Designing stairs

Heading off recently to see my mother, who lives in Chorleywood the far side of Watford, I decided to nip up the A1 and then around the M25. As I approached the South Mimms intersection, dire warnings of delays on the M25 were blazoned up on the roadside signs. I took evasive action and stayed on the A1 thinking that I could exit before Hatfield and skirt round the south of St Alban's, avoiding the M25 block. However the strategy spectacularly backfired as every artery of communication for miles around was clogged with congestion. There was no alternative but to sit in the traffic and make snail's-pace progress. A journey that usually takes me 35 minutes ended up taking well over an hour.

The study of traffic flows has become a rigorous science, essential to try and unclog the roads of our crowded island. At Solar House we are also studying the flow of people around the building. How many people will we need to move from one place to another in what timescale? And will they be blocked by other people coming in the opposite direction at the same time? So when the design team were looking through the plans trying to find things to cut to make the scheme more affordable, someone said: "do we really need these stairs?" referring to the new main stairs from ground to first floor. The answer had to be 'yes'; the stairs were crucial. The stairs the architect had drawn were near the centre of the new foyer and require cutting through the first floor reinforced concrete floor-slab. So we were left with a dilemma; the stairs were vital to enable us to move people around the building, and make full use of the first floor accommodation, but this was also very expensive because of the heavy engineering work required to break through the floor-slab.

The solution came though challenging the architect to redesign the stairs to fit into the corner alcove next to the new lift. The floor-slab there spans over a smaller area and was already due to be cut through to make way for the lift. Although I knew that this was essential if we were to find an affordable solution, I was also sceptical that a way would be found. However the architect responded with an excellent wide stair design with a large half-landing, which will create a clear route to the first floor as well as being rather imposing when seen from the building's main entrance.

Sometimes it feels like every meticulous detail of the building is a battleground to be fought through. It would have been an unacceptable compromise to dispense with the stairs, which would ultimately have condemned us to endless blocked arteries of communication within our new church centre. And yet finding a less expensive way of building these stairs has been a battle, like an army fighting to take just another few feet of territory.

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