Monday, January 9, 2017


 Grand Staircase of the Paris Opera House or "Palais Garnier".
(Architect: Charles Garnier. Completed 1875)
From medieval times all the way up to World War II, the staircase was the focal design element in a multistory house. Stairs were built in myriad forms, from U- and T-shaped plans to curving and circular ones and even, in one case, as double spirals nested one inside the other.

Following World War II, interior architecture became increasingly ascetic, due both to the rise of Modernism and the need to build postwar tract homes as quickly and cheaply as possible. Staircases became unimaginative functional elements that were often completely enclosed, or else guarded by flimsy iron railings.

Curved stairs made a comeback during the 1970s,
when tract builders noticed that they
seemed to spark buyer interest.
During the 1970s, however, developers began to notice that homes with unusual staircases, such as curved ones, seemed to sell faster.  The public had spoken with its pocketbook, builders responded, and  today a bold staircase once again forms the focal point of many interiors.

Here are a few ways to make your own stairs worthy of Scarlett O’Hara:

•  The stair configuration is the most important aspect of a staircase’s design. Straight stairs are space-efficient, but are generally less dramatic (and more dangerous) than L- or U-shaped stairs with an intermediate landing. Landings also provide an opportunity for overlooks or seating that can add great spatial interest.

 • Stairs should be as broad as space allows. Three feet is the minimum width prescribed by code, but anything more is a big improvement.  If you don’t have the space to make the entire staircase wide, create an illusion of width by using wide treads up to the first landing and narrower ones thereafter. At the bottom of the stairs, try using a “ bullnose” step that’s broader and “spills out” into the room. The bullnose furthers the illusion of added width, and its funneling effect makes the staircase more welcoming.  .  

 The bottom "bullnose" tread of this staircase gives an illusion
of additional width. The convex forward bulge
gives a more dynamic and welcoming appearance.
Another visual trick is to make the bottom few treads “bulge” forward in an increasingly convex shape, which further intensifies the dramatic “spilling” effect. Both of these effects are relatively inexpensive if the stair will be completely carpeted; however, if hardwood is used, they can add appreciable cost.

•  Balusters—the vertical elements of the rail—shouldn’t be spindly and insubstantial. A wide range of sturdy wood balusters are available at lumber and hardwood dealers; many of them are designed to work with stock hardwood handrails and don’t require a lot of custom joinery. Metal balusters, too, can be specified in heavier sizes, and can be spiraled or have additional elements welded between them.

The newel post can be an artistic statement
in itself. Just mind the various code
requirements for baluster spacing
and rail height.
Remember that the space between balusters must be such that a 4” diameter sphere cannot pass through. The handrail must be between 34” and 38” above the nosing (the front edge) of the stair treads, and the rail itself must have a grippable shape between 1 1/2 inches and 2 inches in diameter.

• Adding a substantial newel post (the terminal baluster at the top and bottom of the stair rail) not only makes the rail sturdier, but also gives it a more monumental look. For a traditional effect, add a finial to the newel post.  There are lots of styles available at lumberyards, from spheres to acorns to pineapples.

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