by Cecily Channell, WBDG Staff



In ancient Roman times, the atrium was the central open area of a house, but today the term atrium is typically associated with commercial or public buildings. The atrium space type includes glazed courtyard spaces and multistoried spaces. Atria are typically used as key architectural features in main entries, public circulation areas or as special destinations within a building. Atrium design often involves skylights and generous glazing areas that provide an infusion of natural light which make them a prominent building areas well suited to serve ceremonial and social functions.

Space Attributes

The atrium space type requires flexibility, durable finishes, attention to regular maintenance, and special HVAC systems and lighting. Typical features of atrium space types include the list of applicable design objectives elements as outlined below. For a complete list and definitions of the design objectives within the context of whole building design, click on the titles below.


  • Include accessible elevators and ramps in addition to stairways.


  • Highlight or soften the verticality of the space by delineating horizontal bands (such as at floor or ceiling levels) with windows, lighting, wall coverings, and signage.
  • Specify appropriate finishes for open stairways, pedestrian bridges, and other transitional spaces that match finishes in adjacent spaces.
  • Include glazing system materials or detailing that emits natural light, but prevents glare and light reflection.

Functional / Operational

  • Design appropriate spaces for the unique requirements of plant species, including attention to lighting, temperature, and air flow. Specify plants with comfort levels similar to occupant comfort levels.
  • Accommodate flexibility and storage of furniture and equipment for ceremonial events and exhibits.
  • Design for maintainability of hard to reach areas, such as re-lamping of high light fixtures and periodic cleaning of dust gathering surfaces. Consider use of portable lifts over scaffolding.
  • Design as an informal meeting space where intellectual/social exchange can take place.
  • Specify durable finishes to accommodate maximum pedestrian traffic.


  • Specify HVAC equipment that will ensure a comfortable and reliable temperature. For more information see WBDG High-Performance HVAC.
  • If the atrium will be used for performances or ceremonies, study its acoustic properties and include sound absorptive materials as needed.

Secure / Safe

  • Provide for smoke control/Fire protection engineering requirements.
  • In high-risk buildings, such as government or public assembly areas, incorporate blast-resistive design in atria structural system and glazing.
  • Design for safety in balconies overlooking atria:
    • Glass railings can become dangerous as breaking/falling objects in terrorism or seismic event
    • Design to prevent/discourage falls and suicide attempts


  • Atria can be used as light courts. Utilize daylighting to reduce energy use through skylights and window walls.
  • Create a vertical "chimney" effect with low intakes and high outlets to facilitate natural ventilation.

Relevant Codes and Standards

The following agencies and organizations have developed codes and standards affecting the design of atria. Note that the codes and standards are minimum requirements. Architects, engineers, and consultants should consider exceeding the applicable requirements whenever possible:

Major Resources


Building Types

Federal Courthouse, Government Laboratory, Land Port of Entry, Office Building

Design Objectives

Accessible—Provide Equal Access and Flexibility, Aesthetics—Understanding the Language and Elements of Design, Functional / Operational—Account for Functional Needs, Functional / Operational—Ensure Appropriate Product/Systems Integration, Productive—Assure Reliable Systems and Spaces, Productive—Provide Comfortable Environments, Secure / Safe—Occupant Safety and Health

Guides & Specifications

Atria Systems

Project Management

Delivery Teams—Select Appropriate Design Professionals

Building Commissioning

Building Commissioning