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Staircase Design: Complete Guide to Getting it Right

staircase design
(Image credit: Neville Johnson)

When it comes to staircase design, there are a number of factors to take into consideration.  

In particular, size, configuration and the materials you use in your staircase design will need to be planned out — as well as ensuring the final design meets the current requirements of the Building Regulations.

Our expert guide to staircase design will not only give you all the information you need to ensure you are sticking to the relevant regulations, but will also advise you on the best size, location, style and layout for your staircase, as well as the various materials you might like to consider. Plus, if you are wondering who will build and fit your staircase, we've got that covered too.

Finally, the technical jargon used to describe stair parts can be tricky to decipher— so we’ve included a handy diagram to help. 

(MORE: Get a quote for your new staircase)

Staircase Building Regulations UK

When it comes to staircase design you really do need to familiarise yourself with Approved Document K of the Building Regulations. Staircases have the potential to be safety hazards if not designed properly. If you are buying from a staircase specialist they will be able to advise you — as will your architect or builder. 

  • Staircases should have a maximum rise of 220mm and a minimum going of 220mm
  • They should have a maximum pitch of 42°
  • Flights should have a handrail on at least one side if they are less than one metre wide and on both sides if they are wider than this
  • Handrails on stairs and landings should have a minimum height of 900mm
  • No openings of any balustrading should allow the passage of a 100mm sphere
  • A minimum of 2,000mm of clear headroom is required above the pitch line
  • For further Regulations see Approved Document K (available to buy from planningportal.co.uk)

Stair Parts Explained

Anatomy of a staircase diagram

1. Handrail; 2. Newel; 3. Baluster; 4. String capping; 5. Nosing; 6. Closed string; 7. Cut string; 8. Carriage; 9. Tread; 10. Riser (Image credit: Homebuilding & Renovating)

What Size Should my Staircase Be?

Your starting point in your staircase design should be size. 

In order to work out what size staircase you will need, begin by measuring the total rise. This is the measurement from the finished floor below to the finished floor level above.

You can then calculate the number of risers required. To stay within Building Regulations, a domestic staircase needs a rise of between 190mm and 220mm. Standard risers are around 200mm, so aim for this.

staircase design

This staircase in a contemporary self build features open treads and glass balustrade to ensure light can flow freely between storeys.  (Image credit: Nigel Rigden)

The average rise is 2,600mm, which divides easily into 13 200mm risers, or steps. 

You can now calculate the number of treads. In general you will need one less tread than the total number of risers. 

Next, work out the ‘going’. This is the measurement from the face of one riser to the next.

To comply with the Regulations, the minimum going should be 220mm, whilst the pitch of the staircase should not exceed 42°.

Anatomy of a stair

(Image credit: Homebuilding & Renovating)

When it comes to the width of your staircase, there are no restrictions, but standard flights measure 860mm, and for a main staircase it is agreed that a width of between 800mm and 900mm works best. 

A minimum staircase width of 600mm is recommended for secondary staircases.

The Best Position for a Staircase

The best place for a staircase varies from house to house and should be based on your own layout. 

In general, the best place for the base of a staircase is viewed as being somewhere  near to the front door and that, if possible, you should not have to cross another room to reach the stairs from the front door. 

This is vital if there is a third storey to the house, as the stairs will have to act as a fire escape route.

You should also consider the way in which your new staircase design will work with the natural light entering your home — avoid positioning the new staircase in such a way that it will block any flow of light. 

Different Staircase Configurations

Straight staircases are not always the best option — sometimes they don't fit or  simply won’t work with the interior design scheme.

In these cases, you will need to think about alternative ways that your staircase can get you between floors. The most usual way to do this is by incorporating one or two, or a series of, turns.

Staircase terminology

Incorporating turns into your staircase design. 1. Half landing; 2. Quarter landing; 3. Quarter landing with winder; 4. Straight flight (Image credit: Homebuilding & Renovating)

When turns are required in a staircase, the simplest option is to split the flight in two and connect them with a 90° quarter turn landing. If you were to use a 180° turn it would be known as a half landing.

Full height spindle staircase

This staircase design by Granit Architects features a half landing and a hand-formed, full-height wrought iron balustrade (Image credit: Granit Architects)

Steps that turn corners whilst climbing are called ‘winders’ and are often used to navigate 90° turns. 

A turn consisting of three winders is known as a ‘kite winder’. These are often used at the top and bottom of flights to get round corners.

Whilst spiral staircases can be a useful feature where space is very limited, do bear in mind that they are often better as secondary staircases as they are hard to get large items such as furniture up and down.  

staircase design

Give some careful thought to how you will light your new staircase design — a lighting scheme from John Cullen really emphasises the contemporary elements of this staircase.  (Image credit: John Cullen)

Editor’s note: Homebuilding.co.uk partners with the UK's best staircase design specialists to match your requirements with their products and services. 

Simply answer a few questions on what you need from your staircase and we’ll put you in touch with a suitable partner.

Staircase Design: Features to Include

staircase design

Put the space under your staircase to good use — who doesn't need more home office space these days. This design, from Neville Johnson, makes the most of every inch available.  (Image credit: Neville Johnson)

To ensure your staircase design meets all your needs, both from a visual point of view as well as a practical perspective, consider incorporating a couple of design features that might not always come as standard.  

Consider whether your new staircase could incorporate some storage, or whether some of its elements could feature glazing to increase the amount of natural light entering your layout, for example.  

Staircase Storage

Staircases with storage are a great way to make the most of available space. Definitely one up from the understairs cupboard, this bespoke staircase by Bisca incorporates a run of cupboards made from solid wood, combined with a toughened low-iron glass balustrade and stainless steel rails.

Staircase with incorporated storage

Bespoke staircase from Bisca (Image credit: Bisca)

Extra-wide Staircase Design

The owners of this house, designed by Granit Architects, wanted a staircase with wow factor so the existing staircase was replaced with an oversized stone and timber design. Italian limestone has been teamed with dark stained oak, with the lower treads extended to full width in order to create space for displaying artwork and books. It could even be used as a seating area.

Extra wide staircase design by Granit Architects

(Image credit: Granit Architects)

Staircase Pod

This staircase pod was a design response to both budget restrictions and the large open plan spaces in this barn conversion.The ‘pod’ has been created using OSB, with the staircase within leading to a mezzanine level — slot ‘windows’ ensure the space is not dark.

OSB pod-style staircase design

(Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

For a speedy and inexpensive transformation, consider stair stickers or paint.  If you plan on painting your stairs, make sure you use a product designed for that purpose.

staircase design

These boldly-coloured stair stickers from Purlfrost cost £12.25 per step and are easily applied, yet have a huge impact on the appearance of the staircase (Image credit: Purlfrost)

Check out more inspirational staircase ideas

Lights for Staircases

In some situations it can be hard to pull in natural light to staircases, particularly where they are located in the centre of the house away from any windows. 

Yet, even in gloomy spots of the house there are usually ways to draw in light to your staircase design. Methods to consider include: 

  • Fanlights above doors, both internal and external, to bring light into the base of the staircase
  • A rooflight or lantern located directly above the stairwell
  • A lightpipe — a useful way to bring light to staircases in terraced homes or where space is tight.
  • A full-height or large window located on a half-landing or at the top of the staircase

staircase design

Use LEDs to highlight the staircase design to full effect. This lighting scheme uses products from John Cullen Lighting(Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

You should also think about how you will use artificial lights to illuminate your staircase. Not only is it necessary on a practical level, but lighting can also be used to highlight a staircase's design, really bringing its form and smaller details to life. 

At the absolute minimum, include lighting at the top and bottom of the staircase – controlled by a two-way switch. Y

You might also like to consider using LED lights set into the string, handrail or even the stairs themselves — a fantastic way of showing off your new flight.

Uplighters and wall-washers will add a whole new dimension to your stairwell as a whole — whilst a dramatic pendant hanging towards the top of the staircase will really add wow factor. 

(MOREClever Lighting Design Ideas)

staircase design

Using both glass balustrades as well as placing a large full-height window at the top of the staircases, ensures the whole flight is flooded with natural light.  (Image credit: Nigel Rigden)

Which Timber is Best for a Staircase?

Wood is a versatile material that is a brilliant choice when it comes to staircase design. 

Wooden staircases for traditional homes tend to be characterised by their substantial nature, rounded stair nosing, turned balusters and carved newel posts. However, timber can also be used in contemporary staircase design where it is often seen in the form of  chunky wooden treads that cantilever out from a wall.

Timber combines well with glass and stone well too. 

At the cheaper end of the market lie softwoods such as pine and hemlock, both of which are brilliant for staircases. Hardwoods such as oak, walnut and ash will be more expensive but offer a very durable and beautiful finish. Some people combine different timbers, using a hardwood for the treads and a softwood for the balustrade. 

Glass box staircase design from Bisca

This Bisca design features American walnut and glass – materials which are reflected in the adjacent kitchen. The staircase is supported by two glass walls and also features a glass ‘dog gate’ (Image credit: Bisca)

Pros: Wood is strong, versatile, easy to work with and has a timeless look.


Cons: Very few, hence it being such a popular material. Though dark and heavy wood can, in some cases, be overbearing when used for such a central feature.


Costs: The cheapest option is engineered pine or plywood — ideal for a fully carpeted staircase and painted balustrading. These can be bought from around £500. Next up is parana pine, readily available and fairly cost-effective. This is often combined with hemlock, a good choice for balustrading due to its stability. Hardwoods, such as beech, ash and oak, are more expensive, varying from two times the cost of softwood up to five times the cost.

Glass Staircases

Not only do glass staircases allow light to flow easily both between rooms and levels in a house, but they also add a touch of contemporary glamour.

Aalco Glass Step transparent glass stairway system

(Image credit: Aalco)

Pros: It’s strong, being made up of two or three layers laminated together. Perfect for contemporary interiors.


Cons: Acrylic can be prone to surface scratches and as a flammable material cannot be used for staircases that will be fire escape routes.


Costs: They rarely come cheap, particularly if buying from specialists. The key to a low-cost yet striking staircase is to combine materials and be clever when choosing your supplier. Having a local glassworks make panels for your balustrading before combining them with a softwood staircase made by a joiner, for example, will work out to be cheaper than going to a specialist.

Metal Staircase Balustrades 

Metal staircases have now made the transition from being seen as purely industrial features, to the home. They are less heavy in their appearance than timber.

staircase design

Metal balustrades have been combined with timber elements for an eye-catching end result on this staircase from Richard Burbidge (Image credit: Richard Burbidge)

Pros: Perfect for spiral or straight flights, they look great paired with glass balustrades or even wire mesh or tension wires


Cons: Badly designed metal staircases can look overly industrial


Costs: Components can now be bought off the shelf, with full timber and metal staircases coming to as little as £500-600

Using Stone and Concrete for a Staircase

Stone staircases, or those made from concrete, can be traditional – think grand sweeping stone flights – or contemporary in the form of industrial-style simplicity. Concrete stairs are usually supplied precast in sections to be assembled on site.

Pros: The perfect way to create a sense of solidity


Cons: Expensive. May have to wait a while for them to be made


Costs: Variable. They can be expensive, starting at around £10,000. An alternative is to clad existing stairs with stone panels

How do I Buy a Staircase ?

Unfortunately, buying a staircase is not a simple case of walking into a staircase shop and pointing to the one you want.

It is often the case that the striking staircases that grace the pages of magazines have been custom-made rather than bought off the shelf, designed by the house designer or architect, or sometimes by the owners themselves. However, there are specialist staircase companies out there who will also design and make a staircase.

Those aiming to stick to a budget are well advised to ask a local joiner – or the joiner already working on their project – to help them with a design.

Once you have a design it is entirely possible to buy a staircase from a DIY warehouse or timber merchant – assuming the sizes you require are fairly standard – and then customise it yourself with the addition of a decorative handrail, stair paint or even a distinctive runner.

It is also possible now to develop and order staircases online. Companies such as Stairbox allow you to build up a design using their 'Online Designer' and add the parts required to your basket as you go.

Staircase Glossary

staircase design

Timber and glass make a great pairing when it comes to staircase design, combining classic and contemporary. They look particularly stylish in this oak frame self-build by Oakwrights(Image credit: Oakwrights Copyright Richard Keily)
Editor's Note

H&R often gets asked how some homeowners seemingly get away without having balustrades. The simple answer is, we might occasionally photograph a house before it gets a completion certificate. We emphasise that staircases are one area where you should never compromise on safety.

Going The horizontal distance between one step and the next, measured from the nosing to the nosing. Building Regs specify a minimum distance of 220mm to a maximum of 300mm.

Nosing The edge of the tread which projects beyond the riser.

Rise The vertical distance from the top of the tread to the top of the next one. Building Regs specify a minimum distance of 150mm to a maximum of 220mm. The total rise is the vertical distance from the floor to the floor of the level above.

Riser The board that forms the face of the step.

Tread The top section of an individual step on which you walk.

Balustrading Describes the combination of the spindles, handrail and newel posts on a staircase. Often it is these elements which give the staircase its character — they can transform an off-the-shelf flight into something special. Timber, glass, metal and even stud walls can all form balustrading.