Vertically Challenged: Stairs, the Final Frontier
Bob Peck in Consulting, Consulting, Workplace Design

The central staircase at Gensler's Washington, D.C., office seamlessly connects the first and second floors, allowing the two separate spaces to almost function as one. Image © Gensler

We workplace strategists and designers have learned how to create office layouts that optimize space utilization, flexibility and efficiency. We maximize the choice of settings in which office workers can go about their business. The layouts work pretty darned well on the horizontal dimensions of a building floor and the time dimension: as tasks morph over the hours of a day, our activity-based designs provide alternative work settings. We provide privacy or connectivity, as appropriate, for focus, collaborative, learning or social activity.

But we’re still vertically challenged: we haven’t solved flexibility and connectivity in the critical vertical dimension. I think it’s crucial that we do, and I think a pathway to the solution is readily available.

When I was head of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service (PBS), we worked with Gensler to renovate our 1917 headquarters building’s floor plates so that they could better accommodate 21st century work. We succeeded in designing flexible, performance-enhancing open layouts—with various focus, collaboration and social workspaces—out of what had been static, double-loaded, closed-office corridors.

Even before the renovation began, my deputy, the chief of staff and I tremendously increased our teamwork and efficiency by moving in together in a makeshift benching environment in my way-too-large office. Both the quality and velocity of our communications and decision-making increased.

But I still had no routine contact with my seven direct reports who ran the national PBS lines of business. Each of them sat with their business lines, which were located on different floors in the building. Except for weekly staff meetings, we did not have routine, face to face interaction. We sought each other out when a problem arose, but we didn’t have the chance to jell as a managerial team by working together on day-to-day issues, nor did we have very many serendipitous encounters. I used to say that my colleagues, even those just a floor below me, “might as well be in Timbuktu.”

Turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way. Thomas Allen, a management professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Business who conducted studies of workspace effectiveness, concluded that people on different floors “might as well be on a different continent.”

The differentiating factor between the horizontal and vertical dimensions is visibility and transparency. On the best contemporary floor plans, everyone can see or sense everyone else’s presence. Chance encounters happen. Communication and ideas flow. But this is hard to achieve vertically: floors and ceilings are not transparent, of course. Nor are elevators. It’s “out of sight, out of mind.”

How can we overcome this vertical challenge? Of course, the answer is “stairways.” But not stairs as we currently design them.

Image © Gensler

The internal staircases that we do build demonstrate the promise. For example, the one we cut through the slab between the first and second floor studios in Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office is eye-catching—and therefore an effective vertical workspace connection. The staircase is completely open. It’s right in your face when you enter the ground floor lobby, and it’s the easiest way down from the second floor, too. The nifty coffee bar on the first floor also makes it a destination for second floor occupants. As a result, the two floors, connected by that staircase, function almost as one.

But internal stairs like ours require a cut in the floor slab, high-end materials, and sometimes structural modifications to boot. This drives up costs. Such staircases also sacrifice occupiable (and rentable!) square footage. Is there a more economical stairway to workspace heaven?

There is. It’s already there, just hiding out, in most multi-story office buildings: it’s the fire stair. Or rather, the fire stairwell.

Modern building codes require that fire stairs be readily accessible to building occupants. Occupant distance-to-the-stairs rules mean that there is even more than one fire stairwell in many buildings. But they have to be enclosed to protect evacuees and to keep them from acting as chimneys, funneling smoke and fumes to upper floors. In practice, that has meant that the stairways are conceived as rarely-to-be-used contingencies, the stairwells bare and unappealing, the doorways solid (they have to be fire-rated) and downplayed.

They needn’t be so. They could be, well, designed. The fire doors can be appealing, with glass panels, glass sidelights and signage. The stairwells themselves could have fire-rated windows to let in daylight and could carry corporate branding.

The doors could even be on “hold-open” devices that would automatically close them in the event of a fire. New York City is considering code changes to allow that. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s interest in stairs stemmed from a desire to promote healthy workplaces and stair-climbing over elevator-riding: not a bad additional reason to promote visible and accessible stairs.

The use of glass to pay design attention to fire stairwells and doors will add some cost to construction, but not nearly as much as slab-cut internal stairs.

Fire stairs are not the only solution. In some older buildings, an existing light well or atrium could accommodate an internal stair without requiring slab cuts; it would not have to function as a fire stair at all. On other buildings, it may be possible to add external stairs, a throwback to the fire escape, only attractive and perhaps enclosed. These stairs would come with their own code and aesthetic challenges, of course.

The point is to get us thinking about the vertical workspace challenge and ways we might meet it. The internal stair solution can multiply daily collaborative workplace connections on a logarithmic scale. We need to do some due diligence on these alternatives, but we need to add them to our workplace design toolkit.

On the left: Exit stair, 41Cooper Square, NYC, Thom Mayne. On the right: fire stair, New York University Department of Philosophy, Stephen Holl. In both buildings, what could have been after-thought stairs are light-filled and inviting, but at significant expense. The challenge is to achieve the effect on more constrained budgets.

Bob Peck, an attorney by training, has been a self-described “architecture groupie” since he stumbled upon an architectural history course being taught in the law school auditorium. He has mostly managed to evade the practice of law and has parlayed his architecture interest into a career in public and private sector real estate. He believes that so long as we spend so much of our time at work, the spaces we work in should actually help us do our work and feel fulfilled. Contact him at
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