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Staircase Primer

Staircase Primer
Create style with your staircase.
Staircases are an opportunity to create a premier architectural feature for your home. They should be located to ensure easy circulation within your home and designed with safety and functionality in mind. A number of design, safety and construction decisions must be made. We'll take each one in turn.

Usage   
The first consideration in staircase design is to understand how the stairs will be used. Will they be used many times per day? Will there be furniture and other bulky objects brought up the stairs? Are the occupants of the house young or old, in shape or out of shape? These decision affect how wide the stairs should be and the  slope or ratio of rise to run. Older people appreciate a more gentle slope and a staircase that has furniture and other cargo going up and down should be closer to 42 inches wide rather than the minimum 36 inch requirement by code.

Placement
If your staircase is primarily functional, it is often placed adjacent to a wall where it will take up the least space. 
If you are seeking a more elaborate presentation, will the staircase be located in an open area in the living room or near the entrance to the home? If it is in the center of the house, how will it facilitate circulation? Is it accessible to heavily used rooms such as the kitchen and family room?

Lighting
How will the stairwell be lit?  Will you use a skylight or high placed windows adjacent to the staircase?

Design considerations 
Will it be traditional and made from wood balusters and handrails or will you use a combination of wood rails and steel balusters or perhaps steel cables or glass?  Will it have straight runs or will it require a landing? Take your time and study design alternatives as the staircase will become an essential -- and permanent -- part of your home.

Parts make up the whole 
Staircases are assembled from a combination of balusters, newel posts and handrails. Each one is available in a wide range of wood species that match, contrast, or complement your overall architectural theme. Newel posts can vary from a traditional turned wood style to a box shaped Arts & Crafts style. With additional molding the box shaped newel post can become a more elaborate Victorian post. Balusters or spindles are available in wood in a wide range of styles and come with either a square top or rounded, dowel-shaped top. They are also available in metal in a wide range of styles. Handrails can go from post to post or can be located over the top of the post and can end in a well crafted volute. Handrails are available in a wide range of wood species as well as in styles ranging from Traditional to Art Deco. Treads are the horizontal surfaces that you walk on as you ascend or descend the stairs. You must decide if the treads are a finish grade hardwood to match hardwood floors or if they are to be built from less expensive construction lumber and covered with carpet. If hardwood, treads are available in oak, fir, maple, cherry as well as other species. 

Dimensions
Treads should be a minimum of 10 inches from the bull nose of one tread to the bull nose of the next. There is usually a tread overhang of about 1 inch, which brings the total dimension of the tread to 11 inches. Stairs should be a minimum of 36 inches wide but for most homes we recommend around 38 to 42 inches wide. Landings should be at least 3 feet by 3 feet and should be as wide as the treads. Pitch or "angle of incline" should be between 34 and 37 degrees. This angle is determined by the ratio of your rise to run. For older persons or in a location where you will be carrying heavy packages, a shallower pitch is desirable. Risers should be no greater than 7 ¾ inches in height. This height has been established by the IRC (International Residential Code)

Handrails should be located between 34 inches and 36 inches above the bullnose. Check your building code on all dimensions, including handrails; for example in California the code states that handrails should be  at least 1 1/2 inches wide. Most people go with rails that are 1 3/4 inches wide up to 2 5/8 inches. I personally think 2 1/4 inches wide is a good size. Handrail shapes are up to you. I like so-called "plowed" handrails, which means the underside has been gouged out or "plowed" to fit the top of the railing -- which is pretty standard for a wood handrail and is the best selling shape in the US. Mushroom-shaped handrails are also nice. I've installed these and they fit my hand well. The image below is courtesy LJSmith.com, the largest supplier of stair and handrail parts. 

Headroom
There should be a minimum of 6 feet 8 inches of headroom anywhere along the length of the stairway as well as on the landings.

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