Building for Everyone – Vertical Circulation

Vertical Circulation


Good practices

It is good practice to ascertain the needs of the range of expected users as early as possible, and to check the practicality and usability of emerging designs with a diverse user panel.
Designing for one group can result in solutions that address the needs of many others. For example:

    • level entry (Step-free) entrances facilitate not just wheelchair users but also people with buggies; people with suitcases or shopping trolleys; people using walking or mobility aids; and people with visual difficulties
    • larger toilet compartments provide easier access to wheelchair users; those with luggage or parcels; parents with pushchairs or accompanying small children; those using walking or mobility aids; and larger-sized people.
    • clear, well-placed signage that uses recognised symbols or pictograms helps people with reading or cognitive difficulties, and those whose first language is neither English.

Sometimes one solution will not suit all and a range of options will need to be provided. For example: 

    • providing both steps and a ramp where there is a change in level
    • providing parking ticket machines that offer slots at different heights to facilitate use at standing height, sitting height, and by people of small stature.

Design Issues

    • Vertical circulation in a building comprises distinct components including stairs, ramps, lifts, platform lifts, and escalators. 
    • Each component provides a viable means of access between different levels within a storey or between floors in a multi-storey building, but a mix is required in order to meet the needs of all building users and to take account of different ages, sizes, abilities or disabilities.
    • Escalators are not suitable for wheelchair users; people with strollers and buggies; those who use walking or mobility aids; and people with guide or pet dogs.
    • Stairs are not suitable for wheelchair users; people with buggies or strollers; and those using walking or mobility aids.
    • Platform lifts are slow-moving and have limited occupancy.
    • Ramps with a significant rise can be so long that they become impractical and too tiring for many people to use. 
    • Mechanical devices such as passenger lifts and platform lifts may be unsuitable for use in an emergency. In these circumstances, an alternative means of access and suitable management procedures will be required.
    • A recurring theme throughout this booklet is the need to ensure individuals can use facilities independently. There is no ‘one size fits all’ and there will always be a need to provide alternatives to meet the needs and preferences of all building users, and to safeguard occupants in an emergency.
    • People should be able to freely and easily move around a building. They should not have to ask permission to use a lift, or have to locate a key in order to operate a platform lift.


Checklist – Vertical circulation

♦  Avoid changes of level within a storey for new buildings.
♦  Design and maintain stairs to provide safe access at all times even if rarely used.
♦  Install passenger lifts in preference to other devices, as they provide the most convenient means of vertical circulation.
♦  Consider improving controls, signalling, safety and communication devices, and surface finishes in existing lifts.



Accessible – Facilities that are designed to be accessible and understandable to all users of a building or external environment. 

Building – A permanent or temporary structure of any size that accommodates facilities to which people have access.

Building user – A person regardless of age, size, ability or disability using facilities in a building or associated external environment.

Clear width – The width between handrails.

Dog-leg/Switch back stairs – Configuration of stairs between two floors of a building, often a domestic building, in which a flight of stairs ascends to a half-landing before turning 180 degrees and continuing upwards. The flights do not have to be equal, and frequently are not.

Escalator – A moving stairway.

Evacuation lifts – Lifts designed to continue operating in the event of a fire, which have special design features to ensure safety.

Fillet – A decorative filler piece on the floor between balusters.

Inclined platform stairlift – A stairlift incorporating a fold-down platform for wheelchair users and support rails that follows the incline of a stair. Also termed wheelchair stairlift and platform stairlift.

Kerbed upstand – Strip used to form a raised edge (for example 150mm high) at floor level.

Nosing – An edge part of the step tread that protrudes over the riser beneath in a flight of stairs. 

Passenger lift – A conventional motorised lift enclosed within a structural shaft and rising one or more storeys within a building. Lift and door movement is automatic.

Refuge area – Areas within a building, separated by fire-resisting construction and provided with a safe route to a storey exit, where people with mobility difficulties can await assistance for their evacuation. 

Riser – The vertical portion between each tread on the stair.

Stairlift – A device mounted on a support rail that follows the incline of a stair and incorporates either a seat with footrest (chairlift) or standing platform and perch (perching stairlift). Stairlifts are designed for domestic use only. Also termed chair stairlift and domestic stairlift.

Travelator – A moving walkway designed to transport people quickly over a long distance in large buildings. Travelators are usually level, but may have a slight incline where a vertical change in level is also required.

Tread – The part of the stairway that is stepped on.

Vertical platform lift – A guarded platform that travels vertically and is designed to accommodate one wheelchair user and one companion. Vertical platform lifts do not require a structural shaft, but are required to be enclosed if they rise more than 2000mm. Also termed vertical lifting platform; vertical-rise platform lift; short-rise platform lift (up to 2000mm rise); enclosed platform lift; hydraulic platform lift; and scissor lift.

Related lessons:

    • The 7 Principles of Universal Design



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