By Jason Burgess
Stairs offer so much more than a means to connect two floors. They add a great design element that can transcend function, activate your living space and set the tone for the whole house.
What should I consider before planning a staircase?
Budget: As with any aspect of a renovation your budget will dictate the style and size of your stairs plus balustrade, and the materials you use to construct them.
Space: Be mindful of how much room you actually have. In most situations stairs are centrally located, handy to the main entrance and living areas. Factor in the circulation space and headroom at the top and bottom of the stairs. Straight stairs are the easiest to build and install but they use up a lot of linear space. A set of turning stairs IE: with a ‘winder’ or landing between flights uses less. In really tight areas a spiral staircase could be the most practical solution.
Safety: The primary function of stairs is to provide safe access between floors. The safest staircases are those with a landing and a return.
A landing provides a resting place. Your stairs will need handrails and balustrades, sturdy enough to provide support when gripped and leaned on. A staircase needs to be well illuminated too.
Multi-functionality. How best can you integrate the void beneath your staircase? These spaces can cleverly double as display units, cupboards, offices, kid’s cubby holes, pantries or even bathrooms.
What style of stairs?
There are a host of options for getting you to the next level. Each style delivers patterns and shapes that can visually elevate the look and feel of your home.
L shape or Quarter turn stairs offer the simplest solution to maximising space constraints especially in corner locations. They create a sense of privacy and can also contain sound transmission between the floors. The L-shape occurs when a flight is split in two and connected by a 90°- quarter turn landing. A 180° (U) turn is known as a half landing. Winder steps are used to navigate 90° turns without a landing. They require less space than other types of stairs but are deemed less safe. They are more commonly used as secondary staircases.
Floating stairs in their truest form are straight flights, cantilevered from the wall so they appear to hang in space. To meet regulations in NZ, UK and Australia a solid glass balustrade and a wall hung handrail might be one way to achieve minimalism and the floating effect.
Spiral staircases literally pivot around a centre-pole. They add an attractive organic form and work best where space is limited. On the flip-side they can be difficult to climb and impractical for moving larger items. Best suited as a secondary staircase.
A curving staircase is usually found in larger homes. Elegant, and easy to climb they do require more space and are considered the most difficult to build, therefore more expensive. An opulent bifurcated staircase climbs to a landing before bifurcating (splitting) at either end into two smaller flights. Best suited for atriums and grand entranceways.
What kind of materials should I use?
Let the style and design of your home define the materials you use in your staircase construction. Hardwood staircases are generally low maintenance. Design-wise, wood complements many other materials. Spills are a cinch to clean and they do not trap smells. They can however be noisy.
Steel is usually used in combination with timber particularly on floating stairs where the steel is used as the ‘stringer,’ - the foundation / frame of the stair case. Concrete, stone or rough-hewn tiles provide good grip are hard-wearing, easy clean and contemporary looking. The down side is they can also be cold or noisy. Tiles can be used decoratively, to contrast between the riser and the tread.
Carpet is quiet, warm and safe but can wear quickly on a busy traverse. A densely woven, low-profile wool carpet is best and a fibre guard will make spills and smells easy to manage. Carpet can dress the entire staircase or act as a runner as a contrast to the stairs base material.
What are some of the terms I should know?
“Flight” refers to a continuous slope or series of steps. A flight is limited in length to restrict the distance a person could fall down a set of stairs. The “going” is the depth of a tread IE: the area you place your foot. A “riser” is the step height between treads. And a “landing” is an area of flat space at the top and bottom or between two flights of stairs.
What building regulations affect stairs?
Building regulations relate to the height, depth and pitch of the stairs. All risers and treads must be equal on each flight of stairs. In New Zealand, the maximum number of risers between landings is 17, but 14 is recommended. In Australia, the maximum is 18. In the UK in a domestic setting the length of a flight can go up to 36 risers. A continuous handrail must be provided along the side of any stairway. A balustrade is required for any staircase.
Regulations in New Zealand
Riser Max 190mm. Going Min 280mm Angle of staircase to a maximum pitch of 37º. Primary common use staircase width of 900–1100 mm