In the last couple of decades we’ve become more sensitive to the challenges posed by steps to those who are mobility impaired, but there are still many situations in which a change of level is desirable to create a particular spatial effect. The experience of ascending or descending dramatically alters your perspective. And, interestingly, it’s not just the view from one space to another that changes. There’s a psychological effect as well.
When you ascend, you are aware of rising above and looking out over the surroundings. Often this is accompanied by a sense of increased privacy and of being separated from the main activity areas. You get this sense as you climb a staircase to the bedrooms on a second floor, or as you go up a short run of steps to the front door of a house. Descending from a front walkway to the main entry is much less inviting and, in fact, it often feels quite uncomfortable, as though you were going down into the underworld.
To make a descent feel inviting, it needs to open into a wider expanse of space, light, and view, so that you can see what’s coming next. Stairways to basements are often unpleasant because they constrict the view and descend into darkness. But make the stairway light-filled and open it into a good-size room at the bottom, and the experience is significantly improved.
Like changes in ceiling height, changes in floor height can delineate one activity place from the next without the need for walls. But with a change in floor height, there’s an even more powerful spatial experience. Just a step or two in height change can create a significant distinction between places, yet someone in the higher space can still easily converse with another in the lower space.
A room that’s higher than the surrounding areas of the house feels like a place of retreat — almost as though you were climbing up into a tree house, even when there’s only a step or two between it and the adjacent spaces. This sense can be further accentuated when the access into the raised space is narrow and offers just a glimpse into the room from other areas.
Adapted with permission from Home by Design by Sarah Susanka, published by The Taunton Press (2004).