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Staircase Design Guide: All You Need to Know

Glass box staircase design from Bisca
(Image credit: Bisca)

The perfect staircase design should take practicality, style and safety into account. Your staircase has a prominent position in the home and is used frequently, so whether you are renovating an existing staircase or building a new one, you will need to carefully consider its size, layout and material as well as ensuring that the final design is in line with the requirements laid out in the Building Regulations.

This complete guide to staircase design will not only highlight the regulations you need to keep in mind, the best size, location and layout for your staircase, but also the benefits of the various materials available to you.

We’ve also included a handy list of staircase anatomy so you’ll know your nosing from your riser!

Staircase Regulations in the UK

Given the safety implications, make sure you are aware of Building Regulations requirements for staircases when thinking about your design.

  • 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)

How Big Should a Staircase Be?

The first thing you need to determine is what size your staircase needs to be. Begin by measuring the total rise. This is the measurement from the finished floor below to the finished floor level above.

You will then need to work out 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.

X-Vision staircase in Black Walnut from Stairplan

The X-Vision in Black Walnut from Stairplan has a modern central spine, toughened glass balustrade and classically proportioned treads (with the option of the glass recessed into the treads available) (Image credit: Stairplan)

A typical rise is 2,600mm, which divides easily into 13 200mm risers, or steps. Now you need to calculate the number of treads. Generally you require one less tread than the 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)

There are no restrictions when it comes to width, but standard flights measure 860mm, and for a main staircase it is agreed that a width of between 800mm and 900mm works best. For secondary staircases a minimum width of 600mm is recommended.

Where Should I Locate the Staircase?

It is generally accepted that the base of a staircase is best located 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.

Which Layout Should I Choose for my Staircase Design?

In many situations a straight staircase won’t fit in the house, or simply won’t work with the design scheme.

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.

Spiral staircases are not the most practical feature, making it hard to take furniture up and down and often being more expensive than standard flights. However, they can look fantastic and are useful where space is limited.

Helical staircase for small spaces

Designed to make the most of a small space, this slim, helical staircase from Bisca features a recessed handrail to increase the usable width of the stairs (Image credit: Bisca)

Editor’s note: If you’re after information to help choose a staircase vendor that’s right for you, fill in the questionnaire below and we can provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

What Features Can I Incorporate into my Staircase Design?

If you are adding a brand new staircase, it is a great opportunity to add any more unusual design features that could not only improve the staircase itself, but also how you interact with the rest of your home.

Choose from more practical features, such as integrated storage or glass elements to help the flow of natural light around the staircase, to more aesthetic characteristics, such as wow-factor balustrades, extra width or even a staircase pod.

Incorporating Storage into Your Staircase Design

Staircases with storage capability are a great way to make the most of your 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 Stairs

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.

Victorian-style stair stickers from Purlfrost

These Victorian-style 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)

Lighting Your Staircase Design

A badly-designed staircase is one that suffers from a total lack of light, either natural or artificial, but sadly this is a common problem, with staircases often being located in the centre of the house away from main windows.

Good ways to allow light through to your staircase include:

  • using fanlights above doors, both internal and external, to bring light into the base of the staircase
  • inserting a rooflight above the stairwell
  • or using a lightpipe — a useful way to bring light to staircases in terraced homes or where space is tight.

Concealed strip lighting incorporated into staircase design

(Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

Use artificial lighting to turn your staircase into even more of a feature. Although including practical lighting at the top and bottom of the staircase – controlled by a two-way switch – is a good idea, using LED lights set into the string, handrail or even the stairs themselves is a fantastic way of showing off your new flight.

(MOREClever Lighting Design Ideas for Your Home)

Introducing Natural Light

Consider how to draw natural light into your stairwell. A large window running alongside the stairs, a roof lantern or rooflights in the ceiling above, or even a glass balustrade that allows light to flow from one floor to another all work.

Glass spindles staircase

For a contemporary yet understated look, consider glass spindles. This design from Neville Johnson uses glass spindles fixed directly into a rebated base rail, making up part of the oak staircase (Image credit: Neville Johnson)

Choosing Timber for Your Staircase Design

Wood makes a fantastic staircase material as it is so versatile in the looks you can create. Wooden staircases for traditional homes should be quite substantial, with rounded stair nosing, turned balusters and carved newel posts. Contemporary timber staircases often consist of nothing more than chunky wooden treads that cantilever out from a wall.

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 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 and Acrylic Staircase Designs

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 Staircases

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.

Steel staircase

Steel staircases can be really impactful in uber-contemporary spaces (Image credit: getty images)

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

Stone and Concrete Staircases

Stone or concrete staircases 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

Buying a Staircase

More often than not, people spot a staircase they like the look of and wonder where to get one like it. Unfortunately it is not as simple as 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 this magazine 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, say, a more decorative handrail or even a runner.

Anatomy of a Staircase

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)

Staircase Glossary

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.