Despite being a major traffic thoroughfare, when it comes to design and decoration, 'staircases are one of the most frequently overlooked areas of a home,' says Hugo Tugman, architectural expert at Architect Your Home. ‘As it's often the first thing people see when they walk through your front door, your staircase's visual impact can reflect upon the entire property.'
From spirals to spindles, glass to granite, there's plenty of scope for making a statement, but homeowners looking to transform their space are often unaware of the possibilities. The key to sorting out the design of your home is to understand your options and the impact building regulations may have.
Replacing your stairs
‘First and foremost, stairs need to fulfil their primary function of getting you from one level to the next,' says Mark Dyson of Enclosure Architects. 'Once this need is fulfilled, you can really go to town on the aesthetics and create something that gives a really great first impression.'
In terms of renovation, replacing a staircase is akin to knocking down a structural wall. But if your stairs are badly positioned, oppressive, or hinder light flow through the house, then it's worth considering, as a new flight can make all the difference.
Always consult an architect or a specialist company, as it's critical that a new staircase fits in both proportionally and stylistically. ‘A staircase is always interfacing with another area of the house, so there are lots of elements to consider,' says Richard McLane, co-director of staircase specialist Bisca. ‘The middle section of the staircase can be quite straightforward, but the connections to rest of the building should be seamless.'
Remember, also, that plans must comply with building regulations, specifically the Approved Document K or Protection, Falling and Impact, and in particular section K1, which deals with stairs, ladders and ramps. You can download it free from staircases.org/regulations.htm.
How to plan a new staircase
* Prepare for dust and disruption and remember that, unless you have a second staircase, you won't be able to access the upper levels while work is going on.
* A standard, straight staircase kit can cost as little as £250, but bespoke designs start at around £3,000. This could rise to £25,000 plus for a bespoke one with real wow factor. Issues such as access can up the final figure further (installing a staircase on the sixth floor will be more pricey than on lower levels, for example).
* How much space you have will dictate what you can do and, unless you live in a modern building, it's difficult to go outside of these limits. If you are lucky enough to have more space, it may be possible to reorganise it to make better use of the available inches.
* ‘Ideally, a staircase should be at least 80cm wide,' says Mark Dyson. The head room (the height between the level of a tread and the structure immediately above it) needs to be at least 2m, and the maximum pitch for a domestic flight is 42 degrees. Straight flights are limited to 36 consecutive steps. If there are more than 36, the flight should make a change of direction of at least 30 degrees.
* Flights should have a handrail on at least one side if they are less than 1m wide, and on both sides if they are wider. The minimum height for a rail is 90cm, and there is no need for one beside the bottom two steps. Spindles should be no more than 10cm apart.
* There is a huge scope for different building materials, from glass structures that appear to float and modern steel staircases in bright, matt or brushed finishes, through to oak or teak. Consider combining materials and think about what will work best in your interior. ‘The trend now is heading towards a more timeless look and I would recommend quality materials and simple details,' says Richard McLane. ‘You can't change a staircase even as often as a kitchen, and it's such a major part of the house that it should transcend fashion.'
Easy staircase updates
If your budget won't stretch to a whole new staircase, there are some simple updates you can do that are quicker and cheaper.
* Consider removing the understairs cupboard to give a more open-plan feel.
* Replace solid risers with glass to allow light to filter through to the space below.
* Swap solid balustrades or dated spindles for a more modern equivalent. Sheet glass creates a minimal look and allows light to flow more freely. Or choose a beautiful wooden balustrade for timeless style.
Choose the right stair designs
Straight doesn't have to equal dull, and it's possible to modernise less than lovely stairs with cladding, such as timber, tiles or stone. Many modern homes have stairs built in concrete, which is ideal for resurfacing. If you're updating a less sturdy staircase, make sure it's sound by cladding it with marine plywood before affixing any sort of tiles, otherwise they might crack. ‘You can re-clad a staircase in oak for about £500-£1,000, depending on the balustrade you choose,' says Vanessa Garrett, director of Broadleaf Timber. ‘This is a much more accessible solution if you don't have a huge budget, would rather not embark on big structural changes, or are limited by space.'
Spiral and helical staircases
Spiral staircases wind around a central pole and have a handrail on the outer side only. Helical stairs do not have a central pole and there is a handrail on both sides. If a spiral staircase is being used to access a single room, it must be at least 1500mm in diameter. But if the spiral goes up to more than one room, it is classed as a main staircase and needs to be at least 1900mm. ‘Bear in mind that the opening in which your spiral fits needs to be 100mm wider than the spiral itself,' says Sally Noseda, director of Oakleaf Industries. Many spiral staircases are available in kit form from about £800, but only go up to 1600mm wide. A bespoke spiral would start at £3,000. It can be difficult to get furniture up and down, so move large items in before you install the stairs.
If you prefer carpet to bare wood or glass, make sure you buy one that's suitable for stairs. ‘It's imperative you choose a quality, hard-wearing carpet - 80 per cent wool to 20 per cent nylon,' says Rupert Anton, marketing director of The Carpet Foundation. ‘Avoid loop-pile carpets as they "grin" (open up when bent) and are more slippery.' Use a good underlay over both tread and riser and fit the carpet so the pile runs down the stairs. It's also possible to use a strip of carpet as a runner. Look at Ryalux, which can make bespoke carpet to your width specifications. For runners, see Roger Oates or The Carpet Library's Hartley runners, which are reversible so last twice as long.
A cantilevered staircase can look stunning, but is also a feat of engineering, with most of the weight of the treads supported by one wall. You need a balustrade to comply with UK building regulations, but glass is unobtrusive and will still give that ‘weightlessness' look. These staircases should always be designed and built by a specialist.
‘Ninety per cent of new staircases are constructed to create access to a loft conversion,' says Mark Dyson. ‘The pitch of the roof can make constructing a flight difficult and, if this is the case, alternate-tread stairs can be the answer. These have one tread for the left foot and another for the right, and mean the angle of the stairs can be tighter, increased from 42 to 65 degrees.' Consider who will need to use them, as they are trickier to negotiate than standard stairs. It can also be hard to move furniture up and down them.
Planning Portal has advice on planning rules, building regulations and building work.
Federation of Master Builders (020 7242 7583) has a search facility on its website for finding builders.
Architect Your Home (0800 849 8505) offers pay-as-you-go architectural services.
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