Don't Move, Improve: Stairway to architectural heaven

Changing the position of the stairs is the first step to opening upcramped interiors
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The Independent Online

September means that Open House is coming around again and I would urge anyone who is interested in design, particularly architecture, to make the most of it. For those who don't know, Open House is an organisation committed to raising the standard of the built environment and its most high-profile event is happening on 15 and 16 September. For the whole weekend, more than 600 buildings of architectural interest across greater London will throw their doors open to the public for free.

The buildings that can be seen are new and old, technical and artistic, large and small. You can visit national icons of modern architecture such as 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin, the Lloyd's building, classical masterpieces such as the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, great feats of engineering such as the Thames Barrier, beautiful churches, sustainable school buildings, sports facilities and lots of fascinating houses.

Even within this category, there is a huge variety of examples. Historic houses, eco-homes, new houses squashed into tiny spaces, extensions, refurbishments – you can even visit Jimi Hendrix's flat on Brook Street. To pick out just a few of the less obvious ones, you might like to look at a beautifully controlled refurbishment of a Georgian townhouse at 11 Princelet Street by Chris Dyson Architects, or a very inventive little row of houses at Colony Mews in Islington by Peter Barber Architects, or a modernist classic from the late 1930s in Hampstead, 2 Willow Road by Ernö Goldfinger.

While all these wonderful buildings can be fascinating and inspiring, I think that one of the great things about Open House is that people can often see examples of homes much like the houses they live in, and see design solutions that they can relate to their own homes. This weekend, I can recommend one house in particular that is a beautiful example of many of the issues that I regularly touch upon in this column. It did not have an excessive budget and there were some really knotty problems to do with regulations and layout, but the result is elegant, light and simple.

53 Gayton Road in Camden, London is a refurbishment of a very narrow Victorian mid-terraced house. The owners wanted a sense of light and space and a more open-plan feel, but the original house had a stair block at the back, which almost completely blocked out the light and views to the rear. Sanya Polescuk Architects has delivered a lovely solution, stripping out the old stair block and inserting new stairs down the side.

The new staircases are beautifully detailed with oak treads and risers neatly contained within crisp white walls and a little shadow detail where they meet. The walls around the stairs have clever contemporary openings and some of the stair risers have glass slots, which allow tantalising glimpses of other parts of the house.

Moving the stairs meant that the rear of the house was opened up to the garden and a modest (and again beautifully detailed) glass extension gives the exterior a lovely modern twist. The other benefit of moving the stairs was to improve the circulation of the house, with much less space wasted on circulation space such as corridors and hallways.

Given that the house is so narrow, the stairs being at the side could exacerbate the problem, forming narrow rooms. But with a good understanding of fire regulations, the architects were able to combine intelligent use of the space with the available technology of fire-rated glass to find a solution.

Fire-rated glass is a prohibitively expensive material, and in most instances, when home-owners innocently suggest a wall of fire-rated glass to solve such a problem, they usually run a mile when they hear the likely cost. In this case, the small openings and slots not just focus the views through, but kept the costs down too.

So whether you live in London or can get to London this weekend, have a look at and make the most of this opportunity to see the fascinating and the fantastic.

Hugo Tugman runs the design service Architect Your Home,

Project: Replacing stairs

How much will it cost?

A softwood staircase can be bought off the peg from around £200, but you will need to allow at least twice that again for the fitting of it. In most cases, it is not the stair but the opening in the floor that is the most complex and expensive thing to sort out and I have seen one project where the whole operation to replace a staircase cost more than £100,000, although that is an extreme example.

How much hassle is it?

Remember that while your staircase is out of action, you may not be able to get up and down the stairs. Most staircases are essentially just joinery items and generally joinery works are relatively quick and relatively clean. Of course, there will be noise and sawdust, but compared with plastering, joinery is clinical.

What's the first step?

It is essential to really think about where the stair springs from, where it lands, and how this will affect the circulation in your house. Think about the headroom both over and under the stair: I have seen experienced professionals trip up on this one. Builders will often see the most straightforward solution in terms of how easy it will be to build, but this is not necessarily the best solution in terms of what you end up with. If you feel that you need advice, an architect can help.