Stairs take us places. Solid and sturdy or seeming like they're balancing on air, staircases can be a focal point or a hiding place.
Stairs As Storage The yellow pine stair treads already existed in this 1926 Italianate-style Omaha, Neb., home (which is said to have been designed by newscaster Katie Couric's grandfather, an architect) when design/build remodeler Gary Grobeck was hired to do a whole-house remodel.
The narrow servant's stairway was bolstered by a wall, which Grobeck removed to provide more width to install what Grobeck calls his company's “signature piece” — pull-out drawers in what is usually inaccessible, unused space. Some clients use the storage area for boots or games; this client decided to use the pullouts for storing stereo equipment and DVDs.
Grobeck's team pre-wired the drawers and installed full extensions and heavy-duty door guides, which can hold up to 250 pounds. They designed and built the cherry newels and made the handrails by laminating four pieces of cherry together and setting them atop wrought iron balusters. Beneath the stairwell, Grobeck removed the stairs to the basement and created a computer nook.
Rebuild and Renew During a whole-house remodel, Benchmark Construction, in Lockbourne, Ohio, was asked to preserve the stairs and match the original look of this circa-1918 farmhouse in Washington Courthouse, Ohio. Because of the structure's uniqueness — every spindle was handmade — owner/ designer Todd Younkin had the darkly stained pine stairs disassembled and tagged before sending them to be stripped at Coupes Restoration in nearby Columbus.
Because the homeowners are working farmers, they were home during the renovation and needed access to all parts of the house. Younkin installed a temporary staircase for three weeks of the five-week-long staircase portion of the renovation. Once the stairs were returned, Benchmark reassembled the pieces from the bottom up, keeping them in numerical order. They re-stained the handrail, newel posts, steps, and skirt boards and then painted the square spindles to match the rest of the home's two-tone poplar woodwork. “Since the homeowners and their pets were around, there was continuous touch-up while the wood was drying and curing out,” says Younkin, who put up barricades and drop cloths to keep the area clean.
Because of the width of the stairwell, Younkin says installing a new custom staircase would have strained the project budget.
Freestanding Spine When Thomas Pruitt of Thomas Pruitt Builders, in Charlotte, N.C., designed this contemporary ranch whole-house remodel, he had the idea of a freestand-ing stair attached at the top and at the bottom, with a hint of a spiral. “Every stair builder told me I needed a wall, which would be right next to the kitchen table,” Pruitt says. “I spent four years in the Army Corps of Engineers. I figured that anything can be done; it's just a matter of figuring out how.”
Fortunately, says Pruitt, he knows a lot of “talented people” and was able to talk through his ideas with Mike Stanford, a lifelong friend and “a mathematical genius who was building satellite uplink systems in his garage.” The two of them developed a computer drawing, and Pruitt hired custom metal fabricator Michael Herndon of Allied Sheet Metal to get started.
Allied Sheet Metal took the AutoCAD drawings and cut the pieces for the steel parts. “All four pieces that create the box for the main tube were sections that Stanford had to put together.” The satellite engineer welded the metal pieces and stair support brackets in his garage. “It looked like the spine of a dinosaur,” Pruitt says.
The treads are oak, with tempered glass risers. Stanford made a steam box and curved and laminated strips of oak to create the handrail; below that, aircraft cable is threaded through stainless steel tubing. “The entire assembly was handcrafted and assembled by Mike, and without his talent the stair would look nothing like it does today. Having a design/build firm like ours create a design is only half of what we do,” Pruitt says. “Knowing and employing the craftsmen who make those designs a reality is the other vital part that makes our projects come to life.”
Steel Away When adding a 900-square-foot second-floor addition to this contemporary Austin, Texas, home, architects Lina Husodo and James Linville of Studio H+L knew the stairs would be a big feature but would need to work with the open feel of the home that the owners enjoyed. Several years earlier, they had designed the home with a curving wall that arches through the main level like a crescent moon. For the addition, they wanted to continue that curved wall up through the new second floor and build the stairs along it, in a space at the meeting point of the open living room and dining and kitchen areas.
The structure of the stair is steel, with steel tread supports spaced along a single steel tube. “On top of the steel beam we welded custom-cut steel tees, and these steel pieces actually support the wood treads,” Husodo says. “The stair is as transparent as we could have it be and still meet code.”
There are actually four different lengths of steel supports under the white oak treads. The wood cantilevers past the steel — coming close to but not touching the wall — eliminating the need to cut each steel support to an accurate distance from the curving wall.
The steel is painted the same color as the wall to reduce its visual impact, while the steel railing is accented by a different color. The trapezoid panels along the side are Lumicor, a high-performance resin made by DesignTex. The designers attached the pre-drilled panels to the steel supports with stainless steel buttons.
“The stairs feel like they've always been there,” Linville says. “Nothing in the existing house had to go, and it didn't interfere with traffic flow. That spot had been where the dog's pillows were. Now they are just under the stairs.”