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Taking the Stairs: The Role of Stairways in a Courthouse

by Ted Prestogeorge / July 9, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has, among other things, forced us to rethink how people move through buildings. Office buildings, as well as public buildings like courthouses, rely heavily on the use of elevators to move people between floors. But at the height of the pandemic, social distancing had greatly limited the number of passengers on an elevator. This created delays for people who were forced to wait for the next elevator – or even the one after that.

The answer to this dilemma? Take the stairs. Stairways that had been rarely used prior to the pandemic became the preferred method of traversing floors in low-to mid-rise buildings. By making use of the stairways, social distancing could still be achieved while allowing people to move freely and easily between floors. 

But many courthouses and other public buildings do not have a convenient-to-use stairway. 

Stairways in public buildings are often not thought of as a design feature or space of prominence. From a functional perspective, they have rarely been considered a primary solution to vertical transportation in a courthouse. Architects and designers know that building codes require stairs, usually at least two, for emergency egress from a multi-story building. All too often that’s what is provided – stairways hidden away in the corners of a building to perform their primary function: getting people quickly out of the building in the event of a fire or other emergency.  

But a stairway need not only be a utilitarian feature. It could also be used by an architect to accentuate a design and – as rediscovered during the pandemic – could serve as a primary method of getting from one floor to the next. 

To take it one step further, the use of a monumental stair, defined as a stair not used for egress but rather as a showpiece or design feature, could be a key feature in a courthouse design. A monumental stair that features prominently could help promote a specific milieu that the design hopes to achieve. 

The Importance of Milieu in Courthouse Design 

Milieu in architecture can be defined as the totality of the characteristics that provide a social context to the space. In the case of a courthouse, this has traditionally been portrayed in the formal courtroom. The overall design of a courthouse, especially prior to the 21st century, is meant to convey the seriousness and importance of the proceedings.  

This conveyance of importance, if used improperly, can be intimidating. The 21st century idea of justice is moving towards a more restorative model. An important part of that is to make courthouses more user-friendly and inviting to the public. 

A monumental stairway can help attain that traditional milieu of importance and seriousness, while still creating an overall sense of openness and inclusion. Such a stairway should act as a focal point for the public areas of the courthouse. From the public lobby, a visitor should be able to see the spaces on the floors above them to which the stairway is providing a connection. This helps form a visual progression to those spaces. 

The visible connection to the courthouse functions, together with the use of natural light (such as from an atrium or a curtain wall of windows bounding the public spaces), can promote the importance of the public’s role in the justice system. Courthouse staff would also benefit from a building design that uses a stairway to convey a human scale and a greater connection to their workplace. Courthouse Monumental Stairway

And let’s not forget the health benefits. Aside from being a way to facilitate distancing protocols – parts of which may continue in the future as the idea of personal space evolves – climbing stairs can be heart-healthy and can help a person get their steps in. They can be a boon to the modern lifestyle. 

Elevators still serve a vital role. They are still the most efficient method of vertical transportation in high-rise buildings. And elevators are a requirement for those with decreased mobility. But a courthouse design that promotes the use of stairs can relieve the burden on the elevators that do exist. 

The exact requirements of a monumental stairway might vary depending on the specific design parameters of each project, but the basic elements are as follows:  

Make the design inviting. A monumental stair in a courthouse should be open, wide, and bright. The width should be at least 6 feet, allowing people going in opposite directions to pass freely without crowding. Natural light pouring in from windows can illuminate the way while providing views to the outside, further connecting the mission of the court to the community. Consider an open-riser design to allow views and daylight through the stair and to make it look less monolithic. 

Choose a visible location. Place the stair in a location that is highly visible to visitors from the lobby or commonly used areas, such as the court clerk’s office. The layout of the lobby and circulation should naturally direct visitors to the stair. It should be part of the building’s hub. In fact, a well-designed monumental stairway could become the heart of the building. 

Lead the people to their destination. A monumental stairway should allow a visitor to gain a sense of their whereabouts and destination in the courthouse. It should lead to where the public typically wants to go. The stairway should provide access to and from the higher-traffic areas of the courthouse, such as the courtrooms or the jury assembly room.

This progression through the courthouse to the essential aspects of the justice system underscores the importance the public serves in the everyday carriage of justice.  

Consider having the stair provide access between more than two floors. A medium-sized courthouse might have more than two floors of courtrooms, or a third floor with offices frequented by the public. Some of the modern and forward-thinking office building designs today are linking five, six, seven, or even more floors with open, inviting stairways. 

Choose long-lasting materials. Material selection should consider the heavy use of the stairs, and durable options should be chosen for the flooring and handrails. 

Natural stone such as marble or engineered materials such as terrazzo are great choices for the floor treads and landing, and can withstand decades of use. Metal handrails will stand up to everyday use, and their non-porous surface will deter bacteria growth and be easy to clean. This was especially important at the height of the pandemic, and should be a best practice moving forward. 

Necessity is the Mother of (Re)invention 

Grand staircases were once the norm in courthouse design. Even in the age of elevators, monumental stairways were used as the central orientation point for building users and as a way to guide the public to the important functions of the courthouse. But the trend through the past several decades has been to shy away from building designs that overtly promote the use of stairs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us rediscover the benefits of using the stairs – and has helped bring about the re-emergence of the old idea that a monumental stair can be used to connect the public to the courthouse in ways that go beyond the physical act of climbing the stairs. Architects and courthouse users are again seeing the value of stairs – not just to meet code requirements.  

So, let’s take the stairs.

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Tags: Courtroom Design

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Ted Prestogeorge

Ted Prestogeorge

Ted Prestogeorge is a senior architect with Fentress Incorporated, where he has worked since 2006. His primary interests include the history of architecture, Art Deco design, and watercolor painting.