Staircases can be architectural masterpieces. Spiralling and snaking through buildings, or providing a grand entrance, they have the potential to be a topic of conversation and a meeting point for discussion and collaboration. In Johannesburg, the Rand Club, built and founded in the late 1800s, has an inspiring central staircase that leads members to the top floor. It’s lavish and inviting. Even the flowing walkway of the Guggenheim Museum in New York could be considered akin to a staircase, taking the public to new floors of information and discovery. The City Hall of London, opened in 2002, is a spiral of asymmetrical wheels disappearing into the glass atrium above and creating an interior that inspires. And yet, in the modern age of commercial buildings, the staircase seems to have disappeared and the elevator has prevailed. The loss of architectural excitement is one aspect, but what about the influence on the workplace and the basic notion that walking can be beneficial to one’s health.
We’ve been made aware of the dangers of sitting all day. The American Medical Association suggests that there are very real negative biological effects and employers should offer alternatives, such as standing desks or the more experimental treadmill desk. Additional medical papers point to increases in blood pressure, diabetes and even depression. Essentially, sitting all day is starting to present itself as the new smoking, or certainly an issue that needs addressing. On the flipside, the benefits of using the stairs are also well documented. According to Livestrong, the continuous movement of legs and hips increases heart rate and blood circulation around the body. This in turn releases endorphins and decreases body tension. In fact, regular stair climbing reduces the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, negating the effects of sitting.
So where have all the stairs gone? They’ve been replaced by elevators, escalators and by and large been relegated to fire escapes. At our office in Johannesburg, should I wish to walk the paltry three floors to our office, I need to banish myself to the unattractive darkness of the fire escape. Even worse, the mall adjacent doesn’t allow fire escape access unless in an emergency, so one is limited to the elevator for a grand journey of one floor. Not only do staircases alleviate certain health issues, but they create a meeting point. In an office spread over more than one floor, the ability to congregate at the staircase is an opportunity for collaboration and idea sharing. Imagine an office with coffee stations at every staircase enabling employees to engage with others who they would ordinarily miss in a quick elevator ride. They would become a hub of activity and could be further pushed into unique areas of design to enhance this collaboration effect. Even in multi-tenanted buildings, the opportunity for co-working spaces at the tops and bottoms of each staircase could offer landlords a return on their loss of lettable area. These pods could attract freelancers and contractors looking for a space to work in proximity to their clients.
There are cost implications for developers and retrofitting would certainly be a tough sell in a multi-tenanted building. Another obstacle is the employee with little desire to use the stairs and more inclination to indulge in a doughnut and a coffee. Perhaps that’s where wearables and medical aids play a role. Nonetheless, whatever the obstacles, the case for the benefits of staircases is significant. And lest we forget, they really can be beautiful to look at.