Ask an Architect, Custom Residential

The Ups and Downs of Staircase Design

By Jeff PelletierOctober 2, 2014

I get to work on a lot of remodels of older homes here at Board & Vellum and it is always interesting to see what common themes tend to emerge.  Aside from the obvious ones (desires for larger kitchens, Master Bathrooms, and indoor / outdoor living), the one that seems to be prevalent in easily half of our current projects is one that people often forget about.

Your older home may be adorable but chances are that your stairs pretty much stink.

Stairs can literally be the great uniter.  Unfortunately, they’re also the great divider in so many older homes and an area ripe for improvement.  Basements are closed off behind doors with steep and narrow stairs plunging you down to who knows what.  You’ll often whack your head on the ceiling heading up to the second floor, and if you’re lucky enough to have a third floor or attic space with stairs, chances are that that staircase is laughable.  Why they were built like this will forever confound me but suffice it say, they stink.

Living in the city, Seattle in particular, however, most certainly doesn’t stink.  We have beautiful older homes here and get to live close to a lot of amazing amenities.  Consequently what we pay for square footage is expensive, and only getting more so.  Every square foot in our house is valuable and I feel adamant that accessing that square footage should be easy, comfortable, and feel integral to the rest of your house.  Don’t shortchange your investment by short changing how you go up and down between floors.

I find it funny that so many people assume that stairs are sacred ground.  They’ll happily want to finish off a basement or unfinished attic space but then be OK with accessing that area from some horrifying staircase.  Now, not everyone has my wicked fear of stairs (falling down a straight run of stairs is probably my biggest fear oddly enough), but they should still be afraid of what a miserable staircase does to their investment!  Every stop on a tour of your finished house should be amazing and filled with delightful things that make you happy.  And, almost as importantly, every passage on the tour of your house should be pleasant and not stand out as a spot where you could slip, fall, and hurt yourself.

So, what do you do?  You work with your architect at Board & Vellum to rip the stair out and start from scratch.  It will take a little more footprint than your original stair but is almost always worth it. 

Here are some of my guidelines for when you consider ripping out a stair and putting in a new one:

  • If you can, open up the stairs to a finished basement and stack them with the stairs to the second floor. One three-story open space will really tie the house together.
  • Go with wood treads and carpet runners if you can swing the cost.  This is the priciest solution but the best looking and the safest.  Spend the money here on good quality woodwork and make it a focal point of your home.  Purely carpeted stairs are a recipe for stains.
  • Wherever you can add built-in shelves or details, do it.  Make the stairs themselves a stop on the house tour.

    In this new staircase to a finished basement, we used the wall adjacent to the stairs to hide a TV and the area below it for media equipment

    In this new staircase to a finished basement, we used the wall adjacent to the stairs to hide a TV and the area below it for media equipment

  • Don’t assume that stairs to a new second story addition automatically belong stacked above the existing basement stairs. Be open to ideas and you may be surprised.

    In this second story addition, I realized that if we didn't stack the new stair above the basement staircase that it would allow for not only a better second floor layout but a generous foyer

    In this second story addition, I realized that if we didn't stack the new stair above the basement staircase that it would allow for not only a better second floor layout but a generous foyer

  • Code minimum rise and run dimensions for stairs are relatively comfortable, but if you have the room, go for a slightly shorter rise on the stairs. Space is often at a premium so we don’t often get to do this but it can add a wonderful sense of comfort to your home.
  • Fix the headroom. This is the one dimension that literally will make your head hurt. In my own house, I had to get a code modification to allow for a narrower stair as there wasn’t room between the foundation wall and the outboard wall of the staircase above. While narrow for a few stairs it doesn’t feel claustrophobic because the head height is more than sufficient.  It really goes to show you which dimensions matter and which are just nice to have.

    We were able to tuck bar shelves in the wall next to the staircase and then squeeze a countertop and appliances below the staircase itself which maximizes square footage

    We were able to tuck bar shelves in the wall next to the staircase and then squeeze a countertop and appliances below the staircase itself which maximizes square footage

  • If you can, put the staircase in a central location that doesn’t block access to the outside of the house.  So many bungalows have stairs to the basement directly on the wall from the kitchen to the yard making access to the outside exceedingly difficult.  Move the stairs to the middle of the house allows for central access and better access to the yard at the cost of some greater reconfiguration of your floor plan.

    In this project currently in design, we completely re-located the main staircase and created a new 'U' shaped stair which ties all four floors of the house together in a grand fashion.

    In this project currently in design, we completely re-located the main staircase and created a new 'U' shaped stair which ties all four floors of the house together in a grand fashion.

  • Finally, I love a ‘U’ shaped stair as much as possible with a generous landing halfway up.  The landing can have a window seat or library shelves but really helps break up the trip.  If you are forced to do a longer straight run consider a landing 2 or 3 steps from the top and bottom for a longer ‘U’.  Basically, I’m horrified of falling down your stairs so don’t make me design a straight run of stairs as seeing your architect scoot down on his butt isn’t the most professional image. But I’ll do it!

All in all, the projects where we are able to put in new stairs that tie the house together flow so well that people feel that they remodel far more than they actually do.  Don’t forget to include new stairs in your wish list!

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