How wide does a corridor really need to be?

I do have a bias, I’ll admit it – I like the idea of wide corridors, so I’m struggling to be open minded. But I think I have good reasons to be concerned.  Corridors are high risk locations in schools by most measures. Shootings, fortunately, are rare, but it’s not uncommon for daily hallway behavior to resemble running with the bulls in Pamplona.

A lot goes on there. Kids show off. They socialize. They flirt. They chatter. All  while opening and slamming lockers, retrieving books or hanging up coats, and all in a few minutes passing time. Inevitably, they bump into each other. The more compressed the crowd, the more likely it is that conflicts will occur. It’s not the kids’ fault, really—they’ve been set up. Humans don’t like being crowded, regardless of how old they are. If you’re not convinced, visit any subway at rush hour.

Crowds also provide cover. Misbehavior is hard to spot, hidden behind a surging wall of students,  even with the help of security cameras. And intervention can be tricky—a teacher has to force her way in, fighting a tide of children, in order to lay hands on a culprit. In some schools the packed hallway is reason enough for teachers to retreat into their classrooms entirely, reducing surveillance even further.

Crowding undermines functionality as well as safety. The greater the crowding, the harder it becomes for students to either retrieve goods from lockers or move on to their next classes in a timely fashion.

It seems like building codes ought to address these concerns sufficiently, but they don’t. Codes are driven by a narrow set of safety concerns that boil down to fleeing from major threats, such as fires, in an unrealistically orderly fashion. They don’t take into account everything that goes wrong during a disaster, nor do they tackle day to day behavior, and they don’t pretend to. Codes do, at least, set a minimum, but that’s all.  Good designs should be more generous.

The Florida Department of Education agrees, (www.fldoe.org/edfacil/pdf/fl_ssg_sec4.pdf)  recommending that schools “Increase corridor width beyond minimum requirements when possible…to accommodate large numbers of students during peak-use hours. … especially where lockers are located. Corridors should also be well-lit and clearly defined without projections that might impede the flow of movement.”


North Carolina suggests providing “separate entrances and exits to areas that are associated with high volume use, such as cafeterias and corridors. This serves to reduce time required for movement into and out of such spaces and thereby reduce the opportunity for personal conflict. Separation or differentiation of student traffic flow can help define orderly movement and save time, and the illegitimate user will feel at greater risk of detection.” (www.schoolclearinghouse.org/pubs/safesch.pdf  )  They specify minimum recommended major corridor widths of at least 10-12’, with an additional two feet tacked on if one side is encumbered with lockers, and 3’ if the hallway is double-loaded. They further suggest installing doors which open into the corridors in recesses, or with other adjustments made to avoid interfering with the circulation path by more than seven inches.  (My preference would be to design for no interference at all.)

One option for reducing pinch points at intersections is the use of chamfered corners, which at least cuts everyone a little slack at such predictably tight locations. This improves natural surveillance around corners in addition to adding corridor square footage. The downside is that additional space comes at a cost per square foot. When whittling away at costs, such a luxury may be the first to go.



A more innovative approach does away with corridors altogether—reconfiguring adjoining spaces to absorb hallways and put them to better use. (See photo below, from Hillel school in Tampa, Florida, courtesy of Fielding Nair International). Such a shift can reinforce a philosophical move away from double-loaded corridors / cells and bells architecture and industrial style teaching. An exciting option if you can make it work.

One of the best arguments for wider hallways that I’ve come across draws from Doug Lemov’s work, as laid out in his book “Teach Like A Champion,” (essential reading for teachers.) One of his many brilliant insights is his technique #11 – Draw the Map. He applies this specifically to classrooms, but I think it applies to halls as well. His bottom line message is: design the space to best reinforce what you’re trying to accomplish. If you want all eyes on you, up front, then arrange the desks so that students are already facing in the right direction (as opposed to placing them in squares, facing each other), at least during that particular lesson. If you want to be able to easily reach any part of the room, leave passages between rows of no more than two desks paired together—and disallow any backpacks that block your passageway. If you have to ask for permission (“please move your pack so I can get through”) then students have successfully claimed that turf. In CPTED terms, you’ve lost your territoriality. By the time you’ve gained passage the misbehavior may have passed but, more important, you’ve lost valuable teaching time. So Lemov advises, “Keep your passageways wide and clear,” and I’d say this applies equally to hallway design.

A narrow hallway double-lined with lockers is a set up for failure, or at least major dysfunction. Lockers serve people who want to stop, while hallways ostensibly should serve people who want to go. Locker doors, backpacks set down nearby, and students standing still all block movement. These blockages directly conflict with the goal of efficient movement through the hall, and traffic jams are inevitable. Which means a teacher cannoThe t move freely through the hall and maintain control over misbehavior, or catch up with it in time to intervene. Impeded movement also means it takes longer to get anywhere, so again teaching time is lost. And of course blocked hallways are less useful for emergency egress.

Amanda Ripley, in her brilliant book, The Unthinkable, points out a lesson worth considering in terms of evacuation as well — protocols that encourage people to “run, hide, fight” may be problematic. People who run tend to get jammed up around the exits, and if they trip over each other there may be no escape. This has played a critical role in at least one airplane disaster (Ripley, p.153). Too many people jammed together can even lead to deaths by asphyxiation when packed together, or trampling in a stampede, as has happened a number of times on the Hajj in Saudi Arabia (Ripley, p. 141-2).

There’s no point in choosing an architectural feature that is so likely to work against you. Don’t cede your hallway to the masses – control them. Own your school.





Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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