Step by step: When creatively designed, stairs don’t have to be space hogs

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Photo: David Marshall Photo: David Marshall

Thomas Jefferson hated stairs. Not personally. Architecturally.

A design nut who conceptualized Monticello and parts of the Virginia State Capitol, Jefferson disdained the space stairs took up. According to the Monticello Foundation, he favored narrow, steep stairs with tight turns so the hulking masses wouldn’t rob him of space for more exciting design features.

These days, that shortcut won’t fly, according to Alan Meadows of local building supply company Better Living Inc. If you want to build stairs, you simply have to “add more space,” he says. “By building codes, builders cannot make a narrow/steep stair.”

Fortunately, designers can employ a variety of strategies to maximize the positioning of stairs in a home.

David Marshall of Albion Cabinets & Stairs favors a winding staircase—not least because that’s his specialty. Although challenging to engineer, such stairs are not only a space saver but can be a striking centerpiece.

“You have options: how much it rotates, whether they go clockwise or counterclockwise, and where you get on the stairs at the bottom determines where you get off at the top,” he says.

Marshall says corner landings can also maximize the use of a space but conceded even spirals can only save so much square footage. You still need at least a 5′ diameter for the smallest column staircases.

Meadows agrees. It’s not just code that keeps stairs from being excessively steep and narrow, it’s comfort. “A steep stair is not a comfortable climb or descent,” he says. “[Spirals] only save inches and make for a difficult stair to travel and a nightmare to move furniture.”

Riser-less stairs can give a room the appearance of airiness, according to Marshall, though they seem to be going out of style. And like winders, they make for some engineering challenges. The riser is a critical part of the structure of the stair, Marshall says, so floating stairs have to be thicker, lest they feel bouncy or sag. Those aren’t traits that make a homeowner feel safe. “Some people get a little nervous if they can see through the stair,” Marshall says.

Architects are also getting creative with the spaces beneath staircases. The classic design is to stack the stairs from, say, the first floor to the second floor, on top of the stairs down to the basement. But powder rooms and storage closets—you can “add a door on the high side for tall storage and build drawers in the lower area,” suggests Meadows—are ever-popular, and some homeowners even want the space beneath their stairs to be a showpiece.

“If you have a stair that is open on one side…people are doing creative things like making open bookcases and things using the angle of the stairs—paneling on the wall below the stairs or other design elements,” Marshall says.

And of course the stairs themselves can be a design element, with paint, runners or carpeting beautifying surfaces and risers. Railings and newel posts, too, can be a place to put your own spin on your stairs.

“The railings can have the ballasted look or be spindly or turned nicely with a prominent newel post at the bottom or top,” Marshall says.

TJ, of course, would likely have none of it.

DECK THE STAIRS

Get creative with your stairs and make a case for them being the best-looking part of your home.

Runners: The workhorse of stair décor, runners are 2′ to 3′ rugs for stairs, extending down the center of the staircase but not reaching the sides. Runner design can range from subdued solids to bold, colorful stripes and Persian patterns.

Dust corners: Dust corners are a throwback, but they can add a punch of vintage interest to bland stairs. Small, usually brass pieces that fit into the corners between stair surfaces and risers, they’re also useful at, you guessed it, keeping dust from collecting in hard to reach places.

Railings/banisters: The woodwork around the stair is the perfect opportunity to accentuate your staircase, be it with intricate newel posts or funky banisters made with reclaimed materials. “The bottom line is to let it complement your house,” says Alan Meadows of local building supply company Better Living Inc.

Paint: Stairs are a great place to contrast paint colors between risers and surfaces. Or if you don’t want people to stare, go with a simple paint scheme.

Tchotchkes: Wide stairs are like having a row of stacked mantels, the sides of each panel offering a place to put seasonal decorations or (hopefully nonbreakable) trinkets.—S.G.