Location Of Stairs Essential To Overall Design

Locating the staircase is a critical first step in laying out a successful plan. When located poorly the stair will interfere with the spaces it adjoins and create awkward circulation patterns throughout the home. When located well the stair can become one of the most dynamic and interesting places in the house.

In general the stair should be more or less centralized to the plan and readily visible to the occupants. It might rise comfortably out of a living space, slide neatly up the side of a corridor or act as a focal point in the plan but in all cases should clarify rather than confuse the circulation. It is an essential component for movement within the house.

The stair has always been a favorite device for movie directors and for good reason. Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett up the grand staircase in “Gone With the Wind” or the truly terrifying ‘spider-walk’ scene cut from the original “The Exorcist” provoke an intense response from the viewer. The vertical movement captured in these scenes demonstrates the power of the stair to create drama. It can elicit other emotions as well, as the young child spying on her parents from the landing or the overdue teen sneaking upstairs at night can attest. Architects understand this and design the stair with its own sense of place rather than as simply a means of getting from one floor to the next.

On a pragmatic level it’s important to understand that the staircase occupies a volume two stories high. One of the most common mistakes made by first year architectural students is designing a stair that runs itself into the upper floor. Laying it out is not as obvious as it seems. When thinking about the relationship of the step height to its depth (the riser height to tread depth) use the formula RISER + TREAD = 17 ½”. There are building code limitations at the extremes of height and depth but this rule of thumb is very helpful most of the time.

Here are a few ways to create a more interesting and dramatic staircase.

  • Introduce an interior window that links spaces internally and enhances the feeling of level change.
  • Place the stair near the entry where the added height created by the stair volume will enhance the feeling of grandeur.
  • Create a window seat on a stair landing. The landing forms a natural stopping point and lends itself as a perfect “get away” spot.
  • Place a skylight above your stair. The light that washes over the stair will carry right down through the house.
  • Let an open staircase run down the side of a room. It will create a dynamic between the room and the stair itself and make the room seem larger.
  • Use the walls that abut the ends of the stair as feature walls for artwork and sculpture.

By giving some thought to the design and location of your stair, the homeowner will find that the simple device that allows you move from one level to the next can become an interesting and memorable place of its own.