Staircases are a key feature to consider for selfbuilders and renovators alike
Ranging from the simple and functional to exciting design statements, historically, staircases have been a source of pride to homeowners and a way to indicate wealth and status to visitors. Their designs can be traditional or contemporary, straight or curved, and may be crafted from various materials including wood, metal, stone, concrete and glass.
Visions of making a dramatic entrance down a sweeping stair reminiscent of the one in Gone with the Wind may need to be sacrificed if space is really tight, but for many the staircase is such an important feature in the home that they are willing to make that sacrifice to include stunning stairs. Some homeowners have even gone as far as installing a slide alongside them, for a faster and more entertaining way down!
Building Regulations for Staircases
With so much choice it’s important not to get carried away with the design at the cost of practicality. When it comes to staircases the Building Regulations are designed to ensure safety – primarily from fire and falls – and a building inspector can advise.
You usually need to get Building Regs approval if you’re adding or altering staircases
Approved Document K covers protection from falling, collision and impact. Steepness, rise (tread height), going (tread depth), handrails, headroom, length and width of stairs all need to be appropriately specified to ensure maximum safety.
A staircase should have:
- a minimum headroom of 2m on flights and on landings (this can be reduced slightly for loft conversions)
- a maximum staircase pitch of 42 degrees
- a minimum going of 220mm
- a maximum rise of 220mm.
Standard risers measure 200mm and should all be exactly the same height to reduce the risk of falling.
For domestic properties there are no restrictions to the length of a flight up to 36 risers, above which there should be a change in direction of at least 30 degrees. Winders are steps designed to turn corners.
Strangely, there is no minimum width specified for domestic staircases, but they should be both functional and visually pleasing, so a minimum of 850mm is recommended, and if a stairlift may be required in future then this needs to be taken into account at the design stage if possible.
Regulations state that landings must be provided at the top and bottom of every flight and their length and width should be at least the same as the narrowest width of the stair.
Stairs to loft conversions
Where there is not enough room for a full traditional stair, it may be possible to use a space-saving version, but retractable ladders are not normally acceptable. The new storey must be isolated from the house by half an hour’s worth of fire resistance, which almost certainly means installing fire doors to FD30 rating as a minimum.
The location of a staircase in either a new build or a major renovation project will dictate the layout of the entire building and needs to be carefully considered. Staircases can serve to break up open-plan spaces or may be enclosed.
Hallways are becoming less popular, and are often viewed as wasting space, but fire regulations will need to be adhered to if a staircase is to be open-plan in a home.
Traditionally, staircases are located close to the main entrance door, for ease of access and safety in case of fire, and ideally you should avoid needing to walk through a room to reach the stairs from the entrance. For houses of more than two storeys this will be vital, to provide a serviceable escape route.
Staircases are often positioned beside a window to improve natural lighting and create a feature. If you are building a new house, then you have the opportunity to create a feature window or light the stairs from above with a roof light.
Enjoy looking at outrageous and innovative staircases online before choosing a design, as you may be surprised by what is possible – from cantilevered stairs protruding from a wall, to ornate metal balustrades resembling tree branches. Pinterest is a great starting point, but if budget is tight then you may need to choose something less ornate and inventive.
Images above from SpiralUK
Architects are able to design staircases on your behalf, or you can approach a joinery company or specialist manufacturer with your own bespoke design. Alternatively, you may choose to purchase from a larger manufacturer, with elements such as the number of treads customised to fit the space and a range of finishes on offer. A number of companies offer calculators and design software on their websites which allow you to input measurements and preferences for an instant online quote. If you decide to take this route, and the company doesn’t offer a measuring service, then you will need to ensure accuracy to avoid costly mistakes.
As a lower cost option, starting at a few hundred pounds, many builder’s merchants will stock flat-packed staircase kits which should be simple to assemble and install. These may always be painted or customised with a different handrail as long as Building Regulations aren’t compromised.
Think about who will use the stairs, both now and in the future, and consider issues such as storage and lighting.
Do you want open or glass risers, to ensure the space below the staircase remains well-lit and usable, or would you prefer built-in storage in the form of a cupboard or drawers?
Consider whether artificial lighting will be incorporated into your staircase and in what form, as there are various options to choose from, such as LED lights set into the string, stairs or handrail.
Lighting can be used for dramatic effect on otherwise standard stairs.
Timber is still the most popular choice for staircases as it may be painted, stained or oiled, and is versatile and relatively inexpensive, with softwood usually proving more economical than hardwood. It’s also possible to clad timber stairs in a variety of materials, just check that they are suitable in terms of weight and non-slip qualities.
Glass balustrades are now frequently specified for contemporary homes, but entire staircases may also be made in glass – although this won’t be a budget option. Metal stairs can be bold and industrial or delicate and ornate and are often used for spiral staircases or combined with timber.
Stone and concrete staircases are becoming more popular in this country, with concrete often precast in sections and then assembled on site. These are costly options, but the results will last a lifetime and be solid underfoot.
Concrete is sound- and rot-proof. It is also fireproof. A variety of finishes can be applied such as plaster for strings and soffit, stone, marble, carpet, and tiles to treads and risers.
To eliminate disruption caused by on-site formwork, pre-cast concrete stairs, such as these from Kallistostairs (pictured) are made in a factory.
When budgeting for a staircase remember to allow funds for the fixings and installation. Installing a staircase is an option for competent DIY-ers but, as a badly installed staircase can prove a risk to life, it will usually be tackled by a professional builder, joiner or specialist company.
Checks should be made at every stage of the installation process to ensure that fire protection of the stair, or the fire compartmentation of the surrounding building fabric, isn’t compromised.
A new free installation guide from the British Woodworking Federation Stair Scheme discusses how to install a timber staircase properly, focusing on factors such as planning delivery to ensure the minimum time of site storage. The stairs will need to be supported until all the fixings to the surrounding structure are in place, with sufficient stiffness provided from the fixings to ensure safe installation.
Balustrade is the term used for a combination of handrail (banister), spindles, newels and the baserail, which accommodates the base of spindles and the top of the string. When together, these form the railing system that encloses one or both sides of a staircase. Standard handrails are interrupted by newel posts and caps but handrails can also pass continuously over the newel posts.
Walls, parapets, balustrades or similar can provide guarding to a staircase.
Children should not be readily able to climb staircase guarding (for example, on horizontal rails), or be held fast in them: a 100mm sphere should not be able to pass through any opening. Handrail tops should be at least 900mm above the floor; fixed to one side for stairs less than one metre in width and on both sides for wider stairs.
Steel and glass balustrades are currently popular in contemporary homes, allowing light to pass through and illuminate the stairs as well as maximising views.