Blog Cabin 2012: Staircase Makeover

An extra-wide stairwell makes room for a grand switchback staircase.

The steep climb and treacherously undersized treads of Blog Cabin’s original staircase came as no surprise to Knickerbocker Group, a design/build team accustomed to the quirks of historic Maine homes. The stairway’s double width and sports arena-style center banister did manage to raise a few eyebrows, though.

The origin of this unusual design can be traced back to the home’s first occupants. Blog Cabin was originally built to accommodate two branches within the same family. First-floor quarters were identical, with a shared staircase dividing the home evenly in half and leading to bedrooms on the second floor. Subsequent remodeling transformed the building into a single-family home; the old double stair remained as a clue to its divided past.

For Kimberly Tuttle, Knickerbocker Group’s architectural designer, the extra-wide footprint (a 6 by 12-foot vertical shaft) provided ample space for the stairwell’s next incarnation. Since each span of a gracious switchback staircase need only account for half of a stair’s floor-to-floor height, this style would prove ideal. From the main living area, Kimberly determined, the lower leg would ascend to a landing in the front of the house, and from there, the upper leg would turn 180 degrees and terminate on the second floor.

Along with being aesthetically pleasing, the new, safer stair design conforms to what’s known as “stair memory.” Believe it or not, says Knickerbocker Group construction manager Marcus Golding, humans have a subconscious sense of what each step’s rise (height) and run (depth) will be. “The rise needs to be about 7 inches and the run needs to be about 11,” he says. “If the dimensions are off by just a little, people start tripping and falling.”

Marcus ranks stair building as one of the toughest home construction jobs — an understanding of geometry and complex angles, plus finish carpentry skills, are essential. For the Blog Cabin 2012 project, a specialized stair builder was called in. “He walked in and immediately knew exactly where the landing would fall and what the rise and run would be,” Marcus says. “It would have taken us a lot of calculating just to get there.”

Preparing for a stair makeover of your own? Knickerbocker Group shares advice and considerations:

Stair Types and Space Requirements

Tight on square footage? A switchback stair is ideal, as is a straight run, which requires only a 3- by 12-foot space. L-shaped and U-shaped staircases can be space-efficient options too, when they’re tucked into corners and niches of buildings. The dimensions required vary widely depending on the scenario, but each flight is 3 feet wide and requires a 3 by 3-foot landing at each end — or wedge-shaped “winder” steps to gradually make the turn. Although not the most ergonomic option, a spiral staircase can fit in as little as a 5 by 5-foot opening, though it’s more comfortable when 6 or 7 feet in diameter, says Tuttle.

Open or Closed

Another factor to consider when reconfiguring stairs — or adding them, say, when you’re finishing an attic or building an addition on top of the existing home — is whether the staircase will be enclosed (meaning there are walls on either side with the stairs spanning the gap between them) or open (meaning one or both sides has balusters instead of a wall). “A lot of remodeling clients want to open up walled stairs to make them feel larger and to add a design feature to the adjacent foyer or living room,” says Marcus. That’s a great idea, but it’s a costly job which often requires demolition and replacement of the old staircase. Conversion from enclosed to open involves replacement of one or more stringers, the saw tooth-shaped diagonal beams under the steps, the treads and the risers, and construction and installation of a new banister with balusters and newel posts.

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