Stepping It Up

A good staircase design can take your home to the next level.

People tend to expect a sense of drama from a staircase—preferably not the kind of drama associated with the creaky stairs they might see in a horror movie. Rather, homeowners want a stately atmosphere created by stairs that are elegant and airy—an atmosphere that makes their home spacious and welcoming.

Because a staircase often marks the transition between public and private living space, there’s a lot of symbolism bound up in this fundamental architectural feature, and yet it retains its essential function as a device for getting yourself (and your stuff) from one level of the home to another. So, along with the multitude of aesthetic options available in stair components today, there are practical considerations related to safety and convenience that need to be taken into account.

In some parts of the country, pre-fabricated staircases are widely available, making installation a relatively quick and easy job, but in Atlantic Canada, most stairs are built on site. In new homes, stairs are initially roughed in, with temporary treads that will be subjected to all manner of abuse during the construction process. After the dirty work is done, these treads can be removed from the stringers (the boards that support the steps) and replaced with finished stair treads—generally spruce or pine if the stairs are to be carpeted, or hardwood if the treads are to be exposed.

Some people give little thought to their stairs at the home design and drafting stage, opting for a standard, straight-flight configuration, but others want something different—either because there’s a certain look they have in mind, or because they want stairs that do not intrude on premium floor space. One option for conserving floor space is a staircase with a landing, usually at the mid-way point, followed by a 90-degree or 180-degree change in direction. This landing has the added advantage of offering athletically challenged stair climbers a place where they can pause to catch their breath.

A more space-conserving alternative is a staircase that turns—either with three wedge-shaped “winder” treads at the mid-way point, or with winders all the way up that create a continuous curve. A true spiral staircase may seem like a space saver, but building codes won’t allow this as a primary stairway. (As one stair specialist explained to me, it’s hard for a firefighter to carry an unconscious adult down a spiral staircase. Enough said.)

In fact, code compliance is an important consideration for any type of staircase. There are minimum tread depths and maximum riser heights; if a builder is forced to make adjustments at the last minute, you could end up with a staircase that seriously impinges on your living space, or one with a head clearance problem that results in tall guests being concussed when they come down for breakfast. And take note: designing stairs is not a job for the arithmetically challenged. Make sure you have a technical expert crunching the numbers at the planning stage to avoid embarrassing—and expensive—mistakes.

Historically, steep staircases were the norm, and this—possibly in combination with the prevalence of leather-soled shoes—led to well-founded safety concerns about slipping, and the widespread adoption of runner carpets. In new construction, such treacherous slopes are forbidden.

These days, many homeowners want a staircase that will match their hardwood flooring, so there’s a lot of choice in the range of available grades and finishes. As is the case with flooring, birch has become a popular species, because it has an attractive grain.

There’s still a general preference for dark colours—and birch is frequently stained a brown or reddish hue.

The traditional tread has a rounded front edge that overhangs the riser by about an inch, but some more contemporary stair designs achieve a minimalist look with a square or nearly-square edge. One of the recent trends is to accentuate hardwood treads by contrasting them with white risers. This look may be accentuated with a hardwood handrail and white balusters. (Balusters, also known as “spindles,” are the vertical posts that support the railing.)

The colonial style of baluster, once the standard, is a round post turned on a lathe. The newel, the more robust terminal post at the top and bottom of the railing, would typically mirror the same pattern, and would often be topped with an ornamental wooden ball that was prohibitive to banister sliding by kids.

Today, there’s a movement toward cleaner lines in staircases, with plain square balusters and box newels, sometimes referred to as craftsman-style woodwork.

Another option that’s gaining popularity is metal balusters—either wrought iron or aluminum, ornate or plain, in classic black or metallic finishes like copper or nickel.

It’s worth noting that some metal balusters on the market may not meet your building code, because they include a decorative feature called a “basket” that could be considered a climbing risk for children. Similarly, even local building supply stores may carry wooden balusters that are too short to meet the minimum railing height, so check this out with your builder before stocking up on materials.

If you’re just rebuilding your stairs to complement new hardwood floors, or as part of a modest reno job, consider ease of ascent and descent for the elderly, and safety issues related to the very young. Kids have been known to get their skulls stuck between balusters spaced too far apart.

The most common stair renovation involves replacing carpeted stairs with hardwood. Usually the existing stringers can be retained, but some modifications may be required in order to maintain a uniform riser height, since the new hardwood treads will likely be less thick than the combined thickness of the old treads and carpet.

You may be able to purchase decent stair components for a three-figure sum, but the average cost of a renovation would be more in the neighborhood of $1,500, plus the same again for installation. An elaborate staircase could bump you into the five-figure range.

Some people think they will save money by opting for an open-riser staircase (in which the vertical riser is absent, allowing an open view through the back of the step), because each step comprises just a single piece of wood, but the requirement for thicker treads means this design actually costs more in the end.

A better reason for choosing open-riser stairs is to allow clear sightlines and to take full advantage of natural light; in an open-concept contemporary home where a solid staircase might seem ponderous and intrusive, eliminating the risers can make the staircase almost invisible.

Hardwood stairs are a good investment. If they’re exposed to heavy traffic with outdoor footwear, the finish will start to wear off the tread edge in five to seven years, but sanding and refinishing is straightforward—just as you would do for hardwood floors.

The good news: they should last the life of your home. And like a classic piece of furniture, the odd nick will really just add to their character.