One Step at a Time: Designing and Installing a Glass Stairwell

A five-story, vertical, glass stairwell serves as the visual link between all floors of accounting firm Virchow Krause & Company’s new Minneapolis office. Located in the office’s center, the stairwell also features associated interior glass. Having relocated from Bloomington to downtown Minneapolis, the firm now leases 91,000-square-feet on the 20th-24th floors of the 55-story office tower.Glass, installed by contract glazier Harmon Inc., played a dominant role in the stairwell application.

“It was a complicated project mostly revolving around the five-story stairwell,” says Eric Langerquist, AIA, associate and project architect with the SmithGroup. “We were trying to unify the area over the five floors and provide a visual connection. We were able to do that through creating the glass staircase. Because the space was so large and open we still needed smoke control through the floors, which the staircase allowed. In the unlikely event of a fire the stairwell prevents smoke from traveling between the floors. At the same time, the occupants do not feel as though they are separated from one another.”
Langerquist says in designing the stairwell he wanted it to seem as though the glass was not there.

“So we wanted to use as large of glass as possible. We also wanted to be able to conceal the channels, shoes, etc.,” he says. “Also, there is a conference room wall that is actually part of the stair tower, and that also helps to keep a very open feeling.”

The project team was on site only four months, so the job required precision and attention to detail.

“Once we understood the tenant’s space, the architect’s intended design and the general contractor’s goals for our scope of the work, we began engineering, drawing and selecting materials for our recommended approach,” says Gregg Bloom, Harmon’s general manager for service and space projects, who adds that the challenges and unique qualities of this job went hand in hand with the architect’s ideas, specifications and plans, much of which was in the design of the stair tread itself.

“Once approved, we coordinated scheduling and delivery to carefully coincide with the pace of our on-site installation team. Typically, our work is at the end of a project, but the nature of this job required us to be more involved up front,” Bloom adds.

Prior to installation, Harmon also sent in a reconnaissance team to field measure the stairwell before suggesting any products or procedures.

In the end, those involved say the results of the project achieved exactly what had been intended.

“It was definitely a unique job to add a five-story staircase inside an existing tower so it was a challenge to create and still maintain safety,” says Langerquist. “But doing the tower gave us the opportunity to do what we wanted, both aesthetically and functionally, in a way that creates a sense of community.”

Joel Berman Glass Studios Ltd. provided its Etra pattern for use in the “feature wall,” which is on one side of the staircase. The wall is mostly wood with ten openings into which the custom glass was installed.

Oldcastle Glass supplied glazing materials for the railing, doors and conference room. All of that glass was ½-inch, clear, tempered. The largest lites were installed in the conference room and were 4-feet-wide by 10-feet-tall. Anderson Dahlen Inc. served as the metal fabricator; C.R. Laurence Co. Inc. supplied brackets and Custom Hardware Manufacturing Inc. supplied the handles.