Glass stairways: Not for everyone

A curved open tread glass stairway in a New York retail store. It has little contrast with its surroundings.Architecturally, glass stairways have an aesthetic of their own, but intuitively they seem more dangerous than regular stairways. So are they, and if so, by how much? 

An observational study of two public stairways, one glass and one concrete, showed that the glass stairway had significantly more incidents. This was in spite of more caution being used on the glass stairway. Indeed, they were eight times more likely to have an incident. 

Encouraging people to take the stairs is one of the proposed strategies of healthy built environment movement. But if the design excludes users because of the design, or is less safe, this is discriminatory. And yes, there might be an elevator, but this is not equitable access. Regardless, everyone should have the opportunity to use the stairs if they wish.

The title of the study is, “The effects of glass stairways on stair users: An observational study of stairway safety”. It is open access on Academia, or you can download the 2MB PDF file.  There is an earlier stairway study on ResearchGate, “The effects of interactive stairways on user behavior and safety” by the same authors.

Abstract: The purpose of this study was to assess the safety of a winding glass stairway by observing the behavior of stair users and to identify issues that should be studied in a laboratory setting. A checklist for coding stair use behaviors was developed. Video observations were conducted in a retail store with a glass stairway (GS) and a shopping mall with a conventional stairway (CS). Key behaviors related to safety (tread gaze, diverted gaze,handrail use) and stair incidents on the two stairways (GS and CS) were identified from the recordings and compared. On the glass stairway, more users glanced down at the treads (GS: 87% vs. CS: 59%); fewer users diverted their gaze away from the stairs (GS: 54% vs. CS: 67%); and handrail use was higher (GS: 32% vs. CS:24%). Incident rates were much higher on the glass stairway (6.2%) compared to the conventional stairway(0.7%). Walking on winding treads made of glass may be more dangerous than walking on conventional materials due to reduced visibility of the tread edge or reduced friction between shoes and treads. Recent laboratory research suggests that stairway users may behave more cautiously using stairways with glass treads but the results from this study demonstrate that the benefit of increased caution can be negated in real world conditions.

Housing quality improves health

A man in a bright yellow T shirt is painting and archway in a wall inside a home. The wall is grey and there are tools on the floor.Ever wondered what the long term effects of a home modification are? A longitudinal study from the UK shows that household improvements in social housing can reduce risk of hospital stays, particularly in older people. While the study picks up major improvements in chest and heart health, it also found that falls and burns were reduced too. Over the ten years of the study, they found that homes that were modified and upgraded correlated with reduced hospital events. That means savings in the health budget or beds freed up for other patients. Obviously it is better for occupants too. It is not clear how poor the condition of the housing was prior to the upgrade or modification relative to Australian housing. This is an academic paper outlining the methods and comparing to other studies, but the discussion and conclusions give you the take-home message – health and  the quality and design of housing quality are related and should be integrated in policy-making and planning. 

One key finding was: “Using up to a decade of household improvements linked to individual level data, we found that social housing quality improvements were associated with substantial reductions in emergency hospital admissions for cardiovascular conditions, respiratory conditions, and fall and burn injuries.”

The title of the study is, “Emergency hospital admissions associated with a non-randomised housing intervention meeting national housing quality standards: a longitudinal data linkage study”. Sarah Rodgers et al. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Ups and downs of stairway design

Three steps into a building with tactile markers on every step and a narrow handrail on each side which does not continue to the last stepOne way of examining how architects view the design of stairways is to analyse the photographs used as illustrations in a prominent architectural magazine. The illustrations potentially serve as examples of best practice, but Karen Kim and Ed Steinfeld found that the illustrations left much to be desired. The point is made that if safe and inclusive features are not apparent in major industry journals and magazines, how can we hope to improve practice in the professions?

In their article, An Evaluation of Stairway Designs Featured in Architectural Record between 2000 and 2012, they found the lack of handrails occurred most often. The article includes several photographs and a list of the missing safety features. Also available on ReseachGate

The Australian Human Rights Commission produced a document in 2008, “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, and it focuses on stairways and the placement of tactiles, handrails, and contrasting nosings – a good reference guide on what not to do.

I took this photograph in Australia and shows tactile ground surface indicators (tgsi) being used wrongly on steps, but ironically nicely contrasted. The owner believed tgsi are for slip resistance. Can you spot the other mistake? People forget the ground level is a step and therefore the handrail should extend to the footpath in this case. The diameter of the handrail is also problematic. Editor.