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What to Consider When Designing a Staircase

Staircases, often taken for granted, can be one of the most important architectural elements in your home.

 Photo: New Energy Works


Consider the staircase, a series of seemingly innocuous steps that take on the humble duty of defining movement within a home. It is one of the few architectural elements that you will use every day. A staircase has the power to physically transport you from one realm of a home to another; it is the border between public and private space. 

As with any other aspect of a home, you should understand the purpose of your staircase(s) before beginning construction. A grand “showcase” staircase would belong in the entryway where its grandeur can be prominently displayed. A C-shape curve works well here, especially if the second floor is visible from below. A staircase in this position will be a strong focal point that naturally leads a visitor’s gaze upwards. 

If the second floor is loft space, curved or circular stairs can be ideal because of their smaller footprint. Larger spirals lend a dramatic air, begging one to ascend them, and offer an organically elegant transition to any open living space. “If you’re tight on space, go with a spiral staircase,” according to Robert Maiaro, president of Mylen Stairs in Peekskill, New York. “If you need even more space, put it up against a wall. Want it to disappear? Put it in the corner.” 

 While the placement of your staircase is important, the materials used to construct it will influence how it’s interpreted. Timber steps and rails that match your home’s interior can offer a cohesiveness that’s comforting and make it seem like your steps sprouted out of the floor. On the other hand, some argue that using different materials helps to draw attention to a home’s individual characteristics. If you’re interested in contrasts, consider pairing a metal, such as wrought iron, with wood for a refreshing design twist.

See also: Design a Timber Frame Stairway That Blends Design and Function


 Photo: Heidi Long


Once you know what style and material you want, the next step is to make sure your dream staircase complies with local building codes. Dan Schneider, owner of Log Stairways by Schneider Construction in Iola, Wisconsin, says, “The hardest part of designing a stairway is making sure it adheres to codes.” The nitty gritty world of regulations is a place that everyone who builds their own home must navigate. “Codes may affect your design freedom,” Dan says, “but they also make it extremely difficult to install an unsafe staircase.”

For example, most building codes state a 4-inch sphere must not be able to fit between the spindles or balusters — a sensible choice to protect small children from getting their heads stuck in the opening. It’s also important to make sure there’s equal space between each step to avoid a “trip step” that’s higher or lower than the rest, as well as a tread that’s deep enough to feel like you’re on sure footing and not teetering over the edge. The International Residential Code (IRC) mandates a 10-inch minimum tread depth.

“Sometimes there’s no one actively enforcing these codes, so it may be tempting to ignore them,” adds Dan. “But I can’t recommend strongly enough that you follow the rules.” After all, they are there for your safety. 

Once you have a picture of your perfect staircase, try to see as many options as possible in person. The best way to do this is to visit showrooms and to attend trade or home shows. Staircase manufacturers and dealers often exhibit at the Log and Timber Home Shows throughout the year. There are plenty of resources available to help you design the staircase that will take your home to the next level. 


See also: 3 Ways to Save Space in Your Timber Home

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