The term ‘balustrading’ refers to stair banisters in their entirety: the set of balusters (spindles), the handrail and the newel post at the end. Each element offers an opportunity for creating a unique touch, which is so important in contemporary homes, where open plan living gives stairs more dominance.
The most popular modern device is to use glass to keep the look light and open. On a cantilevered staircase, where the treads are only supported by the wall, it also allows the treads to appear ‘floating’. A similar look can be achieved with steel wires. The danger with glass is that it is all too easy to end up creating a ‘shopping centre’ feel, especially when using steel handrails, so consider timber rails or just ensure the glass is as seamless as possible. Acrylic can be used as an alternative to glass.
A plaster, concrete or stone baluster can offer a sense of comforting solidity and looks especially fantastic on curved staircases, finished with a wooden or metal handrail. Also consider stainless steel balustrading for a touch of industrial chic.
You can opt for wood in a contemporary home, but keep it simple and let the grain and colour of the wood speak for itself.
The staircase serves as a good indicator of the house’s period, so if building old, you must research your chosen era as there were so many styles, from Georgian squared spindles with a sweeping mahogany handrail to more intricately carved barley twists and feature newel posts. If renovating you should attempt to emulate what was there before, unless it was a poor example. If your property is listed, you will require listed building consent before making any changes.
Traditionally, timber was most commonly used for balustrading but opt for quality: delicately carved spindles do look wonderful, but quickly turned clumsy ones don’t — see previous work before committing to a joiner. Popular timbers include pine and hemlock, along with lighter hardwoods such as oak, ash and beech.
If timber isn’t right for your property, consider steel or cast iron — several manufacturers specialise in welding beautifully ornate designs.
There is no need to buy balustrading from the same manufacturer as the staircase, although a joiner or specialist can supply both. To get exactly what you want you may need to purchase it separately and get it bespokely made up — as is often the case with contemporary designs that include different materials (although some companies such as Bisca specialise in offering a complete product). You may even need to buy components from several suppliers, such as glass and steel. To do this can greatly add to the overall cost, which varies widely — you could get balustrading priced with the staircase, buy a kit for a couple of hundred or even spend thousands specifying unique components. The choice is yours.
You may have seen open-sided staircases in magazines with no balustrading at all, but although it can look impressive it is not actually legal, and it is likely that the owner simply hasn’t had the house signed off yet for Building Regulations. Balustrading is not just there for aesthetics — it is a safety device that will give you a feeling of security every time you climb. The Building Regulations state that flights must have handrails on at least one side if they are less than one metre in width, and on both if they are any wider, but must be guarded on both sides; a 100mm sphere should not be able to pass through any openings in the guards. Handrails should be between 900-1,000mm from the ground.