Don't Move, Improve: Take your home to a higher level

A new staircase could unlock space for more bedrooms - and make a truly grand entrance
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The Independent Online

As a rule, architects love staircases, and with good reason. Stairs can be sculptural; they can help sub-divide an open space; they can twist and turn, sweep and float. Stairs can be a grand statement or a simple transition. They can express hi-tech or solid traditional values with equal power.

As a rule, architects love staircases, and with good reason. Stairs can be sculptural; they can help sub-divide an open space; they can twist and turn, sweep and float. Stairs can be a grand statement or a simple transition. They can express hi-tech or solid traditional values with equal power.

By definition, staircases span different levels, so they need to exist in a space that is at least double the height of a single storey. For many of us, they are the only vertical element in the only double-height space we have in our homes – and double-height space is always exciting.

Possibly the most enjoyable thing about staircases, though, is that they can represent the most visible example of the architect's art. Stairs are absolutely fundamental in their effect on the layout of a building, and they are the core of its circulation. While working on the layout of a house (which is typically done floor by floor), it is the position and arrangement of stairs that must be revisited all the time, cross-referencing level against level like the constant turning and turning of a Rubik's cube, until the optimum layout is achieved.

I vividly remember visiting a family in a little house several years ago. They had their third child on the way and were already bursting out of the property. Although the upstairs was small, the garden was lovely and they had great views over fields across a quiet road.

They really wanted to stay in the house, but had no idea how to accommodate the extra space they needed. As they described their predicament to me, I remember thinking that if they turned the stairs around, that would allow access to a landing so that new bedrooms could be built over the garage. Then I thought, "No, it can't be that obvious."

After taking a few measurements, I sketched out the floor plans, checked the headroom and laid out a proposal. "OK," I said, showing them the sketch., explaining the new layout of rooms that could be achieved if only the staircase was switched around.

I had the distinct impression that they thought I was Leonardo da Vinci, but their wonder was short-lived as anxiety took over. "What do you mean by 'turn the stairs around'?" they said. "That sounds like major work. " I was able to quell their fears. Mostly, staircases are just pieces of joinery. They are not particularly heavyweight nor especially complicated, and are relatively easy to modify.

One of the trickiest parts of designing a staircase is the web of restrictions spun by building regulations. The ratio of the "rise" and "going" – the vertical and the horizontal parts, also known as the "riser" and the "tread" – must be within certain parameters; the pitch angle (in other words, the gradient) must be no more than 42 degrees.

Then there is the height of the handrails, the spacing of the banisters, the minimum headroom, the number of risers between landings – all these are among the many regulations to ensure that stairs are not only safe, but that they present a challenge to the designer. (Incidentally, the satisfaction of thwarting the health and safety lobby at its own game by designing a daring staircase that complies with all regulations is hard to beat.)

Once, we were set the task of sorting out the layout of a house that had been previously converted from a barn. Due to its long shape and low roof, the first floor was chopped up into tortuous spaces with bedrooms squeezed between oversized trusses. It needed three separate flights of stairs to get to the various upstairs rooms.

By restructuring the roof trusses, we were able to aid the house's circulation. With a new double-height hallway and a bridge landing, we created a grand entrance, and with an elegant stone spiral, we added a connection between the living and sleeping zones of the house, as well as a sculptural flourish within a simple space.

The new staircase unlocked the design and potential of this house and allowed us to turn something awkward into something natural. No wonder architects love staircases.

Hugo Tugman runs the design service Architect Your Home (www.architect yourhome.com)

Project: Installing a staircase

How much will it cost?

A softwood staircase can be bought off the peg from £200, but you will need to allow at least twice that again for the fitting. In most cases, it is not the stair itself but the opening in the floor that is the most complex and expensive thing to sort out.

I have seen one project where the whole operation to replace a staircase cost well over £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 (or down) stairs. Most staircases are essentially just items of joinery and generally, joinery works are relatively quick and clean. Of course, there will be noise and sawdust, but compared to plastering, joinery is clinical.

What's the first step?

It is essential to really think through where the stair will spring from, where it lands and how this will affect the circulation in your house. Think about the headroom both over and beneath the stair (I have seen experienced professionals get caught out by this one). Builders will often see the most straightforward solution in terms of how easy it will be to build – this is not necessarily the best solution in terms of what you end up with. If you feel that you need some advice, an architect can help.

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