What is a stairwell?
By definition a Stairwell is a shaft in a building, in which stairs are used to vertically link different floors. It is mandatory under building regulations, BS and EN standards to have stairs where there is more than one floor in addition to lifts etc. In low rise buildings they are commonly used, however for the upper floors in taller buildings, stairs are very rarely used and their purpose is therefore for emergency situations, for example a major fire.
On most projects, money is spent primarily on either the areas which will be most functionally beneficial, or which will maximise the perceived value. Stairs are one of the few areas where an individual architectural feature can be easily made, however how visible the stair is and the amount of use it will get is usually what affects the specification.
Options and benefits
The application of the stair and the amount of use it will get is the key factor which usually affects the specification. Generally the type of usage of stairs tend to fall into three categories:
- Feature Stairs – these will often be in a main entrance or an area where people can clearly see the staircase. As these are often a show piece architecturally, the balustrade specification will tend to be more premium to create a high perceived value. For example, Crystal frameless structural glass balustrade.
- Communal/Escape Stairs – whilst communal stairs can be used for accessing floors, it will typically only be used up to approximately the third floor of a building. These stairs are much more functional and therefore tend to be installed with a more robust and durable design. Often these may be a lower specification, especially in taller buildings. Two common cost effective options are, vertical bar infills or framed balustrades with glass, for example the Opal range balustrades which are made from polyester powder coated mild steel.
- Domestic Stairs – these are private residential stairs typically found inside of duplex apartments or a penthouse apartment which has two levels. Again they tend to be more premium specifications which have a much warmer feel to them than a communal escape stair or perhaps a feature stair, both of which would tend to feel more commercial.
Stairs are one of the most complex and challenging areas for balustrade design, because of the nature of the changes in heights, angles and complex wreaths.
There is also a multitude of challenging design considerations, as stairs are commonly used by children and also require DDA compliance which both require careful ergonomic and regulatory design fulfilment. These standards fall in to a number of different areas within the British Standards, European Standards and also the harmonised BS EN standards. In addition to these, there are also several sections of the UK Building Regulations Approved Documents which affect the stairwell balustrade designs. These include:
- Part B – Fire Safety. In particular affecting the handrail protrusions and stair widths.
- Part K – Protection from Falls. Particularly preventing or reducing the risk of slip, trips and falls. For example, heights of balustrades etc.
- Part M – Access & use. Mainly ergonomics of handrail sizes, heights, continuous flow, not cold to touch requirements etc.
Between some of the approved documents categories, and also between the differing standards, there are a number of conflicts of advice or vague information allowing subjective opinions. It is always worth speaking to a building control representative for the project to ensure sign off will be easily obtained.
To maximise the best of both cost and aesthetics, particularly on tall buildings with communal stairs, it is now quite common to specify the first few stair flights up to the third or fourth floor in a higher specification than from the fourth to the top of the building. If doing this, we recommend that you choose two semi modular systems which mechanically integrate with each other. For example, Onyx (stainless steel tubular balusters) and Opal (powder coated mild steel balusters).
We would recommend that you speak to a specialist balustrade company and building control during the design process to help ensure that compliance is achieved.