The Social Stair

“Four walls and a roof ” was the meant-to-be-funny comment from my naïve brother-in-law about what architects need to know. To add to his architectural knowledge, I suggested another critical building element — the stairway. While Mackey Mitchell Architects’ mission statement reads, “we strive to create places and experiences that inspire and are at ease with nature,” we know that mundane elements like stairways (or “effective egress,” as we like to call them) are vital and necessary parts of the design process.

When we began renovating the outdated Memorial Student Center at the University of Wisconsin–Stout (UW–Stout) in Menomonie, we thought the original 1987 building could have been designed by a fire marshal — three stairways plus seven exits directly onto grade, with two more exits leading to raised walkways.

Because the raised walkways were located directly above first floor exits, the lower level exits were always in dark shadow. The original design appeared to be a tribute to leaving the building rather than arriving. Students were no longer drawn to the 25-year-old building that had been designed especially for them.

Student centers function as the campus heart with lively places for dining, lounging, meeting, and playing games. They’re often described as the “third place” in a student’s everyday life (other than work and home). While these spaces are designed to be fun and appealing, it’s also important to create safe evacuation routes in case of emergencies. For the sake of economics, fire stairs are often used as a building’s principle means of vertical circulation and can often be dismal, banal conduits. The Memorial Student Center was no exception. Its three stairways were small, dimly lit, windowless shafts contributing nothing positive to a student’s experience.

As plans for the renovation evolved, we explored ways to make the new stairways not only safe for this two-story building — but a pleasant social experience as well.

To meet demands for projected occupant loads and to comply with current building codes, we realized the stairway would need to be huge. By taking advantage of a particular building code that provided an “exception for open stairways,” we removed an enclosed south fire stair — allowing us to create a new 16-ft.-wide open stair. It has become an important focal point, revealing circulation patterns and the drama unfolding within the open “see and be seen” space.

Since the larger stairway could now accommodate the Center’s student population, we were able to remove the adjacent raised walkway, giving us enough free space for an outdoor amphitheater. This new events space is complemented by a sunlit green plaza that was once a dark circulation path.

From the stairway inside, students can now look out onto the open plaza and amphitheater. “Accidental lounges” resulting from the creation of nooks with large cushions under the stairway have become favorite quiet places. These nooks are clad with wood recycled from the old bowling alleys.

To respond to Menomonie’s heritage, the sandstone cladding for the columns of the addition was fabricated at a nearby historic quarry, which is now operated by a UW–Stout alumni. To incorporate the school color (Stout Blue), narrow panes of blue glass were used in the addition’s curtain wall. As the sun tracks across the sky in the morning, it casts a dynamic trail of blue across the floor.

On the building’s opposite side, another dark enclosed stairwell was replaced with a new stair complemented by large windows affording views to the new main entrance plaza. Since the third fire stair had become unnecessary for egress, it was converted to storage space.

The renovation experience at the Memorial Student Center at UW–Stout underscores the importance of treating every building element in a thoughtful and creative manner. Stairways can be treated merely as functional for the purpose of emergency building evacuation, or they can fulfill a more social purpose in the day-to-day use of a building.

These circulation elements can play a vital role in fostering impromptu meetings and conversations, establishing new friendships, and exchanging ideas that are vital to the mission of fostering learning outside the classroom.

Stairways “mundane?” Quite the opposite. They can become an added benefit when thought of as more than just stairs. 

Jim Konrad, AIA, LEED-AP, is a partner 
at Mackey Mitchell Architects. He has been the project manager on many large-scale student center projects. Frisbie Architects served as Architect-of-Record on the UW–Stout project.

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