Practicalities: When and where do I buy a staircase?

I’ve see a design, but where to get it from? 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.

But I have a small budget… 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.

ABOVE: The anatomy of a staircase – 1. Handrail; 2. Newel; 3. Baluster; 4. String capping; 5. Nosing; 6. Closed string; 7. Cut string; 8. Carriange; 9. Tread; 10. Riser.

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Design

Getting the Size Right: 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. 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°. 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.

Straight, Turned or Spiral? How is your staircase going to get from where it starts to where it needs to end up? A straight flight may be the simplest and cheapest option, but will not work in all situations. 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.

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 (SEE BELOW).

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.

ABOVE: Staircase designs – 1. Half landing; 2. Quarter landing; 3. Quarter landing with winder; 4. Straight flight

Balustrading: The term balustrading is used to describe 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. In period homes balustrading was often elaborately carved, but these days people are keeping it simple with laminated glass panels and metal tension wires being favourites. Balustrading can be bought from DIY warehouses and timber merchants, or from staircase specialists. It can also be made to order by a joiner.

Materials

Timber

Why Timber? 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 (as ABOVE).
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.
What About 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

Why Glass? 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.
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.
What About 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

Why Metal? 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.
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.
What About 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

Why Stone or Concrete? 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.
What About Costs? Variable. They can be expensive, starting at around £10,000. An alternative is to clad existing stairs with stone panels.

Getting the Lighting Right

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.

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.

The Building Regulations

  • 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

Don’t Call Us…
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.

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