Home Touch by Mary G. Pepitone

Step Up Design

Architectural details rise to the next level in a home's staircase. Whether sweeping or simple, the stairway not only serves an important function in a multilevel home, it should also have great form, says Jimmy Coltharp, a vice president with L.J. Smith Stair Systems, a 133-year-old company based in Bowerston, Ohio, that designs and manufactures staircases.

"As lot sizes get smaller in new home developments, builders are constructing houses upward," Coltharp says. "The staircase is a natural focal point in the home. Visually, it takes your eye upward and can create a grand entrance as you walk into a home."

The design of a home's staircase depends on the style of its construction and the materials used. In a new home, the staircase should be an integral part of its design, not an afterthought that merely connects the floors of a house.

"A home's staircase is the most intricate and fanciest piece of furniture built into a house," Coltharp says. "There's a lot of geometry that goes into building a proper stairway, and both builders and designers must meet strict building codes."

Stairs must not only be safe and easy to climb, they should also be aesthetically inviting. A staircase's general design fits into three categories:

-- A straight stringer. A straight-flight staircase is the simplest form that connects two floors without any twists and turns.

-- A curved stairway. The shape of this staircase is in the arc of a circle. For a grand effect, steps at the bottom of this staircase might also be larger and flared at the edges.

-- A spiral stairway. This system has steps that are supported by and rotate around a center pole, and is manufactured as a singular piece when assembled. When made of metal, a spiral staircase is weather-resistant and can be used to step down from a deck or private room onto a patio or pool area.

Straight and curved staircases are comprised of horizontal steps (or treads), vertical risers (the rear face of each step) and stringers (the structures that hold the treads and risers in place on each side of the stairway.)

The handrail system also steps up the luxe look of today's staircase. Also called a banister, a handrail system can be comprised of newels (larger vertical posts most commonly seen at the beginning and end of a handrail system); balusters (smaller, more numerous vertical posts, supporting the handrail between newels); and, of course, the handrail itself.

In new home construction, carpenters or woodworkers often build many stringers to specifications on-site, Coltharp says. Then, factory-manufactured staircase components are built to specifications, shipped to the building site and installed.

"The staircase is a serious piece of engineering," Coltharp says. "There are building codes that dictate tight tolerances to reduce the risk of injury."

While there is an International Residential Code for staircase specifications, there might also be local building codes that must be followed. Building codes dictate everything from riser height and tread width, to handrail graspability and width between balusters, which is often a gap that is no wider than 4 inches.

For those wanting to update or restore a tired existing staircase, Coltharp says a custom-made look can be as easy as swapping out wooden balusters for wrought iron ones, replacing carpeted treads with stained hardwoods or fashioning a new, custom-made handrail.

"We are often asked to replicate a broken baluster or newel post in older homes with grand staircases," Coltharp says. "This is done in our factory on a copy lathe, much in the same way one has a new key made from an existing one."

While the median price for a staircase in a starter home is around $2,500, prices can escalate to tens of thousands of dollars when treads are made of exotic hardwoods or stone, Coltharp says. Vertical balusters might also seem out of step, as horizontal cables are strung tightly between newel posts in many modern staircases. L.J. Smith Stair Systems has also developed ready-to-install metal panels with horizontal lines, which makes assembling the handrail system even easier.

Seasoned staircase contractors walk the line between designing a technically correct, built-to-code stairway and one that is also a welcoming focal point of the home. "Homeowners often hang pictures on the wall by a staircase as a personal gallery of sorts," Coltharp says. "A staircase that makes a statement is just inviting and can make a house feel like home."

In Step

To help design your home's staircase, go to LJSmith.com, and click the "Stair Designer" tab.