by Don Vandervort, © HomeTips
Planning to turn an attic into a bedroom, build a two-story addition, or perch a deck over your backyard? If you are, selecting the right staircase can be critical to your project’s success. Beyond performing their purely practical duty as vertical passageways, most staircases serve as powerful design elements, presenting strong vertical lines and graceful forms. Indoors and out, a stairway is an opportunity for creative expression.
Unfortunately, most conventional staircases are relatively expensive, particularly handcrafted, hardwood varieties. But there is hope. Though most high-quality stairs were once built on site by stair makers and craftsmen—and many still are—today, contractors can choose from a wide variety of high-quality pre-built and ready-to-assemble stairs that are both relatively affordable and easy to install.
Types of Stairways
Stairs may be spiral, straight, circular, or any of several other shapes. And, of course, they may be wide or narrow, steep or gradual. As a general rule, the wider the stair and more subtle the climb, the more inviting the staircase—but also the more floor space it will consume.
Here are the main varieties:
- A spiral stair twists around a center pole in one of two ways: The common spiral stair has a straight center pole with steps radiating out from it; a helix- style spiral has a curving center support that follows the sweeping twist of the staircase itself.
- A straight stair stretches from lower to upper level in one straight run. Though this is the easiest type of stair to build, it can be difficult to squeeze into a floor plan.
- A return stair divides the run, reversing direction a full 180 degrees at a landing.
- An “L” stair makes a 90-degree turn at a landing.
- A winder serves like an “L” stair but requires less space (and is less safe to use) because the landing is divided into pie-shaped steps.
- A circular stair generally sweeps in a broad curve from one level to another.
Of the many pre-built and knocked-down stair kits, spiral stairs are the most popular, no doubt because they’re economical in cost and space usage and because they can provide access away from the “staircase core” of a house. They’re ideal for reaching new attic or basement rooms and for two-story additions. Spiral stairs are also popular for secondary access to rooms.
Manufacturers make spiral stairs in steel, aluminum, hardwoods, and combinations of these materials. Although some specialize in making only hardwood or metal, many companies make both. They typically offer a few basic designs that you can customize by selecting from a smorgasbord of treads, balusters, railings, and other options—and the range of options is vast.
Hardwood stairs come in red oak, poplar, white oak, ash, walnut, mahogany, cherry, and other species. Steel and aluminum stairs come in a variety of finishes, from hot-dipped galvanized to custom color coatings. Treads may be flat or embossed steel, hardwood, rubber, or plywood or steel base for carpeting. Boston Design Corporation even offers “illuminated stairs”; with one model, low-voltage lighting is radiated from the column under 3/4-inch frosted tempered-glass treads.
When ordering a spiral stair, you usually choose the direction of twist (right-hand railing up or left-hand railing up), and you always specify the diameter. Most manufacturers offer several standard diameters: 4', 4'-4", 5', 5'-4", 6', 6'-6", and larger (for safety, stairs 4 feet in diameter and smaller are not recommended; see below for more about codes).
Another key decision you must make when selecting a spiral stair is whether to buy a knocked-down kit or a complete one-piece unit. Though kits are cheaper and considerably easier to ship, one-piece stairs tend to be more durable, are less likely to come apart or rust because they have fewer joints, are lighter in weight, and can be installed in as little as 10 minutes compared to three or four hours for a kit. One-piece units also afford a much broader choice in materials—particularly railings—because they’re not constrained by the need for easy disassembly and shipping. (Many kits, for example, come only with flexible vinyl railings.)
So why would you choose a kit? Because kits are cheaper to buy and easier to ship. Kits start at about $400 for small-diameter, standard steel models. One-piece steel stairs start at about $500. (Aluminum stairs are lighter to ship, but the material is much more expensive so they start at around $1,500. All-wood or metal-and-wood stairs run $2,000 to $5,000 or more.)
Stairways, Incorporated, a manufacturer of both kits and one-piece units, estimates that freight from its Houston factory to New York would run about $160 for a kit or about $400 for a one-piece stair. Of course, hiring a couple of workers for three or four hours to install a kit can quickly swallow up any freight savings.
Spiral Stairs of America ships completely assembled, one-piece welded spiral stairs from its plant in Pennsylvania to, as it claims, “anywhere a truck or cargo ship will go.” For destinations where freight of a complete unit would be prohibitive, it sells stairs that are disassembled into two or three sections.
Some manufacturers build conventional hardwood stairs in sections, ready to connect end-to-end or at landings. Stair Systems, for example, manufactures unfinished, shop-assembled sections that can be installed by two workers in about an hour, using nothing more sophisticated than a hammer, level, and drill. Stock stair and railing designs, which can be delivered within two weeks, range from Colonial to contemporary. Most stairs cost from $1,000 to $2,000, but for custom-designed products, the sky is the limit.
With most pre-built hardwood stairs, the newel posts, railings, and balusters are pre-cut, pre-fitted, and numbered for easy reassembly. Visador has gone one step further with Wonderail, pre-assembled railing sections that can adjust to the slope of any stair.
Mylen manufactures stair systems that have a contemporary, very open look because treads are held only by single or paired stringers. Steel stringers are pre-welded to support oak, pine, or mahogany treads. The stringers are simply bolted to the header and floor and then the tread is bolted to the stringers. Balusters bolt to the treads and handrail.
Most circular stairs are custom designed for high-end houses and installed during house construction. Some come as completely pre-assembled units. A.J. Stairs, for example, builds fine-quality hardwood stairs from several different hardwoods and ships them to the job site on its own truck with a factory-trained driver who supervises the installation, which takes about an hour. Curved walls are built by the job carpenter after the stair is installed.
Others, such as custom designs by Duvinage, are built at the factory and then disassembled into three or four large sections for shipping. Both these and one-piece circular stairs are extremely heavy and require a crane or some other type of lifting device at the job site.
Prices range from about $10,000 for a stock-sized hardwood circular stair to ten times that amount for highly custom units. The average for custom designs is about $25,000.
Because the location of railings and balusters, width and depth of tread, and height of risers affect the ease and safety of using a stair, these dimensions are regulated by building codes. You must be sure that any stair you order will meet your local codes. Though many local codes adopt national standards, there is no single national code for all areas. Some local codes have different restrictions than accepted standards. To find out about local requirements, call your city or county building department.
The 2006 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC), administered by the International Code Council (ICC), allows a maximum riser height of 7 3/4 inches and a minimum tread depth of 10 inches. These dimensions are a revision of earlier, briefly adopted standards that allowed a maximum of 7 inches on risers and a minimum of 11 inches for tread depths—sizing promoted by some safety experts following a 1985 study of accidents on stairs in the workplace. Despite the fact that these steeper stairs are acceptable to codes, some experts believe they are prone to cause more accidents. Some builder organizations argue that these claims are yet to be proven and that 7-11 stairs take up more space, increasing the cost of building.
When ordering stairs that turn, such as spiral stairs, pay special attention to where measurements must be taken for code acceptance. Many codes demand a 9- to 10-inch tread depth at a point 12 to 14 inches from the narrow side. You’ll also find restrictions on head-height clearance and railing construction and placement.
The key is to be sure than any stair you buy will not only meet codes but also be an attractive, safe, easy-to-use addition to your home.
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