Article: Steps and Stairs

The Disability Discrimination Act calls for designers to deploy their problem-solving skills with sensitivity to address the access shortcomings of existing buildings. In this new series, Adrian Cave, Vice Chairman of CAE and a registered Access Consultant, explores approaches which respond to the needs of building users and which are neither philistine nor doctrinaire. The first article in the series focuses on steps and stairs.

Basic principles

Steps and staircases should provide routes which are safe and convenient for users, whether ascending or descending. This must include the needs of:

  • people who need to see or feel their way with confidence
  • people who are frail, have difficulty in walking or lack confidence. There should, for example, be suitable handrails on both sides so that someone who is weak on one side can use the stronger side when going up or down

The requirements that a well-designed flight of steps should be easy to see and to feel with the feet, and that the handrail should provide adequate support and guidance, does not mean that steps need brightly coloured handrails or nosings. All these requirements can be combined with a stair of stylish modern design with good lighting and no coloured stripes.

Classical staircases

Classical staircases, as used successfully for hundreds of years, tend to be made of light coloured stone or marble and to be seen in sunlight or bright reflected light, where the lines of the treads and nosings are clearly visible. Often, a change in the colour and texture of the flooring gives a warning at the top and bottom of the staircase. Handrails in the classical or vernacular traditions, and particularly 18th century designs, are often curved or splayed at the top or bottom of the stair and, by using a familiar vocabulary, provide very legible guidance to people who are partially sighted or blind. When Sir Christopher Wren designed the very low pitched stairs to the upper floors at The Royal Hospital Chelsea he was obviously giving careful consideration to the needs of frail and often severely disabled old soldiers.

Medieval or traditional vernacular designs, whether in stone or timber, use decoration, textures and curves which meet many of the requirements for people with disabilities. However, the low levels of illumination place an emphasis on people being able to feel rather than to see their way in safety.

Modern movement

All this familiar guidance was swept away by the designers of the Modern Movement in the 1920s and the 1930s. Instead of gently curved stair nosings which cast a shadow line, and handrails with florid but informative curves, modern staircases became geometrically simplified, whether straight or curved, with minimal handrails which provided less guidance and support than the traditional versions. This is not to say that the 'functionalism' of the modern movement was not functional. On the contrary, the pioneers of modern design of the Bauhaus and later schools of design brought a rigorous analysis of anthropometric requirements and of practical activities to their designs, while developing a style to express the aesthetics of machine production. In the most successful work of the Modern Movement, the new concepts brought an exuberant clarity of space and light.

Unfortunately, the creative dynamism of the early days of the modern movement became debased into a style which was applied with little understanding all over the world. As a result, the second half of the 20th century was dominated by buildings and furniture which are expressive more of the practicalities of machine production than of the needs of people in general, to the great disadvantage of disabled people.


Regulations and guidelines

The necessary action against an environment which was at least inconvenient, and at worst hostile, to the needs of many users, led to the development of rules, regulations and guidance for the design of buildings exemplified by the introduction of the first access building regulation in 1985. Since then, innumerable access audits have revealed the inadequacy of concrete stairs with uniform grey surfaces, with no visual contrasts, square nosings, short straight handrails and inadequate fluorescent lighting. The standard solution to these problems is to provide coloured nosing strips, extended handrails, textured floor surfaces at the top and bottom of the stairs plus improved levels of illumination. At minimal cost, these measures can ensure that a mediocre and utilitarian building is made more convenient and safer for people with disabilities and for everyone else, including children and older people.

Accessibility in practice

It has been very easy for non-designers to assume that all accessible stairs should have features such as coloured nosing strips, tactile flooring at each end of the stair and extended coloured handrails. However, it should be noted that Part M of the Building Regulations: Access and facilities for disabled people, is sensibly less dogmatic and requires, for example, that 'all step nosings are distinguishable through contrasting brightness', without specifying the means by which this is to be achieved. Let us therefore examine some staircases, both historic and modern, which achieve the main objectives of Part M with unconventional solutions. Some of these are more successful than others but the comparisons illustrate the wide range of possible design solutions and, particularly, the opportunities provided by new techniques for directional lighting.

Outside the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, the top steps with square nosings are less visible than the lower steps which have projecting nosings


It is almost impossible to see that there are four steps down on this pathway in Humberside. An access auditor would have to point out the risks of people falling and being injured at these steps


Completed in 1691, this staircase at the Royal Hospital Chelsea was designed by Sir Christopher Wren for old soldiers who were frail and often severely disabled. Note the very easy going of the stair, with long treads and low risers.


On this typical stair in an office block, there is a tonal contrast at each step and at the skirting. The coloured handrails provide support on each side of the stair. Because the stripes are not very attractive, designers keep trying to find more elegant solutions for new stairs


The brass handrail at this stair in Lancashire shows up well but is rather too wide for some people to grip and the handrails do not project beyond the top and bottom risers. The tonal contrast at the nosings and skirtings is clearly visible


Bright red handrails and low level illumination of the steps, as at the Jorvik Centre in York, can be helpful for people with impaired vision


The shadow of the balustrade helps to define the shape of the steps on a traditional staircase at the British Museum


Vertical downlighters show up these 19th century steps at the National Portrait Gallery more clearly than traditional diffused lighting


Spiral stairs of the 1930s, such as at the Peter Jones store in Chelsea, exploited the structural and spatial potential of steel or reinforced concrete. It is now difficult to realise that slender handrails of tubular steel were then a radical innovation


Timber treads with low-level illumination and stainless steel handrails, designed by Dixon and Jones at the National Portrait Gallery, challenge the conventional ways of making stairs visible


Although the colours of the stone steps and wall are similar, the crisp detailing by Norman Foster & Partners helps to make it easy to see this stair in the Great Court of the British Museum


View down the new stair at Great Court, British Museum


The illumination at the handrail of this stair, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, at Tate Modern shows an elegant solution to the problem of how to make steps visible without coloured stripes and nosings


Open risers are popular with designers because they allow views through the staircase but are difficult to use for people who need to feel each riser with their shoe while ascending. This stair at Paddington, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, has a sufficient upstand at the back of each tread to guide those who need to feel the riser while giving the visual impression of open risers. Note also the elegant handrail which projects safely at the bottom of the stair and provides support at heights to suit both adults and children


These steps at a hotel in York have been worn down by generations of use, but the three steps are an insurmountable barrier to someone in a wheelchair. The handrail is too short to provide support at the bottom step. It may be sensible to fit suitable new handrails to historic buildings such as this, provided that these can be fitted or removed without causing damage


When shops have a single step which cannot be eliminated by a ramp, suitable handrails, as at this doorway in the City of London, can help to provide safe access for the majority of people with disabilities who are not wheelchair users. The problem remains as to how the services provided at the premises are to be made available to wheelchair users



The common problem remains of steps at the entrance threshold to a building, which can provide an insurmountable barrier for many people. For small shops and offices there is often no space to construct a ramp and it may be unreasonably expensive to provide a wheelchair lift for only two or three steps. The first requirement is to provide handrails which can guide or support the majority of disabled people who are not wheelchair users.

Management solutions for people who cannot use stairs may include bringing the goods or services to the customer, a solution currently carried out by many local shopkeepers, or providing a portable ramp for use when required. An alternative, if there is a group of shops with steps at the entrances, may be for several shops to share a stairclimber which can carry a wheelchair up or down the steps.

New solutions

Throughout history, flights of steps and staircases have been among the most important and memorable features of the urban landscape and of buildings. The Disability Discrimination Act should not restrict the range of solutions available to designers but should stimulate them to achieve new solutions which are aesthetically pleasing, express the spirit of the age and meet the needs of everyone, including those of people with disabilities.

Adrian Cave Associates

"access with elegance"

Architects and Access Consultants