Crisscrossing cables give new look to Wilson Hall stairwells

The design of the Wilson Hall stairwell guards provides safety while maintaining the open-air aesthetic of the atrium.

One of Wilson Hall’s many attractive features is its open stairways, which overlook the building’s central plot of flowers, ivy and trees from as high up as the 15th floor. However, this feature was in danger of disappearing when engineers compared its aesthetic value against safety regulations last year.

One proposal, for example, was to build cement or glass walls that would completely enclose the stairs. The walls would unquestionably keep people safe, but would also cut them off from the open air of the atrium. With some ingenuity, however, engineers found a better solution, one that would minimize construction costs while maintaining the stairs’ spacious quality. On Jan. 26, construction workers completed many months of drilling and welding, successfully meeting that goal.

Long, metal cables now criss-cross through the open space, which might otherwise have been a wall, along each stairwell. The cables are diagonal, parallel with the angle of the stairs, and they protect stair steppers from any open ledges. Moreover, railings now have metal bars for easy grasping, and rail pickets have 4-inch gaps instead of 12 for additional safety.

“The changes are to meet building code requirements related to safety and also to help people be more stable and safe as they climb up and down the stairs,” said Fermilab engineer Gary VanZandbergen.

So far, the additional safety precautions are having a positive effect.

“Now with the new rails and guards in place, I’ve heard people comment about feeling safer on the stairs,” VanZandbergen said.

Even with this successful project complete, VanZandbergen’s team is not yet finished with Wilson Hall. Using the modest amount of money remaining from the stairwell project, VanZandbergen and his colleagues have their sights set on some additional improvements in the Wilson Hall atrium.

Within the next few months, the design team hopes to install additional light fixtures to increase the nighttime lighting level, particularly at the north end of the atrium. The team also hopes to provide some casual seating in the expanded floor area at the center of the atrium.

Jessica Orwig