Staircase design can make or break the entryway to a home. Many homes open right up to a staircase, and a deliberate, well-designed set of stairs will either set the tone for the whole house or stick out like a sore thumb.
One of the biggest challenges I've seen in my design work is in knowing how to describe stairs. There are so many names for the different components of stairs; it's practically like learning a foreign language. None of us know what we don't know, so it's hard to articulate a particular look or plan if we aren't sure the options exist.
And with staircase design, there are practically endless options! Spiral staircases, bifurcated staircases, and choices for the handrail, stair design, and more. Let's dive into the anatomy of stairs to help you navigate, and make sense of, all the options.
Naming the Different Parts of a Staircase
At first blush, staircase design seems pretty forward—steps and a handrail. But when we break it down, there are names for each piece of the staircase and the specific components. If you’re building a new home or working with a designer on an update, it's essential to know precisely which parts of a staircase you're discussing so you can get the look and feel you want.
Not only that but much of staircase design is created with safety and ergonomics in mind. If you've been in an older house or explored ancient architecture, chances are you've experienced the dangers and tripping hazards of non-standard stair risers. It's not something we often think about, but most stairs are built for a standard gait. The riser is the vertical height of each step, and most building codes set them at 7 ¾ inches. There’s a rhythm associated with walking up and down a staircase. When they are uneven, stepping up or down feels strange at best and hazardous at worst.
Similarly, the width of a stair can make a huge difference as well. The flat, horizontal part of the stair, known as the tread, should be a standard width across, as well as front-to-back (depth). When you step on a stair, you want to fit your entire foot solidly on the tread. If the depth is too narrow, your foot could slip off (or you can feel like you’re climbing a ladder).
Design + Image: Park and Oak Design
Now with some styles of staircases, such as a spiral staircase, the tread may vary in width, but generally, each stair in the staircase (minus the landing) should be the same depth. Again, it comes back to the rhythm of walking up and down the steps—if one step is uneven, it can present a tripping risk. In most building codes, stair treads must be at least 10 inches or 11 inches with nosing. Some stairs may have bull-nosing, a decorative or rounded cut at the end of the nose.
The stairs fit into a stringer. The best way to describe this is the “zig-zag” piece that runs along the side of your staircase. Each stair riser and tread fits into the stringer. Some staircases have one stringer (a mono stringer) down the center (a very modern look). Others have stringers on each side. If you don't see the stringer, just a straight diagonal line down the side of the stairs, you have a closed stringer. If you can see the zig-zag pattern, your stairs have a sawtooth (or open) stringer.
Older houses and historic architecture may feature narrow staircases that can feel, well, a bit claustrophobic. The width of a staircase is also crucial to staircase design. For a standard set of stairs, the minimum clearance is 27 inches with handrails on both sides, or 31 ½ inches for stairs with a handrail on just one side. Again, there's flexibility depending on your staircase design as well as other factors, but knowing the standard building guidelines can help you get a feel for the space you need, especially if you're revamping the staircase in an existing space.
Finally, the other measurement you need to know is the headspace. Having enough head clearance on a staircase is a huge concern, especially if you or your partner are tall (or you're fond of wearing heels). The standard headroom clearance is 6 feet 8 inches. This applies to the distance between each stair and the ceiling, as well as the landing and the ceiling. You will likely want to opt for more headroom in most cases, but it's good to know this guideline for basement stairs and staircases that are tucked into smaller spaces in your home.
Design: Tamsin Johnson
Staircase Railings and Bannisters
Another component of staircases to add to your "staircase design terminology" are the banisters and railings. Most of us may assume that there's the handrail or banister, and that's it, but there are actually terms for each component.
Banister and handrail are interchangeable terms to describe the portion of the stairs that you hold on to. The handrail runs parallel to the stairs and across the landing, protecting people who walk by from slipping and falling.
Newels on each end support the handrails. These are the larger vertical pieces that hold up the railing. Then the balusters are the pieces that run in between the newels. When a newel meets the wall, it's referred to as a "half newel" since it's usually designed to look like it's embedded into the wall. Newels are usually spaced no more than eight feet apart. For safety, balusters should only be spaced four inches apart. The newel at the bottom of your staircase may be more substantial or eye-catching than the support newels used on the rest of the staircase. Along the bottom of the railing is the shoe rail that holds the balusters in place.
At the end of the handrail, there may be a ball cap, end knob, or in the case of the stairs in our new build, what's called a volute. A volute is a small spiral that completes the end of the handrail. While we may not give much thought to the end of a stair rail, these little details in the planning and design of a staircase can make a huge difference. Similar to molding or trim in your house, little flourishes help make a home feel handcrafted and unique.
When considering staircase design, you can and should also consider the materials and finish for each component. You may prefer the look of an iron handrail or a combination of iron and wood. Perhaps a painted handrail would complement natural stairs. The finishes and materials for your staircase design can offer a lot of flexibility and customization. For the stairs in our Modern European home designed with architects Brooks & Falotico, we decided on a closed, painted stringer and stained treads and risers. Our stained handrail will be minimal and sleek, and the balusters a finished bronze metal.
The Different Shapes of Staircases
Now that you know the different components of staircase design, you’ll be able to articulate the details and nuances you want to incorporate into your stairs. But it’s also important to realize that stairs come in many different shapes and styles.
Because our future stairs will curve out at the end, they're technically referred to as "buttressed." But when designing a home, there are many more options and choices to consider. Placement is, of course, a critical factor in deciding on staircase design, but no matter your space, the right staircase can be an eye-catching component.
A straight staircase is classic and appropriate for most spaces. Somewhat self-explanatory, a straight staircase runs up and down. A straight staircase is often placed against one wall. There are no turns or changes in direction. These are often seen in classic floorplans.
Design + Image: Proem Studio
A U-Turn staircase is another option, especially if there's more space between floors or a higher ceiling. Many two-story homes feature U-turn-style stairs. One staircase runs up halfway to a landing, then the stairway turns and runs up the other direction. We have a U-Turn staircase with a windowed stair wall in our new build.
Bifurcated stairs offer a lot of visual interest to a staircase. When a case is bifurcated, it will often feature two straight sets of stairs going in opposite directions. The stairs come together at a landing and then features a wider single set of straight stairs at the bottom.
Quarter Turn (or L-Shape)
A quarter turn, or L-Shaped staircase, heads up one direction from the first floor and then takes a 90-degree turn, going up to the second floor's landing. The L-shape is a nice way to make stairs more interesting and eye-catching. The other benefit of the L-shape (like the U-shape) is that it adds privacy to your upstairs.
Winder or Curved
Winder or curved staircases feature a kick-out or curved turn at the end of the staircase. The treads are often wider on one side to create the curve. A winder is a great way to fit a more extended set of stairs in a smaller space.
Architecture + Design: Steven Harris Architects
Once the epitome of style, spiral staircases have fallen out of fashion over the years. That said, they work well in compact spaces, as they feature a spiral of stairs around a pole. Unfortunately, this leads to a very narrow tread, which can make them a bit hazardous. Spiral staircases are often made out of iron or feature an open tread to maximize the airy feel in a closed space.
No matter the style of stairs you choose, they're a crucial component of any home design. If you're in the process of building or remodeling, I urge you to take some time to think about your staircase. Choosing a beautiful, functional staircase with careful details can really make a home come together and make a show-stopping statement.
What kind of stairs do you love? Do you have a favorite staircase design? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.