All stairs, from the humblest flight of cellar stairs to the
most elegant curved entryway stairs, share the same broad
functional requirements: to provide safe and comfortable
passage from one level of a house to another.
But beyond practical considerations, a main stair is also one
of a home's most important design features. It's often located
in the front entry, where its craftsmanship is on display, and
its positioning and layout have an important bearing on the
overall character of the space it serves.
Consider the moderately scaled traditional entryway
illustrated in Figure 1, which includes vertical circulation
space to the second floor as well as horizontal circulation in
three directions. The single-run stair is set off to one side
of the hall to save space in this relatively tight passage. To
avoid feeling cramped, an entry benefits from a 5-foot clear
space beyond the swing of the front door for greeting guests,
which this plan just achieves.
Figure 1.In order to ease the effort of the climb,
a single-run straight stair should use deeper treads and
shorter risers than a stair that contains a landing. The
guardrail has an open, airy appearance, which adds a sense of
spaciousness to a hallway that might otherwise feel narrow.
Simple round, tapered wooden balusters are an attractive
alternative to the heavy turned colonial balusters found in
many spec homes.
Had an L-shaped stair been used instead, it would have closed
off the straight-ahead path to the rear of the house and forced
all circulation through the more formal front rooms to either
side. At 3 feet 6 inches wide, the stair shown here is more
comfortable than the general building code minimum width of 3
feet, but it's not overly grand and doesn't draw too much
attention to itself.
The no-nonsense mood of this entry extends to the opening in
the floor above, which is no larger than the stair itself.
While it might seem appealing to give the entry a more open
feel by enlarging the opening above, that could be a mistake,
limiting upstairs floor space and privacy without improving the
downstairs (Figure 2).
Figure 2.With a straight stair in a tight
entryway, it's seldom practical to enlarge the stair opening
enough to give the entry a more open feel. The narrow slot next
to the stair opening just seems awkward.
Like the previous entryway, the version in Figure 3 provides a
greeting space, access to a closet, and circulation. But here
the scale is slightly increased, and the flow through the space
has a more expansive, less traditional feel. Rather than
entering into the center of the home, this entrance is off to
one side to allow the stair to follow the ell shape of the
Figure 3.In a slightly larger entry with an
ell-shaped stair, the second-floor opening extends across to
the living room entry. This helps tie the spaces together and
allows the main hall and stair to act as spillover living and
The generous width and length of the room allow it to
accommodate a comfortable ell stair as well as a gathering of
guests and furnishings, making this entry suitable for
entertaining. Thanks to the intermediary landing where the
stair changes direction, there's opportunity when descending to
pause and take in the scene below as well as to be seen. The
stair's change of direction prevents guests below from seeing
directly into the private realm of the hall above.
The width of the ell stair is 4 feet at each run to correspond
to the larger overall scale of the space. The increased scale
also makes it possible to extend the second-floor opening well
beyond the stair to admit daylight from above. The
double-height space adds a touch of drama, drawing guests away
from the side hall toward the main entertaining space of the
adjacent living room.
The "semi-open" guardrail used here is a whimsical collection
of simple components. It needn't be as open as the guardrail
illustrated in the straight stair example since the space it
occupies isn't as confining. Some small solid infill panels
produce a decorative treatment without creating a visually
heavy guardrail. The closed stringer provides a little more
flexibility in developing a baluster rhythm independent of the
treads. The overall guardrail pattern may be influenced by
other motifs in the home or might introduce a theme to be
reflected elsewhere. The post-to-post rail acknowledges the
slower pace of ascending a stair that includes an intermediary
landing and change of direction.
Katie Hutchisonis an architect and owner of Earthlight
Design in Salem, Mass.