Theme ‘stairs and corridors’

‘Stairs and corridors’ are a theme in the chapter ‘architectural spaces’. (See The recommendations.)

Stairs and corridors generally are a necessary evil. Wherever land is limited, its price is high, or both and spatial demands require it, there is no choice but to stack floors which in turn are mostly connected by stairs. Corridors are a fact of life as well, although, if one is motivated enough, they are somewhat easier to avoid.

Stairs and corridors are spaces leading to destinations which aren’t destinations themselves. Most ‘neurotypicals’ use them thoughtlessly, but most people on the spectrum cannot. They notice their dimensions, materials, the lighting and the sounds much stronger and experience these more readily as oppressive, painful or disquieting. Moreover, stairs and corridors are where they get lost, where they get in touch – bodily or otherwise – with others and where a number of their senses – including the sense of equilibrium – are put to the test.

Here we will discuss consecutively the visual, spatial, sensory and social aspects of stairs and corridors.

Physical and visual structure
Good physical and visual structure is what many of the authors of the  ‘core literature’ put at the top of their wish-list for the homes and buildings where people on the spectrum live, learn and work. These issues are primary for people of the spectrum because they have trouble with orientation, caused by – among other things – problems with central coherence (i.e. seeing details instead of the whole picture). Stairs and corridors are particularly challenging because they usually are hard to oversee and often constitute a sort of no-mans land. Whenever they can’t be avoided altogether, the general advice is to keep them as short, wide and clear as possible.

The British architect Simon Humphreys, for instance, has designed a school in Newcastle in which lower and upper schools are separated by the school offices, situated on the ground floor, around a common courtyard which is visible from all corridors and classrooms; it’s a common point of reference for all.

In less ideal situations orientation around stairs and corridors can be helped with way-finding signage. (See visualizations.)

Apart from orientation, the feelings invoked by different spaces are important as well. McAllister & Maguire call these ‘volumetric expression’. They explain: ‘People feel, and therefore can react differently, within separate spaces of different character. Pupils with autistic spectrum disorder are no different in this regard. Making a space more intimate by increasing the sense of enclosure or by lowering the ceiling level can aid in promoting a sense of calm. Conversely, increasing the openness or raising the ceiling level of an area can increase the sense of freedom, encouraging greater physical activity and expression.’ Although these researchers had school classrooms in mind, it may be evident this idea is applicable to many spaces, among which certainly stairs and corridors.

It is important to consider the functions of niches and corners as well.  On the one hand, they may be a source of unpredictability while on the other they can serve as fine hiding places; plan accordingly with due consideration for the people who will use the space. Finally: stairs and corridors may be eerie in darkness, making proper lighting a priority.

Sensory sensitivity
Sensory sensitivities pose unique demands on stairs and corridors. An excess of stimuli – noise, for example – can create stress: and, like anyone, people on the spectrum can also easily get hurt in or on them.
Stairwells in particular can be ‘noise spaces’, depending on the materials used. Bothersome contact noise can also occur if the appropriate measures aren’t taken.

Problems with vision (which are rather common in people on the spectrum) may be particularly taxing and frightening when descending stairs, as illustrated by one of the expert responses to this theme.

Other forms of over-stimulation can easily occur if the walls of stairs and corridors are vividly and colorfully decorated.

The walls of stairs and corridors should not be roughly plastered or finished with coarse stucco because this increases the danger of injuries if one falls or bumps against them.

Social aspects
Schools offer a prime example of the problems stairs and corridors can create when large numbers of students have to press themselves through too narrow horizontal of vertical ‘tubes’ at the same time. In such situations people on the spectrum are forced to interact and to an extent to communicate with others, something which is, as a matter of definition  a problem for them. Bodily contact – for many a huge problem too – can then be inevitable. Simply put, situations such as these indicate quite comprehensively what design should try to avoid.

In all buildings where several people have to move from one space or floor to another at the same time, stairs and corridors have to be not only as short, but also as wide as possible. Distress can be minimal if one-way traffic can be effected.

In homes where one lives either independently or with parents, one also encounters others (visitors sometimes) on stairs or in hallways and corridors, which also should provide sufficient space.

Stairs and corridors may also be found just outside homes, such as gallery flats. Forced physical proximity of neighbors in such situations is a frequent complaint of people on the spectrum.

In concluding it’s clear that stairs and corridors can be highly problematic for people on the spectrum for a great number of reasons. It may be telling some architects went so far as to avoid them altogether, particularly in treatment homes and schools. (See recommendation 62, schools.)
It’s worthwhile to take note of the responses of three experts to this theme.

McAllister & Maguire

McAllister, Keith and Barry Maguire, ‘Design considerations for the autism spectrum disorder-friendly Key Stage 1 classroom’, In: Support for Learning 27(2012)3, 103-112.