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Although we tend to take them for granted, stairs can have a surprisingly big impact on the look and feel of our homes. An attractive, well-designed staircase can give the whole property a lift, adding instant appeal and even increasing its resale value. Shabby stairs, on the other hand, are likely to have the opposite effect.
But how do you go about planning for a new staircase? Follow these simple steps:
1. Measure the height
Before ordering your stairs, you need to determine how much space is available. Start by finding out the floor-to-floor height. This involves measuring from the top of the finished lower floor to the top of the finished upper floor. The term ‘finished floor’, by the way, refers to the surface you walk on and includes any floor covering such as carpet or laminate. Once the staircase manufacturer has this information, they can work out how many steps are needed to create well-proportioned stairs that comply with UK building regulations.
2. Measure the width
Having established the height, you now have to find out the width. This comprises the total measurement across the strings and steps combined. (Strings, also called stringers, are structural supporting boards running along each side of the staircase.) Unless you’re designing a house from scratch, the width of the stairs will be determined by the current space available.
If you have any choice, go for the widest steps that will fit. A broad staircase is safer, easier to use and more practical, particularly in large family homes. While there is no legal minimum width in the UK, the standard figure is 860mm, so try not to make your stairs narrower than that.
3. Straight or winding?
As for the layout of the staircase, a single straight flight of stairs is the easiest and most economical option, as long as you have enough floor space. L-shaped and U-shaped stairs that twist back on themselves are widely considered to look more attractive. However, they tend to be more complicated, and therefore more costly.
To create a turn in the staircase so it can change direction, you will need winder treads or a landing – or a combination of both. A winder is a kite-shaped or triangular tread which is used to create a turn in an otherwise straight staircase.
A landing is an intermediate platform set between floor levels to join flights of stairs together. It might consist of a quarter landing (the width of a single flight of stairs) which makes a 90 degree turn in the staircase, or a half landing (the width of two flights of stairs) which creates a turn of 180 degrees, giving a U shape.
4. Treads and risers – open or closed?
The steps are made up of treads – the part that you walk on – and risers – vertical boards that form the face of each step. Risers can be open (with gaps between the treads) or closed (encased with solid boards). Open risers are particularly popular in modern homes as they increase the flow of light. However, young children and elderly residents may find them a little challenging.
Many people like to add one or two feature steps at the foot of the stairs for extra impact. Various combinations are available, including single or double D end shapes and more softly rounded bullnose steps.
5. String style
The strings, or stringers, can be closed or open. A closed – also called solid – string runs up both sides of the staircase and completely envelops the treads and risers, concealing the edge of the stairs from view. An open, or cut, string has the upper edge machined away so that the outline of the steps is visible from the side. This style is more complex to make, and therefore more expensive, than a closed string design, but is widely considered more desirable.
6. New newels?
Newel posts are upright supports that anchor the handrails, treads and strings of the staircase, forming an essential part of its structure – so don’t rip them out unless absolutely necessary. They come in a variety of designs and may consist of a single post, known as a plain newel, or a shaped piece of timber (a newel turning) attached to a separate base. If you are only revamping your stairs rather than installing new ones, you would be wise to retain the existing posts and just change the newel caps for a fresh look.
7. How many spindles?
Spindles, or balusters, are the vertical supports that connect the handrail to the rest of the balustrade. As they are such a conspicuous feature they can have a huge influence over the look and feel of a staircase, so give your selection plenty of thought. You don’t necessarily have to stick to just one style of spindle – try mixing and matching two designs for something a bit different. Glass panels are also a great way of creating a light and airy feel.
As a general rule of thumb, you need two spindles per tread, or one where there is a newel post on a landing. Most stair manufacturers will be able to help you work out how many spindles or panels are required.
8. Handrail hints
Under UK rules your staircase needs a handrail on at least one side if it is narrower than 1m, and on both sides if it is wider than this. Many people prefer to fit one anyway, for ease of use. Most handrails run between the newel posts (known as a post-to-post system), but on some stairs you can choose to have them flowing over the tops of the posts (an over-the-post system). You may also want a wall-mounted handrail, particularly if you have children.