Stairway to Heaven

There is always music playing at SOA. Some are into jazz, country, even a little classical, but the rock genre is most typical and often serves as design inspiration. Sometimes those tunes give us pause to ponder, “What are the architectural implications of those lyrics?” To that end, for the next few months, we’ll be taking classic rock songs and spinning them into architectural thought projects for you to enjoy. Warning: Some are pretty corny.

Next on our playlist:

Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin

After listening to this classic Zeppelin song, an architect might ask, “What exactly would it take to build a stairway to heaven?”

Well, first of all, a lot of money and construction material. But after that, just like the stairs you might find in your house or business, they need to conform (ugh) to the building and accessibility codes. What does that really mean? First, an architect needs to know a few facts:

  1. How tall is the stairway?
  2. How many people will use this stair?
  3. How do we make it comfortable and safe to use?

The first question, how tall will it be? Heaven is above the clouds, right? Most clouds are about 10,000 to 20,000 feet above the ground. So, let’s say earth-to-heaven floor height is … 15,000 feet above us. Better wear good shoes.

The second, how many people? The song indicates one, ‘she,’ but I bet you will have some friends who want to join you. For instance, 500 of your nearest and dearest? 

And third, how to make it comfortable and safe? That is where an architect relies on the building and accessibility codes to help design a proper, compliant stairway.

So, number one, the code reads each step must be no less than 7 inches tall (a vertical riser) and 11 inches deep (a horizontal tread). Expect 25,716 steps, or about 4.46 miles, to make it to heaven.

Stairs need to be a minimum width of 44 inches for one person, but when there are more users, you must allow 0.3 inches per person. If your 500 friends are with you, then the width of the stairway needs to be 500 x 0.3 inches or 150 inches (or 14 feet and six inches). 

How to make it comfortable?

  • Headroom must be a minimum of six feet and eight inches, but since we are outdoors, that is not a consideration. 
  • Stair treads must be solid, except outside where they must not accumulate water, so we can use a material with holes in it, but the holes cannot be larger than half an inch.
  • We need handrails. They must be on each side of the stair at 34 inches to 38 inches above the stair step and within 30 inches of the line of travel. That means our 14 feet and six-inch width stair needs handrails on each side and two intermediate handrails in between. Everybody gets a handrail.
  • Landings will be needed for the occasional rest. A flight of stairs shall not have a vertical rise greater than 12 feet and the depth of the landing cannot be less than the stair width.
  • We need fall protection. Since we will be climbing higher than 30 inches above the ground, we need to prevent a fall over the side, guardrails at 42 inches above the stairs. We also need to keep people from falling through the railing. So we need vertical or horizontal bars no greater than four inches apart to keep you safe.

That is probably enough for now. There is a lot more to stair design and the code requirements — approximately 30 pages of rules and requirements. As you can see, an architect has to consider a lot to keep you safe on your way to heaven. 

Stay tuned for the next song on our playlist, and in the meantime, check out what all this classic rock is currently inspiring

What do you listen to when you need motivation or creative inspiration?

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