Internal Circulation

Circulation refers to the ability to move around a building safely and independently.

Schools typically consist of a large number of similar classrooms with a small number of larger communal facilities, all linked by circulation routes.

Long corridors without distinguishing features should be avoided; instead the school layout and design should assist easy orientation, wayfinding, and movement around the building. Building layouts should be easy to understand for students with intellectual and learning disabilities and for first-time visitors. A building's layout and subsequent travel distances should also meet the needs of users with varying levels of energy or stamina.

Ideally, all horizontal circulation within a school should be level, without steps or ramps.

Where this cannot be achieved in an existing building, schools will need to provide an adequate combination of steps, ramps, platform lifts, and passenger lifts to ensure that everybody can get around the school with ease, and without disrupting the timetable.

The section on classrooms below includes guidance in relation to acoustic design. Important social interaction also takes place in communal places outside the classroom, and these areas also need to be designed with the needs of students affected by acoustics in mind.


As well as having an entrance that is easy to identify, circulation layouts should be clear and easy to understand. Signage and other means of orientation are invaluable for visitors and new students, particularly people with sensory disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders, speech communication and language needs, or learning disabilities.

Changes in colour, texture or proportion on circulation routes, as well as landmark features, such as seating or planting, can help people to find their way around a building. Different textures of floor coverings or particular shapes or symbols built into the flooring can be used to signal different types of rooms or other wayfinding information, particularly for people with vision loss. It is important to test proposed designs with building users to avoid any confusing patterns.

Handrails with a strong colour contrast against the background wall can provide wayfinding information and provide extra physical support to those who need it. This can be particularly useful during emergency evacuations, where vision may be reduced by smoke.

Clear and simple signage using raised letters, visual contrast, sans serif fonts, symbols, and Braille is also important to assist wayfinding. A combination of text, colour and symbols to indicate common facilities such as reception, principal's office, toilets, and stairs help all students and visitors to find their way around the school.

Tactile maps can help people with vision loss to orient themselves within a building.

Raised letters, Braille, and visual contrast on signs assist people who are blind or partially sighted. There are some emerging technologies that use GPS and other facilities within smartphones to provide wayfinding information to users in both visual and audible formats for large campuses.


Figure 4 Internal Door and Sign

Accessible features:

The sign is within the recommend height range of 1400 - 1700mm for reading at close range. The lower part of this range may be more appropriate in primary schools.

Positioning the sign adjacent to the door rather than fixing it directly to it means that the sign will be visible, even if the door is left open. The sign incorporates features, such as visual contrast, and the use of recognisable symbols.

There is a visual contrast between the timber finish of the door and the surrounding wall.

The height of the glazed vision panel has been designed to suit both seated and standing users.

What could be improved?

The sign indicates that the male, female and accessible toilets are all accessed through a single door leading to a toilet lobby. It is generally preferable for accessible toilets to be accessed directly (without a lobby), as lobby doors can be difficult for wheelchair users to move through.


Figure 5 Internal Sign

Accessible features:

This sign incorporates features such as visual contrast, embossed letters, easy-to-read text, Braille, and use of a recognisable symbol.

Using Colour in School Buildings

For people with good vision, differences in colour and colour intensity provide adequate visual contrast. However, this is not the case for everybody with vision loss. The light reflectance value (LRV) of a colour is used by professional designers to identify those colours which adequately contrast against other colours.

Tonal contrast between different features is important for people with vision loss in a number of ways: floors that contrast with walls will indicate the size of a room; handrails that contrast with the wall indicate their location; and doors that contrast with their surrounding indicate their position and help wayfinding.

Improving the visual contrast in a school should be considered when carrying out maintenance or refurbishment work - for instance when painting walls and doors, or renewing floor finishes.

Careful consideration should be given to the use of colour in school environments. Colour can be used to support wayfinding and to help students orientate themselves. For example, appropriate use of colour can help highlight architectural features, or indicate a change in use. It can also be used to create visual contrast to assist people with vision loss - for example, by contrasting between floor and walls and between handrails and their background.

The Department of Education and Skills Technical Guidance Document 020 notes: "Spaces should be planned as appropriate to their use and should be bright and stimulating or calm and relaxing as appropriate. Special care should be taken while selecting the colour scheme. Complex colour schemes and the use of contrasting colours (e.g. red/green) that could create a difficulty to the visually impaired should be avoided".

UK guidance advises that bright colours in large areas or busy patterns can confuse or over-stimulate (Department for Children, Schools and Families (UK), 2008). Researchers have found that many children with autistic spectrum disorders see colours with greater intensity than others; it is therefore advised to avoid using bright primary colours in favour of softer tones (Ahrentzen & Steele, 2009).

For further information on visual contrast and light reflectance values, refer to Annex B of BS8300:2009 + A1:2010, Design of Buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people - Code of practice.

Horizontal Circulation

In primary schools, students spend most of their time during the day in one classroom. However, in secondary schools, students tend to move between different general and specialist classrooms, so ease of movement and minimising travel distances needs to be carefully considered.


Where possible, schools should be planned to minimise long travel distances, which can be a barrier for some students with mobility disabilities.

All circulation routes should be wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass one another. A minimum clear width of 2400 mm is preferable, with a recess of 900 mm for lockers or coat stands.

Consideration should be given to providing handrails along long corridors, provided they do not block access to lockers, with handrail heights to suit both students and adults.

Strong natural light and ventilation will help to create a comfortable environment in circulation areas.

The Department of Education and Skills Technical Guidance Document TGD-023 Post-primary School Design Guidelines provides detailed advice on circulation routes and other features of school design.


Door design should be given careful consideration in relation to door widths, vision panels, ease of operation, and the provision of visual contrast - for example between walls, door frames and door leafs - for people with visual impairments.

The Department of the Environment Part M Technical Guidance Document notes the importance of a 'leading edge' at every door. This is "an unobstructed space of at least 300mm between the leading edge of a single leaf door (when it opens towards you) and a return wall, unless the door is opened by remote automatic control. This enables a person in a wheelchair to reach and grip the door handle, then open the door without releasing hold on the handle and without the footrest colliding with the return wall".

Some manual doors closers can require significant force to open the door, making it difficult for some people with disabilities (including those using mobility aids, those who are small in stature, or those with limited stamina) to move through doorways.

Using magnetic hold-open devices on doors on circulation routes should be considered, taking fire regulations into account.

Internal Circulation - good practice examples


Figure 6 Internal Corridor

Accessible features:

The internal circulation space in this school has generous width, and there is good visual contrast between the floor and the walls.

Coloured wall panels incorporating signage and glazed screens give views to adjoining spaces to help wayfinding and orientation.

What could be improved?

The strong colours in this environment could over-stimulate some students, particularly those with autistic spectrum disorder.

Changing the colour of the doors (or their frames and architraves) to provide a visual contrast with the surrounding wall or screen would make it easier for people with vision loss to locate their position.

The glazed doors and screens should have markings on the glass.

Any objects that protrude out into a corridor may benefit from a guardrail or other protection to avoid any risk of injury.

When carpet is used as a floor finish, a short-pile carpet suitable for wheelchair users should be selected. This will also benefit people who use mobility devices and people who have difficulty in lifting their feet.


Figure 7 Internal Door

Accessible features:

The colour of this door provides visual contrast with the surrounding wall finish.

The height of the glazed vision panel has been designed to suit both seated and standing users and people of smaller stature.

What could be improved?

A colour contrasting panel at the door handle could be used to highlight the location of the door handle.

The door has a manual door closer, which can be difficult for people with mobility disabilities to use especially if the force required to open the door is significant. Where their use cannot be avoided (for instance for fire safety reasons), door closers should be adjusted to reduce the force required to open the door. BS8300:2009 + A1:2010, Design of Buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people - Code of practice, provides advice on acceptable door opening forces in clauses 6.3 and 6.5.

Vertical Circulation

Vertical circulation refers to moving up or down between different levels of the building using stairs or lifts.


The provision of lifts as well as stairs between floors in multi-storey schools is of particular importance for wheelchair users and people with reduced mobility.

In existing primary schools, for example, where there is no lift installed, it may be possible to ensure that all facilities are available at ground level. This would ensure that students who cannot use a stairs are not disadvantaged.

In post-primary schools there may be greater challenges to overcome, particularly where specialist rooms are at first floor level or above.

In all cases an effective management plan must be drawn up by the school authority to address the matter.

Where students need to use lifts, it is important that they can do so independently, for example, without needing to ask a teacher or to get a key. There are various access control systems available than can restrict access to a lift, such as contactless smart cards. Make sure that any access control system can be used by everybody.


On sloping sites, the provision of well-designed ramps between relatively small changes in levels will ensure that they are accessible to wheelchair users. However, many ambulant people with disabilities find it easier to use steps than a ramp.

A choice between steps and a ramp should be provided at changes in level greater than 300mm.

Stair design is important from both accessibility and health and safety points of view. Handrails are used for support by all users, but they are essential for people with vision loss or mobility disabilities.

Handrails should contrast visually with the wall. Schools should consider installing a second handrail on stairs at a lower height than the standard to suit younger students and smaller people.

Visual contrast on the nosing of steps is important to help people to identify the edge of the step.

Research has shown that using a larger flat section or 'going' (the distance between nosings) on a stairs helps to avoid accidents. It allows a person to place more of their foot on the step. Larger goings can also benefit people who wish to pause to rest in the middle of a flight of stairs. The minimum recommended going on stairs is 300mm. The step riser (the vertical part of the step) should generally be between 150mm and 180mm.

Open risers, where there is no vertical part leaving a see-through effect, should be avoided, due to the risk of tripping.


Figure 8 Internal Ramp

Accessible features:

This short ramp in a school has handrails on both sides that contrast visually with their background.

There is also a visual contrast between the sloping surface of the ramp and the rest of the floor finish, which highlights the change in level. This helps all users to avoid what could be a tripping hazard but is especially useful to people with vision loss.

The radiator is fitted with a cover to make sure no-one comes into contact with a very hot surface.

The following documents give further advice on the detail design of internal circulation routes, doors, lifts, stairs and ramps.

Building for Everyone - A Universal Design Approach (National Disability Authority),

BS8300:2009 + A1:2010, Design of Buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people - Code of practice (British Standards Institution) - clauses 6, 7 and 8

Building Bulletin 102, Designing for disabled children and children with special educational needs, guidance for mainstream and special schools (Department for Children, Schools and Families, UK)

Managing Internal Circulation

Ensure that responsibility for periodic audits of internal circulation is assigned to an appropriate staff member. Staff and students can be consulted to get their feedback about what works well and what are the problem areas. The following aspects of building accessibility should be included in the audit:

  • Failed light fittings should be replaced promptly
  • Circulation routes should be kept clear of obstructions, such as sports equipment, deliveries, and stationery
  • Signs should be managed to avoid an overload of warning signs or outdated notices, as these will not get appropriate attention from visitors