Step Up to Stylish Stairs: Your Staircase Design Problems Solved

For many of us, our staircase is one of the most prominent elements in our homes. Sometimes it’s basically the first thing people see when they walk in your front door. And it’s certainly something that gets used multiple times a day by everyone living in your home. But funnily enough, it’s also an area most of us never think about improving. 

But if you’re renovating (or even building a new home) the staircase is something you should consider just as carefully as you do paint colors and furniture selections, if not more so. 

What exactly are the kinds of choices you have when it comes to improving the look and functionality of your staircase? A lot, as it turns out, which I learned firsthand when renovating the home I’m currently flipping. 

Staircase Anatomy 101

Without boring you too much with the math and structural engineering details that actually go into designing staircases (and they’re beyond me anyway), you do need to know what the basic pieces and parts are so you’ll also know what your architect, engineer and/or builder are talking about, as well as what you’ll be choosing as you go along. 

Here’s a lovely little infographic for you to refer to. You can print it out if you’d like to take it with you to the architect, engineer or fabricator.

The main elements you need to know for making aesthetic choices and selections are:




Balusters or Spindles 

For risers, you may need to decide if you’d like them stained or painted. Treads usually involve picking a stain color that matches or coordinates with your flooring. Balusters offer more of a selection, as these can be plain or ornate, wood or iron, metal or even glass panels. 

Of course, you can also choose to carpet your stairs or (my favorite) add a stylish runner rug. This becomes an even more important choice if you have small children or pets that may easily slip on bare hardwood treads. 

Staircase Comfort? It’s a Thing!

Creating a staircase that’s Climbing up and down a poorly designed staircase is a little like flying coach: Not enough room for your feet. Tall folks have to scrunch down to avoid knocking their heads. There’s barely enough room for one adult, let alone two travelling side-by-side. 

But you don’t have to just put up with all that. You can actually upgrade your staircase for a more first class comfort experience. 

When working on my flipper house, I decided the staircase leading from the kitchen to the basement was just too awkward. The whole thing was steep and cramped so I had it torn out, then worked with an architect and structural engineer to be sure the new design was comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, and that it met all of Milwaukee’s city codes.  It was not as easy as I’m making it sound.  We actually had to re-make the stairs! Yep, I’ll leave that story for another day but the whole set of stairs had to be ripped out because they didn’t met code.  Looking back at the situation now I’m grateful we do have inspectors and guidlines we all need to follow. 

The Magic Number

Understanding the math that goes into designing a staircase can drive you nuts. It’s pretty complex, but you have to be completely accurate or it can ruin the “run” (the number stairs you use and the size of each stair). Think about what it’s like to try to climb or descend stairs you can only fit the ball of your foot on or that are more than one stride but less than two wide. You’re either taking mincing little steps or you’re forced to do an awkward step and a half/shuffle when you should be able to take normal human-sized strides in order to be both comfortable and safe.

Hence, run and rise are important for coming up with the depth of the treads and the height of the risers. In order to calculate those numbers properly, the first thing you need to know is your city’s building codes. In Milwaukee, for example, it’s at least 9″ from tread nose to tread nose for the riser height and at least 11″ for the tread depth. 

From there, you need to know the difference between your rise measurement (basically how far it will be from where the stairs start to where they’ll stop) and how much headroom you have to work with. 

For my flip home project, from the starting point of the stairs to the header beam, we had open space for a 78″ run of stairs. We divided that by 9″ (the code’s minimum riser height). Once we had that number, we came up with a design that uses three stairs, a landing, two more stairs and another landing instead of 8 straight up and down stairs to mitigate the steepness. Pretty smart, right?! Then we were ready to take it all to my fabricator to get all the pieces cut and crafted. 

Mohindroo Interiors

Enlist the Experts

I probably grossly oversimplified the math involved, and so I definitely recommend enlisting the help of architects and engineers for any staircase design project. 

In addition to their knowledge of the local codes and their depth of understanding of the math and engineering involved, they also have experience with these projects. They probably have staircase design ideas and creative suggestions as to how to handle the space you’re working with in ways you never would have thought of, just as they did in my case. 

Whether you’re flipping a home like I am, renovating your own home, or building a brand new one, knowing there are smart, creative ways to make your staircase look stylish and function beautifully make a big impact on the ways you can improve the home. Or if you don’t find yourself needing to design a staircase any time soon, at least now you can trot out your newfound knowledge of staircase math at cocktail parties! 

If you need design help (whether it involves a staircase or not), we’re here for you! Give us a call or email us to talk about your project.

Recommended Posts