spaces/landings for those who need it, enough space for the faster to pass the slower, etc). We need to make staircases more welcoming, but also create them as social spaces and change the social norms that impact a willingness to exert oneself at all in certain circumstances.
Lastly, this needs to be done in the context of fire-safety. If you make better choices about late-night reading material than I do, you may not have fallen down the rabbit hole of the catastrophic building collapses/fires through the 20th century that are the invisible foundation of our fire regulations. Depending on design, staircases can function as chimneys, serving to spread and intensify fires, while also preventing safe exit from the building.
Again, because I think it bears repeating. Safety regulations (building codes, prohibited chemicals, etc.) and best practices don’t generally come out of happy imaginary what-if best-guesses. They are the result of a brutal kind of science of death, forcing ourselves to look at how we have failed one another in the absolutest sense. They come when we sit down, mourning, and treat our beloved dead as data points. John Snow’s cholera maps. Airbags. Child resistant lids. Tamper resistant packaging. What buildings stayed standing and which ones fell? Who got out alive and who didn’t? Who worked in which industry? Which patient received which drug? Who took the stairs and who took the elevator over the course of their lifetime?