I Hate Stairs
On behalf of a firm, I once designed an interesting project on a sloping site, with facades on three adjacent
streets. The client was a middle-aged woman with three teenage sons. Her previous architect had stated that,
at best, the site would stock up to two three-bedroomed apartments and one studio flat. Access to the
residential units was only through the garage.
So I remember this really great day when I played with the floor levels a little bit, and came up wih three,
nearly full footprint apartments. Besides the necessary access from the garage, each house had its own separate
entrance from the street and was built over two levels. These two levels were obviously connected internally by a
staircase. The three-car garage was also a half footprint, with the possibility of three additional spaces
following further excavation. We were quite pleased with ourselves.
On viewing the plans, the client's answer was nothing short of odd. She said the planning was a little too
'intelligent'... and are the stairs really necessary?
We explained once again how the section worked, and how much space was being saved. Through the different levels
the apartments were now two-storey family houses, independentally accessible, and hence, more valuable.
Finally, she let it out...
"But you see, I've never lived with stairs... I've always lived in an apartment. I cannot live with stairs!"
I had naively presumed that when she said the building was for her children... the building would be only used
by her children. Maybe our client was thinking a little further...
"I cannot live with stairs." This last statement is a perspective which is shared by many aging users. Home
owners are frequently made to move out because even the most accessible staircase becomes a residential hazard.
Within the context of universal design, a home with a staircase as we know it today is not for everyone.
So a home for all is restricted to the following - a flat within an apartment block, accessible by means of a
lift or a bungalow.
I Love Stairs
or I Hate Lifts!
Don't outrule the staircase!
As Webster has rightly pointed out, a staircase is a poetic architectural curiosity and can be a stunning design feature. Just think of the Art Nouveau staircase in Hotel Tassel.
I am currently working in one of the administrative areas of a museum. The building is served by a single
hydraulic lift. We had no other access for a long time since we never bothered to ask for the security
keys to the fire escape. (You can escape to the ground floor, but cannot enter the third floor, which is where I
work). Truth be told, the view of the inside of the museum from the glass is visually stunning. Still, when you
have to wait two minutes just to pee, it kind of gets old.
It seems I'm not the only one who does not like too much comfort.
This American-Japanese family living in Japan writes...
"We are on the first floor right by the entrance. You have to climb up
a short flight of steps, but we never have to use the elevator. That's nice."
However, he also goes on to say that internally, the steps of his Japanese flat are extremely steep.
"With space at a premium, most stairs in Japan are steep and narrow, with few handrails. So far, at least only
I... ...have fallen.
My knee is getting better now..."
What makes steps safe?
The basics of step design
The accessibility of a stair depends on its width and the slope it rises. The height the stair must reach is also
an important design factor since the individual stair riser and the tread must be uniform. A common rule of thumb is as follows: the tread plus twice the riser
should be between 550mm and 700mm. According to Francis D. K. Ching this range is between 24 to 25 inches. A
graphical explanation of stair terminology and additional stair design tips can be found
So stairs may vary between a 406mm (16") tread and a 127mm (5") riser (max comfort) to a 254mm (10") tread
and a 190mm riser (7.5") (steep). They are usually made-to-measure for every single house. In plan, stairs may
also vary between a straight flight, U-shaped, L-shaped, helical or circular.
A Universal Staircase
Customisation versus prefabrication is interesting to discuss with regards to staircases. Prefabrication allows
for extensive research in aesthetics and is able to market 'rethinking the staircase'. As I have explained
earlier, a house for all stages of life is restricted to a straight section. Outruling the sensation of ascent is a sad realisation. A further consideration towards standardisation is that both the structure and the materials used generally imitate that used in the interior design of the house. Currently, the only way for users with restricted mobility to access a staircase is through an unsightly stairlift. Of course, this moves the user, but not the wheelchair.
Wake up, designers.