5 elements you need in your architecture plan for a modern staircase design

stairs in hickson residence

Houses with two or more storeys have become increasingly popular in recent years due to a range of factors like smaller lot sizes in housing subdivisions, the desire of homeowners to preserve as much yard space as possible, and an attractive view from an elevated position. 

Today, a two storey house is regarded as a standard and acceptable solution. For these reasons, stairs within a house have become an increasingly important item and one which demands appropriate design consideration by the owners.

There are a range of elements you need to consider in your house plan to accommodate a modern staircase design. In this blog, we share five essentials to consider and discuss with an experienced Architect to ensure your staircase meets your needs and design requirements. 

Consideration #1: Purpose

In older houses, the stairs were purely regarded as a means of getting from one floor to another. In traditional terrace houses in particular, the stairs were very steep, narrow, and often quite dark. These stairs also usually suffered from a low head room or clearance, particularly when attempting to move furniture in and out of a house.

In contemporary houses, the stairs are seen as an important element linking the two floors physically and spatially. When located near the entry, it is an element that is seen by every visitor to a house. 

In some houses, the stairs will serve as the principal access to living areas located on an upper storey, so the stairs are used not only by the occupants of the house but also all the friends and relatives who visit.

Stairs are an opportunity to create an exciting vertical space within the house. Depending on how the stair is designed, there may be a void or open area which allows views up or down from one level to another, or to a desirable external outlook. 

The stairs are usually centrally located within a house, so this gives the opportunity to bring natural daylight into the centre of the house, benefiting areas that otherwise would not receive light. 

These measures help a house feel more open and spacious.

Consideration #2: Ease of use

With the stairs used multiple times every day by the occupants, they must be comfortable and easy to use. This is particularly relevant with our aging population. 

Owners do not want to be forced to leave their houses because the stairs are too difficult to use. 

The height of the steps (or risers) and the width of the treads (or goings) will determine the ease of use. The maximum and minimum dimensions for the goings and risers are stipulated in the Building Code of Australia.

There is also a ratio that can be calculated so the stairs fall within a safe and comfortable range. All the risers and goings in a stair must be uniform and consistent throughout the flight to prevent tripping.

Steep stairs are difficult and dangerous to use – likewise, stairs that are too shallow are equally difficult to negotiate. 

The Building Code of Australia also stipulates the maximum number of risers that can be included in a stair. By setting the maximum number of steps, the Building Code of Australia is ensuring fatigue does not become a factor which can make stairs dangerous and difficult, particularly for older people or those in poor health.

Consideration #3: Design

The design of the stairs can be approached from a number of different perspectives. 

Sometimes a particular type of stair is the owner’s preference and the spaces around the stairs are designed to accommodate the particular stair arrangement. 

In other cases, the planning of the house will dictate an area where the stairs are best located, the size of this area will determine the arrangement of the stairs. 

In other situations, the height between the various floors and therefore the length of the stair flights, may dictate a particular stair layout.

The stairs can be either of the following standard types or a combination of these types:

  • A single straight flight
  • A dog leg or stair that turns 180º with a landing at mid-flight
  • 90º stairs i.e. stairs with one or more 90º turns
  • Winders i.e. wedge-shaped treads that enable the stair to turn as it rises in height
  • Spiral stairs.

All of these stairs have advantages and disadvantages. 

The best design for any particular situation is the stair which best suits the space available and takes maximum advantage of the opportunities for introducing interesting vertical spaces within the house, making the journey from one storey to another interesting, rather than relegating the stairs to a purely utilitarian function.

Depending on the design of the stairs, the stair may have solid or closed risers, so the space beneath the stairs can be used for storage and is closed from view. 

Alternatively, a stair may have open risers so it is possible to see through the stair, creating an appearance of lighter, floating stairs. The pictures accompanying this blog illustrate the different types of stairs, closed or open, and different materials for the stairs and balustrade construction.

Consideration #4: Materials & finishings

The materials used for the stair structure, the risers and goings, and the balustrades needs to be considered in terms of the overall interior design scheme of the house and also the configuration of the stairs. 

Stair geometry can be complicated, particularly when there are turns and landings mid-flight. This can create awkward junctions not only of the stairs but also the balustrades. Therefore, the selection of the materials and finishes needs to bear this in mind.

The stairs will start at one level and arrive at another level. If the floor finishes of the two levels is different, this may influence the decision for the stair finish. Mixing several floor finishes and a different finish for the stairs can create an unfortunate appearance. 

The materials used for stairs in most houses include timber, ceramic tiles, carpet, or painted steel. Again, each of these finishes has advantages and disadvantages – the owner must choose what is most appropriate for their particular house.

Another consideration for the stair finish is ensuring the surface is non-slip. For example, with polished timber stairs, a special non-slip finish is applied to meet the requirements of the Building Code of Australia.

Consideration #5: Supports

The stairs may be built with support beams called strings on both sides (e.g. against the walls) or on one side only (e.g. around an open stairwell). 

Another increasingly popular support is a centre beam beneath the stairs to create a “floating” stair appearance. The support beams or strings may be constructed from timber or steel, there are various profiles for steel members that can be used depending on the detail required.

Closely related to the choice of the stair structure and support is the type of balustrade that will be provided. Again, there are many choices from polished stainless steel, stainless steel wires, aluminium rails of various types, and glass (either frameless or within aluminium, stainless steel or timber framing). 

These different balustrade materials may be used in combination – for example, stainless steel balusters supporting a timber handrail, or timber balusters serving as a framework for tensioned stainless steel wires. 

There are rules under the Building Code of Australia regarding the safety of the balustrade to prevent accidental falls. The general rule is that the spaces between the openings in a balustrade should not be greater than 125mm. 

Generally, in domestic situations, the balusters may be either vertical balusters or horizontal rails. The main criteria is that the opening between this framing is not greater than 125mm.

Talk to an experienced Architect about the right stair options for your new home

When designing a house, the Architect and Client will discuss many aspects of the interior design from kitchens to bathrooms, living areas, built-in cupboards, wardrobes etc. Where the house has several levels served by stairs, the stairs will receive particular consideration. 

By working through various options and reviewing photos of different stairs, the owner will be able to decide what best suits their house. The Architect would then prepare a detailed construction drawing setting out the stairs and showing the construction, materials and the details of the balustrades.

As noted earlier, the stair geometry can be quite complicated which warrants the preparation of a detailed drawing so that any conflicts can be resolved and to ensure that the stairs when installed will meet the Owners expectations.

As with many other aspects of the design of a house, the stairs are an opportunity to create functional and convenient access and at the same time, an element that is attractive and interesting that contributes to Owners enjoyment of living within their house.

Mark Lawler Architects are experts in modern staircase design. Talk to our team about stairs in your architecture plans today.



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