A couple of years ago, I designed and built a home for a
friend of mine in the San Francisco Bay area. The original plan
had been to build a small office a few steps up from the
second-floor hall, but during construction we raised the floor
even more to take advantage of the view. Suddenly there was all
this dead space below the room.
Not wanting the area to go to waste, my friend suggested
turning it into a cool little playroom for his kids. Since he
wanted it to be a surprise, we decided to access the room
through a secret door. We considered using a fake bookcase or a
hidden wall panel, but ultimately settled on something much
more unusual — a hinged set of stairs like the ones in
the 1960s TV sitcom The Munsters (1, 2).
Peter Dickson, a mechanical engineer from Bay City Iron Works
in Oakland, helped me design and build the stairs. Safety was a
prime concern, so we devised a simple system that uses
counterweights rather than motors and hydraulics. This way, the
stairs open manually, and if the power goes out no one will be
We framed the stairway the usual way but sheathed the bottom
with 1/2-inch plywood. Dickson's company fabricated a
custom-made pivot — basically a giant piano hinge —
that we fastened to the stringers and the floor framing above.
The hinge "pin" was welded to the lower leaf and bolted to a
steel lever projecting out to one side (3).
At the end of the lever are two shackles, each connected to a
cable that runs through pulleys in the joist bay and down the
opposite wall, where they connect to a pair of counterweights
(4). When the stairs are open, the lever is up and the weights
are down. When the stairs are closed, the lever is down and the
weights are up.
The system is so well-balanced the owner's 5-year-old can open
the stairs by lifting up the bottom riser.Robert Waal owns R and S Homes, a design/build
company in Alamo, Calif., with his wife, Sharon.