Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Steps that matter

To facilitate an easy movement from one level to another, the location of staircases should be carefully considered, especially in vertical buildings.

A good design and comfortable ergonomics of staircase is mandatory

STAIRCASES OCCUPY an important position in the design of a structure. Especially in small plots with buildings designed vertically, easy movement from one level to another depends on the location of staircases. So a good design and comfortable ergonomics of staircase is mandatory. Let us take a look at what would be an ideal location for stairways, the various types and the materials to be used.

The inner part of the house, which shall not be seen or accessed by visitors from the verandah or the front living areas, is one ideal location. To give a fancy impression, sometimes the staircases are provided in the living room. This arrangement lacks privacy and does not provide security. Ideally, the staircase could be in the dining room or in the family room depending on its central location.

The types of staircase can be classified according to usage and form — a main staircase, a service staircase and a fire escape staircase. A main staircase would be the primary one, to be centrally located and used by the residents. Service staircases can be located outside the house. They could be used by the service staff and housekeepers for terrace access and other services. Fire escape staircases are more important in multi-storey buildings. These are made mostly of steel or fire retardant materials.

In the olden days, staircases were made with mud and straw. Over the years, the craftsmanship and engineering have evolved remarkably. So has the structural system. From the simple waist slab type to the folded plate, to the free-standing type, staircase structures have really come of age. A circular folded plate type staircase in concrete cast in plywood would cost about Rs. 30,000 per flight. A similar staircase with RCC slab and a brick step would cost Rs. 10,000 per flight.

For ergonomics and safety reasons, the staircase tread has to be 10" wide and the risers 5.5" to 6" high. There has to be sufficient mid-landings for a pause between two flights.

To match the architectural style and interior ambience, staircase can have a similar material and colour scheme. Wood has been the preferred material as it gives warmth to the space and lends itself to work and style. The finishes can be varnish, enamel, wax, and so on. Hard woods such as teak and oak, and exotic woods have a longer life but need to be constantly maintained in case of heavy usage.

Handrails made of wood can be very expensive, whereas a hollow circular metal handrail along with wooden balusters might be a good solution as well. Contemporary materials such as glass and metal are being increasingly used for both staircases and handrails as the primary material or a cladding material.

Lighting in staircases has to be considered in depth as it is crucial for safety. It is best to opt for lighting that remains constant from one end of the staircase to the other. Skylight over the top of the staircase can be a good solution, as the sunlight will illuminate the whole staircase to an equal degree.

(The author is Chief Architect, Murali Architects, Chennai.)

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