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If there's a subject guaranteed to get a rise out of an architect, it's staircase design. Critics are advised to tread carefully.

Whether somebody else has managed to get away with a balustrade that fails the 100mm ball test, a guardrail without manifestation, or a flight with too steep a pitch, architects are keen to complain when they hear of others better able to negotiate dispensations with Building Control.

Over the next five pages, we have examples of staircases, both old and new. Clive Richardson looks at how to investigate and resolve the hidden dangers of structural cracks in cantilevered stairs.

This article works on two levels: for anyone who has ever looked at a grand, seemingly unsupported staircase, and wondered how they stay up, this article will satisfy your intellectual curiosity - even if, after you read about them, you still don't really believe that they should work.

The second aspect of Richardson's piece, and one that chimes with the ethos of the AJ Technical and Practice section, is to explain a structural issue without any recourse to scaremongering.

'Risk aversion' has much bigger consequences than the tendency to introduce even more structural contingencies.

Aversion to taking risks surely runs counter to the historical needs of architectural design, maintenance and development, and paradoxically tends to result in needless cost and greater anxiety.

All too often, the precautionary principle is the basis of technical advice that leads to confusion among clients, litigiousness among professionals, and indecisiveness about the correct - as opposed to the safest - option.

The structural engineers' '100-year rule' (that something that has survived for a very long time isn't going to fall down tomorrow) is a useful counter to today's belt-andbraces culture.

The second article looks at emerging scientific enquiry into the way materials work together and how that understanding can improve the potential for new stair design solutions. Looking at the jointing of glass-to-glass has enabled engineers and designers to come up with improvements in structural glass stairs that could open the door to further attractive architectural opportunities.

Taken together, the articles go some way to developing our understanding of old and new methods of solving a simple problem. But maybe we should ramp up the technology.

And so, hard on the metaphorical heels of the Daleks' newly discovered stair-climbing skills, Toyota has revealed the 'i-foot', a prototype exoskeleton robot that resolves that age-old mechanical dilemma: the ability of robots to walk upstairs. This 2.1m-high egg, which is only currently able to amble at a languorous 0.83mph, featured at the recent New York Auto Show and Tokyo Expo.

Admittedly, for the foreseeable future, the 'i-foot' is unlikely to catch on with anybody outside the military, but launching at the same time as the latest part of the interminable Disability Discrimination Act, maybe there is the potential for Toyota's innovation to liven up disabled access a bit.

Can't get up the stairs?

No problem. Stick granny in an 'i-foot'. With some lateral thinking, a bit of luck and a little risk-taking, the vast lines of stairlift steel rails - the blight of public buildings everywhere - could be consigned to the 1970s design-solution dustbin.

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