Flights of fancy: The stylish new world of gravity-defying staircases

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The Independent Online

Most of us never think about stairs, beyond whether they are capable of getting us up to bed and back down again without collapsing. Usually dressed in a simple carpet that we hope won't show the dirt too much they are largely ignored in favour of the main rooms of the house – even though they can be the first thing people see when they come into your home. Would-be buyers often make up their minds about a house within about 30 seconds of you opening the door so it might be worth considering how your stairs reflect on the rest of your property. Ninety per cent of new staircases are also created to access loft conversions so this is a chance to really think about what you want.

Hugo Tugman, the founder of Architect Your Home, says that the right approach can transform a staircase into a spectacular design feature in its own right.

"Stairs are usually at the heart of the home and they offer a real opportunity to create a stunning visual impact that reflects the rest of the house," he says. "You can use glass or granite, spindle banisters or spiral staircases. There is so much scope but often the biggest barrier for homeowners is knowing what is and isn't possible."

Replacing stairs is similar to knocking down a structural wall and the process is subject to building regulations – for a full rundown, such as the depth of the tread and how climbable the bannisters are, visit: www.staircases.org.

The other key factor is that you shouldn't assume a spiral staircase is the answer in a tight space. In fact, they take up just as much room as a normal flight – one is long and narrow, the other short and wide.

Otherwise just remember that while the work is being done you won't be able to get upstairs so it might be worth moving out or making alternative sleeping and bathing arrangements.

Despite all the rules, Tugman says staircases can still be sculptural and beautiful: "Don't start out by fixing on a particular style or shape. You need to sort out where the stairs need to go and how to arrange them best to suit that arrangement. Once you know that you can start to play with the styles and the materials."

And, crucially, he says it is possible to modify and re-use the existing staircase. "Timber stairs can be turned, cut in half, extended and modified in all sorts of ways. The common mistake is to assume that you can just go out and buy a staircase but, for the most part, they will need to be made to fit a particular house."

When it comes to the styling, glass is often seen as the ultimate in contemporary staircase design. However, it's not natural staircase material so prepare to blow the budget out of the water. One alternative is to consider a glass balustrade, which is easier to engineer and will still bring a contemporary feel to your house.

Richard Mclane, design director of Bisca staircases, says: "Glass staircases really step up the 'wow' factor because it can give the impression of floating, which is a stunning effect.

"The main issue with glass is the safety both on the grounds of visibility and slipping. Building regulations stipulate a visible strip at least 50mm wide across the front edge to give grip and make each step individually visible. Another way to make it safer and give impact is with integrated lighting using built in LEDs."

Tugman says that the days of people wanting a grand Gone with the Wind sweeping staircase have largely gone. "The worry that a modern staircase won't fit with a period property has disappeared. People are being very adventurous. We have done stairs where each tread has been hung on a series of fine wires, where the treads stick out of the wall on one side and where the bottom step just hovers over the floor."

The nature of a staircase means that there will always be that awkward space at the bottom, which is often used for storage. If you are replacing your staircase then think about how to use that space. If you have a large hall, it can make a good home office. Or try to kit it out with proper hooks and shelving so that each member of the family has their own space for coats and boots.

Last year, Tugman oversaw a project where the risers of the old staircase were carefully cut out and replaced with frames so that drawers could be inserted into the flight, giving masses of extra, and hidden storage.

"I have also seen a house where the split-level living room was linked with three wide steps and the top step had been converted into a drawer so the owner could store completed jigsaw puzzles," he says.

If you don't actually need a new staircase and, more likely, the cost is making you feel faint, then start looking at the decorative options. Changing the banisters to allow more light to flow will bring a more modern look. Painting stairs in different colours can look fun. Some people paint words on the risers going up. Another trick is to paint the treads and wallpaper or varnish the risers to really make a statement.

Will it break the bank?

A standard straight staircase starts at around £250 but expect to pay from around £3,000 for a basic bespoke flight – which is what most people will need. If you're looking at glass and more adventurous designs, then start thinking around £25,000 and keep going until you run out of numbers. The most expensive one Bisca ever created cost £145,000.

Useful contacts

www.architect-yourhome.com; 0800 849 8505

www.bisca.co.uk; 01439 771702

www.rogeroates.com; 01531 632718

www.spiralstairs.co.uk; 01273 858 341

www.staircases.org

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