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Simplified Vibration Response Prediction for

Slender Monumental Stairs
Conference Paper April 2014
DOI: 10.1061/9780784413357.223




2 authors:
Brad Davis

Onur Avci

University of Kentucky

Qatar University




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Available from: Onur Avci

Retrieved on: 31 May 2016

Simplified Vibration Response Prediction for Slender Monumental Stairs

Brad Davis, Ph.D., S.E.1 and Onur Avci, Ph.D., P.E.2

Civil Engineering Department, University of Kentucky, 373 Raymond Building, Lexington,

KY 40506; PH (859) 257-4916; email:
Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, Qatar University, P.O. Box 2713, Doha,
Qatar; PH (+974) 4403-4183; email: (corresponding author)

Slender monumental stairs are major architectural features in hotels,
condominiums, hospitals, and other high-end building structures. Architectural
requirements for these are usually very aggressive, with long spans and slender
stringers being the norm. Slender stairs often have fairly massive treads and
guardrails, which combined with slender stringers, results in natural frequencies
within reach of the very large lower harmonics of the force caused by a person
descending the stair. Stair designers must be able to predict the vertical vibration
response of a stair during the design phase. Current prediction methods rely on finite
element analysis based response prediction methods which are outside the reach of
many structural engineering firms. This paper presents a simplified response
prediction method, based on the fundamental natural mode of the stair, which is
suitable for manual calculations. Response predictions are compared to experimental
measurements to show that the predictions are accurate enough for design use.
Slender stairs are architecturally impressive structures located in buildings
such as airports, hospitals, convention centers, condominiums, and hotels. From an
aesthetics point of view, slender stairs usually have long clear spans with slender
stringers, and are typically loaded with heavy treads and guardrails. This results in
low natural frequencies which makes them vulnerable to resonant responses to stair
ascents or descents. For the purposes of this research, slender monumental stairs are
those with natural frequencies below about 10 Hz.
The vertical forces generated by humans ascending and descending are
especially unfavorable. Humans typically ascend and descend stairs at step
frequencies up to 4 Hz, which is much higher than step frequencies observed for
walking on a regular flat surface. Ascents are comfortable at 2 Hz and 3.3 Hz, and
uncomfortable at other frequencies; descents are comfortable at any step frequency
below about 4 Hz (Kerr 1998). Thus, the second harmonic can match any natural
frequency below about 8 Hz, which allows it to excite most slender stairs, and the
third harmonic can match the natural frequency of any slender stair. (Descriptions of
footstep force harmonics and Fourier amplitudes are provided in Murray et al. (1997)
and Smith et al. (2007).) The situation is even less favorable because footstep forces
while ascending and descending stairsespecially the second harmonic of a
descentare much larger than forces applied while walking on a flat surface.
Overall, the structural design of monumental stairs is a major challenge from

vibrations serviceability point of view. The potential for annoying vibration is high,
so engineers need access to a stair vibration evaluation method for use during design.
The major floor vibrations serviceability design guides (Murray et al. 1997,
Smith et al. 2007) do not provide guidance to address stair vibrations. The relatively
recent study by Davis and Murray (2009) was conducted to gain insight and provide
guidance for evaluating vibration of slender stairs. In that study, a slender
monumental stair was modal tested to estimate natural modal properties.
Accelerations due to stair ascents and descents were also measured. A detailed,
unadjusted, finite element model was created of the stair using only information that
would be available to a designer. The finite element model was used to predict the
modal properties and frequency response function (FRF) magnitude for load and
acceleration at midspan. The FRF magnitude was then used with established
harmonic footstep forces from Kerr (1998) to predict steady-state acceleration due to
ascents and descents. The ratio of measured peak acceleration to predicted steadystate acceleration was consistent enough to allow a 0.35 reduction factor to be
established. Based on Kerr (1998), Davis and Murray (2009) recommended the stair
evaluation be performed for a 76 kg (168 lbf) walker and the design dynamic load
factors (DLF) (ratio of harmonic force amplitude to bodyweight) shown in Table 1.
(Average DLFs are used for comparisons of measured and predicted accelerations.)
Because stair descent step frequencies more easily match natural frequencies, and
because descents have higher forces, they are always more severe than ascents. Davis
and Murray also recommended a 5.0 Hz lower limit on the natural frequency to
prevent first harmonic excitation and resulting severe accelerations.
Table 1. Dynamic Load Factors
Dynamic Load Factor,
Average Design Average Design

The resulting evaluation method, based on an FEA of the stair, is useful but
the procedure is not fast or easy enough for routine structural engineering design
office usage. A simplified and more feasible method is needed for the vibration
serviceability evaluation and design of slender monumental stairs. Thus, the
objective of this paper is the development of a simplified method using manual
calculations. The method is simple as the name implies and the procedure is fast
enough for routine structural engineering office use. The scope of the method
developed herein is limited to linear stairs such as the example shown in Figure 1.
The FEA-based method by Davis and Murray (2009) should be used for other slender

Figure 1. Example Linear Stair

Experimental modal testing was conducted on an elegant slender monumental
stair located in the lobby and restaurant area of a high-rise hotel and condominium.
Testing was conducted in an attempt to find estimates of the natural frequencies,
acceleration response (FRF magnitude), and responses to ascents and descents. The
tested stair and surrounding features combine to form a major architectural feature in
the lobby and restaurant area. The stair consists of a main flight of stairs from the
lobby to an intermediate landing and a shorter flight from the intermediate landing to
the second floor, as shown in Figure 2. The main span is of primary interest for this
The stair main span is very slender, with two stringers at approximately a 30
degree angle, spanning 9.49 m (31 ft) horizontally between supports. The stringers
are spaced 1.17 m (3 ft 10 in.) apart, center-to-center. The stringers are 305 mm tall
by 203 mm wide by 15.9 mm thick (12 in. by 8 in. by 5/8 in.) steel hollow structural
sections (HSS). The stringer size was limited to satisfy architectural slenderness
requirements. Each stringer bears on a steel angle seat at the lobby end and is
suspended from a small HSS hanger from the second floor. The laminated glass
treads are 1.78 m (5 ft 10 in.) long, weigh approximately 1.5 kPa (31 psf), and are
supported on thin rubber pads as shown in Figure 3. The treads are through-bolted to
bent plates which are welded to the top of the HSS stringer. The approximately 1.2 m
(4 ft) high clear glass guardrails weigh approximately 0.48 kPa (10 psf) and are
connected to the stringers using spider fittings (Figure 3). The guardrails are in
discrete sections as shown in Figure 3 except they are connected by the handrails.

Figure 2. Tested Monumental Stair

Figure 3. Tested Stair Tread Supports and Guardrail Spider Fittings

Experimental modal analysis (EMA) techniques were used to estimate the
FRF magnitude. Due to time and site constraints, impulse hammer strikes to the
bottom of the stringers (strikes were at about 30 degrees from vertical) were used as
the excitation. Interestingly, strikes at the bottom of treads provided low quality
excitation because the energy resulted mainly in variations of rubber bearing pad
contact pressure rather than excitation of the entire stair. No person stood on the stair
during tests. Accelerometers measured vertical acceleration at various locations on
the stair. The estimated FRF magnitude plot (force at the bottom of the stringer and
vertical acceleration at the treat over the impact location) indicates the fundamental
mode is at 7.3 Hz and has 0.0679 %g/N (0.302 %g/lbf) magnitude and 1.1% of
critical viscous damping. Other modes were detected also, but they were much less
responsive. See Davis and Murray (2009) for more detailed information on the EMA
testing program.

After the EMA tests, accelerations were measured while individuals ascended
and descended the main span of the stair. Four healthy male walkers participated in
the testing program. They varied from 84 kg (185 lbf) to 105 kg (230 lbf), and
stepped on each tread rather than skipping treads. During each test, the step
frequency, controlled by listening to a metronome, was such that a force harmonic
frequency matched the fundamental frequency, thus causing resonance. To exclude
unrepresentative peaks, acceleration waveforms were bandpass filtered to include
frequency content between 1 Hz and 15 Hz only. Resonant build-ups were observed
in most tests. Table 2 shows the measured peak accelerations (Davis and Murray
2009). As expected, the accelerations due to descents were higher than accelerations
due to ascents. For more information, see Davis and Murray (2009).
Table 2. Measured Peak Accelerations
Peak Acceleration (%g)
Ascending, Second Harmonic
Ascending, Third Harmonic
Descending, Second Harmonic
Descending, Third Harmonic


The acceleration response of a stair is the superposition of the response of
numerous natural modes, each having its own natural frequency, mode shape, modal
mass, and damping. Because slender stairs are often linear structures spanning from
one floor to the next, such as the one shown in Figure 1, their natural modes resemble
those of a pair of parallel beams connected by closely spaced transverse bending
elements. Thus, the fundamental mode resembles that of a simply supported beam
with uniform mass, i.e., a half-sine wave. The second mode is often a torsional mode
with one stringer going up as the other stringer is going down, each following a half
sine wave pattern. Other modes are either bending or torsional modes following
multiple curvature patterns.
The fundamental modal frequency must be at least 5 Hz to prevent the very
large first harmonic from matching the fundamental natural frequency and causing
severe responses (Davis and Murray 2009). In the authors experience with FEA of
slender stairs, the second modal frequency is at least double the fundamental
frequency, thus placing it above 10.0 Hz for any usable stair design. The authors
opinion is that it is unlikely that modes over 10.0 Hz will experience resonant buildups due to human walking. Therefore, the maximum stair acceleration is
approximately the resonant response of the fundamental mode only.
Fortunately, simple equations are available for the fundamental natural
frequency and modal mass of a simply supported beam with uniform mass. The
natural frequency, in Hz, is computed using Eq. 1 (Murray et al. 1997).

fn =

2 wL4


g =gravitational acceleration
E =stringer elastic modulus
I =stringer moment of inertia
w=uniform weight (force per length along the diagonal) supported by the stringer,
including the stringer, treads, guardrail, and a minimal allowance for people on
the stair
L =stringer length (diagonal distance between supports)
Some stairs have more than two stringers, and in those cases, the stringers
often have unequal load and moment of inertia. For those, I is the sum of the
individual stringer moments of inertia and w is the sum of uniform weights supported
by each stringer.
The simply supported beam fundamental modal mass, for transverse load and
acceleration at midspan, is half the beam mass. Thus, the stair fundamental modal
mass is approximately half the total stair mass. For a stair with two stringers:

M = wL/g


This mass is used to compute the steady-state acceleration perpendicular to

the stringer due to sinusoidal load perpendicular to the stringer:
a sMidspanPerp =

2 M



FPerp=sinusoidal force amplitude perpendicular to the stringer

=viscous damping ratio, usually 0.01 (Davis and Murray 2009)
The vertical acceleration due to vertical load is required for vibration
serviceability evaluation. The vertical load is Q, where is the DLF (Table 1) and
Q is the walker bodyweight, usually taken as 749 N (168 lbf). For a stair at an angle
, the vertical steady-state acceleration at midspan due to vertical load at midspan is:

a sMidspan =

Q cos
Q cos 2
cos =
2 M
2 M


It is often necessary to compute the acceleration at locations away from

midspan. For example, engineering judgment might dictate that potentially annoyed
occupants are most likely to stand at an intermediate landing not located at midspan.
Similarly, the most likely path for a several step resonant build-up might be centered
at a location other than midspan. For those cases, the midspan steady-state
acceleration is adjusted using the unity normalized (1.0 amplitude at midspan) mode
shape amplitude at the response and walker locations:

as =

Q cos 2
r w
2 M


For a half sine wave,

x r
w = sin w
r = sin


xr =distance from end of stringer to response location, measured on the diagonal
xw=distance from end of stringer to walker force location, measured on the
The peak acceleration due to walking is much less than the value computed
using Eq. 5 because resonant build-ups do not last long enough to achieve a steadystate response, and because footsteps are not perfectly periodic. Davis and Murray
(2009) found that the peak acceleration due to walking can be predicted by
multiplying the predicted steady-state acceleration by a reduction factor, R.
ap = R

Q cos 2
r w
2 M


The reduction factor, R, is established as follows. Davis and Murray (2009)

showed that FEA predicted an FRF maximum magnitude within 4% of the measured
value. Eq. 5 produces the same steady-state acceleration as the FEA method used by
Davis and Murray for linear stairs with no features included in the finite element
model, but not included in the simplified method. Thus, the reduction factor, R =
0.35, applies when using the simplified procedure also.


As described above, the tested stairs natural frequency was 7.3 Hz. Using
Eq. 1, the predicted natural frequency was 5.0 Hz, which is 32% below the measured
value. The difference is most likely explained by differences in the actual and
assumed masses and lack of the methods consideration of the stiffness provided by
the intersecting flight (Figure 2). The Davis and Murray (2009) FEA more accurately
predicted the natural frequency (6.2 Hz, 15% low). When the Davis and Murray
finite element model was modified to remove the intersecting landing (making it a
more direct comparison to Eq. 1), the predicted natural frequency dropped to 5.4 Hz,
which is only slightly more than predicted by Eq. 1. The remainder of the difference
between the equation and FEA predictions is explained by partial continuity of the
guardrails, which is included in the model, but is not possible to include in the

It is not possible to measure the steady-state acceleration due to walking, so a

direct verification of Eq. 5 is not possible. However, the measured FRF magnitude is
the steady-state acceleration due to a unit sinusoidal load, a quantity that is predicted
by rearranging Eq. 5, thus allowing a direct comparison. The measured FRF
maximum magnitude for vertical acceleration at midspan and force perpendicular to
the stringer was 0.0679 %g/N (0.302 %g/lbf). The vertical applied force is the force
perpendicular to the stringer multiplied by cos() = 0.866, so the measured FRF
magnitude for vertical acceleration and vertical force at midspan is 0.0784 %g/N
(0.349 %g/lbf). The predicted midspan FRF magnitude is cos2/(2M) (from Eq. 5,
noting that Q is the harmonic load in N or lbf) which gives 0.125 %g/N (0.556
%g/lbf) which is 59% higher than measured. The difference is explained using the
Davis and Murray (2009) finite element model, as follows. The model, which
included guardrail out-of-plane movement and the intersecting flight (Figure 2) - both
of which contribute to the modal mass, but are not possible to include in the
simplified formulationpredicted 0.0832 %g/N (0.370 %g/lbf), which is quite
accurate. When the effects of out-of-plane guardrail movement and intersecting flight
are removed, the model predicted 0.108 %g/N (0.481 %g/lbf) which is only 13% less
than predicted using the modified Eq. 4. Thus, the FRF maximum magnitude, and
more to the point, the steady-state acceleration, will be conservatively predicted when
the actual stair contains vibrating mass not included in Eq. 5, and accurately predicted
Peak accelerations due to walking were predicted using Eq. 8 with R = 0.35.
Measured bodyweight and damping were used in the predictions. Table 3 shows the
measured and predicted accelerations. The measured-to-predicted acceleration ratio
varies from 0.567 to 0.954, indicating that each prediction was conservative, and two
are very conservative. The over-prediction is explained by the lack of the inclusion
of modal mass contributed by guardrail out-of-plane movement and the intersecting
flight. The ratio of measured-to-predicted FRF magnitude is 0.0784 %g/N / 0.125
%g/N = 0.628, as described above. If the predicted accelerations are multiplied by
0.628, the measured-to-predicted acceleration ratios are 1.52, 0.873, 1.14, and 0.903
for the four lines in the table below. With the exception of the 1.52 ratio, the other
three indicate good predictions, noting that accurate and precise prediction of
vibration due to walking cannot be expected because of high variability in human
walking forces.
The authors opinion is that the simplified methods presented herein are
accurate enough for design usage.

Table 3. Peak Acceleration Comparisons

Peak Acceleration
Load Case
Measured (%g) Predicted (%g) Meas. / Pred.
Ascending, Second Harmonic
Ascending, Third Harmonic
Descending, Second Harmonic
Descending, Third Harmonic


This paper presents simplified equations for the prediction of the fundamental
natural frequency and the vertical acceleration due to stair ascents or descents for
slender stairs, i.e, those with fundamental frequencies below 10 Hz. The scope is
limited to linear stairs, and readers are referred to Davis and Murray (2009) for stairs
of other configurations. A slender monumental stair was vibration tested to provide
estimates of natural frequencies, FRF magnitude, and acceleration due to stair ascents
or descents.
The stair vibration response is the superposition of numerous vibration modes,
each with a different frequency, shape, modal mass, and damping. Multi-modal
analysis requires the use of a computerized FEA which is outside the reach of many
structural engineering offices. However, the vast majority of the response is due to
resonant response of the fundamental mode. For linear stairs the fundamental mode
resembles the fundamental mode of a simply supported beam with uniform mass and
Thus, the stair fundamental natural frequency equation is identical to that of a
simply supported beam:
fn =

2 wL4

(1, repeated)

Similarly, the modal mass of a simply supported beam is used to develop the
steady-state acceleration equation, which is adjusted to provide a prediction of the
vertical acceleration at an location on the stair, due to an ascent or descent at any
location on the stair:
ap = R

Q cos 2
r w
2 M

(8, repeated)

Measurements were compared to predictions generated using the proposed

equations. The measured stair contains features whose effects are not possible to
capture in a simplified analysis, so the natural frequency, steady-state acceleration,
and acceleration due to walking were only moderately well predicted. However, the
equations are accurate enough for design use, in view of the fact that very large
variation should be expected in floor vibration prediction.

Davis, B. and Murray, T.M. (2009). Slender Monumental Stair Vibration
Serviceability. J. Archit. Eng., 15(4), 111121.
Kerr, S.C. (1998). Human Induced Loading on Staircases. Ph.D. Thesis, University
of London, London, England.
Murray, T.M., Allen, D.E., and Unger, E.E. (1997). Steel Design Guide Series 11:
Floor Vibrations Due to Human Activity, American Institute of Steel
Construction, Chicago, IL, USA.
Smith, A.L., Hicks, S.J., Devine, P.J. (2007). Design of Floors for Vibration: A New
Approach. The Steel Construction Institute (SCI), Berkshire, England.