Staircases: Form and Function

Staircases: Form and Function
July 20, 2016 Sabine H. Schoenberg
Staircases at The Greenwich House

We can all relate to the impact a well designed staircase can bring to our home. Staircases are often centrally located and typically become a central part of the entrance to the home. As a result it’s important to get this architectural and design detail just right.

Achieving a well designed staircase is perhaps the hardest element in home construction to get right. As a formative visual and functional element of a foyer, stairs have to adhere to strict building code requirements. There is no fudge factor; they require exact measurements right down to the ⅛”. Beyond these challenges there are huge opportunities for design expression in stairs and especially handrails.

Example of Goose-Neck Railing

Example of Goose-Neck Railing

I have built a fair number of stairs in my years building homes and I will always pull in the experts – from carpenters for numerous measurements, the stair company’s CAD team to my architect for several rounds of reviews. We had gone through countless rounds of measuring, re-measuring, and measuring again at my most recent project, The Greenwich House and yet, I still prayed the day the stairs were delivered. Fortunately, in the end they fit right – oh, what a relief.

Beyond structural challenges, stairs are an important design statement. Don’t pick generic spindles and at all cost avoid so-called goose necks in the handrail – they are plain ugly and feel awkward when you walk up with your hand on the handrail.  At The Greenwich House I had two design goals in mind.  First, to overcome what was a dark and dingy entry to the home and allow daylight to penetrate into the stairs down to the slightly lower level mudroom. Secondly, I wanted to make the spindles a part of an architectural element that created a vertical line within the foyer area.

You be the judge.  Here are before and after. Did we succeed?

Before and After of the Entryway and Staircase at The Greenwich House

Before, the entryway was dark and dingy at The Greenwich House

Before, the entryway was dark and dingy at The Greenwich House

After: The stairs and entryway are light and airy, a very inviting space for The Greenwich House

After: The stairs and entryway are light and airy, a very inviting space for The Greenwich House

After: The entryway has been enhanced to feature a 22 foot high ceiling where the staircase and windows carry the vertical design element to the top where a dramatic chandelier and backlit LED light panels are the feature.

After: The entryway has been enhanced to feature a 22 foot high ceiling where the staircase and windows carry the vertical design element to the top where a dramatic chandelier and backlit LED light panels are the feature.