Staircase Design – Which Comes First Beauty, Or Safety?

Hi Everyone,

I’m glad that many of you enjoyed Sunday’s post about some of my favorite classical architects.

In my excitement, I had a little sidetrack regarding my staircase design.

However, several of you expressed concern that what I am proposing is not safe.

Please let me be clear.


Of course, safety in staircase design comes first!


I know you guys are concerned about me, but please know that I’m not a total idiot, only a partial idiot. ;] Of course, all will be thoroughly checked out and done legally.

In addition, I’m aware that those of you who expressed concern only have my best interests at heart. But, please trust that I am a professional with over 30 years of experience. Plus, the building codes these days are exceedingly conservative.

I probably shouldn’t have shared that news just yet because I couldn’t explain my thinking as clearly as it should’ve been. It was just that I am so excited by how this is shaping up.

And, it WILL be safe!


But, I want to take this opportunity to go over a few things regarding staircase design.


Of course, it’s focusing on my situation. There are 100s of possible staircase designs. And, when renovating, there isn’t the luxury to build from scratch. So, there are some extra challenges, for sure.

Some of this was already shared in the post about the killer spiral staircase, please go there, so I don’t have to repeat myself– too much.


In staircase design, we have two basic components to consider.


  • The rise is the vertical distance between the bottom of the floor to the top of the next floor.
  • And, the run. The run is the horizontal distance that the staircase takes up.

Naturally, the staircase has to be able to fit into the space. However, in some old homes, the space is so tight that enlarging the staircase is impossible. I believe in those cases; one can get a variance when renovating.


Otherwise, the staircase design MUST be brought up to code.


spiral staircase living room


My current staircase is a spiral with a hideous, super dangerous railing, no risers, a tread height of 8.25″, and of course, pie-shaped steps that are rotating around a pole.

At this point, having lived here for nearly six months, I’m quite used to it. And, I usually go up and down it several times a day.


Okay, I did make a boo the other day in regard to the tread size.


The actual tread is at least 10″ deep; however, it is measured as if you are a bird looking straight down. There is an overhang of about 1″- 1.25″ called the nosing, so the tread is actually larger than I had indicated. That is when going up.

The graphic below will helps to visualize this.

basic staircase design


The next point I need to address is the size of the tread. I know that some of you were concerned about my son being comfortable with his size 12 feet going up and down the stairs.


I seeeeee…

However, I don’t think you fully understand the situation.

I can assure you that the tread length is a non-issue regarding my staircase design. Here, please allow me to demonstrate why that is so.


Cale flying down the staircase




Does that make sense now? My son will be fine. As for me, I lost my mind somewhere in the pit of my stomach when Cale was two.

Man oh man. My boy is going to be 31 this Friday!




And, yes, this or just plain jumping is his preferred method of egress down a flight of stairs.

In addition, Boston is an old city. Cale lived here for 10 years in a number of houses with hideous stairs. There are thousands of old, winding, narrow, rickety, steep, treacherous staircases everywhere you go. If one can’t manage them, they are going to have a difficult time living here.

Boston is a very fit city. I’ve never seen so many perfect bodies in all of my life. However, there are a lot of young people living here. It’s keeping me young, I hope!


The next point is that some of you shared accidents or close calls on a flight of stairs which you say are JUST like the one I’m proposing.


I’m very sorry to hear that you got hurt. Me too!  I fell down some steps once when I was 21. I was a dancer in a show and opening night was in two days. Fortunately, my foot was just badly bruised. But, of course, I should’ve been resting it, not dancing!

Now, I’m not meaning to sound confrontational. However, are you sure our staircases are the same?

Did you have a tape measure with you?

Please trust that I am not going to do some dumb-arse thing. Honestly, I won’t be able to. The building codes are quite strict.


As it is, I made another booboo when talking about my staircase design. However, it’s one in my favor.


There are 15 treads, but there is always one more riser, which means 16 risers, not 15. I also remeasured while standing on the spiral, and the length from the top of the floor to the top of the ceiling below is exactly 15″. The ceiling height is exactly 109″. That means a total rise of 124″.

So, we need to divide that number by 16. And, that means that each stair will be exactly 7.75″. That’s about a half-inch lower than they currently are. They don’t feel especially steep as they are. But, I’m good with 7.75.”

Okay. To make my design work, I need to do what is called a winder staircase. That’s where there are typically three steps that are pie-shaped. When you do this, instead of a landing so you can turn, you net one extra stair in the same amount of space. It used to be a net of two steps, but not now.


So, let’s look at this closer because here’s where it gets a little tricky.


As I recall, a lot of you liked this staircase.


straight run stairs into curved - original source unknown

I do too.

Alas, it’s not even close to being a legal staircase. And, yet, there are thousands of these in Boston, New York, and other cities with old buildings.

Below is another graphic showing an illegal winder staircase design. And, then one that’s done to code, in plan view.



As you can see, the treads come to a point in the staircase we’re no longer able to do. Or, sometimes, there are 2 or 3 inches. But, that’s not good enough.

Above is how a winder staircase must be constructed pretty much everywhere in the USA.


The inside of the tread must be a minimum of six inches.


This graphic expresses it better. It’s still a little confusing. But the 10″ is not measured along the radius, apparently, but as shown. It’s like, let’s make this as difficult for folks as possible!


Here’s the thing.


Nobody cares if you have an illegal staircase UNTIL you go to renovate it. Then, they care. They don’t even care if it’s a lot better. If it’s not up to the stringent code, it’s illegal. I’m not sure what happens in that case. Maybe it has to be done over? However, it may be a big problem for selling the house. I’m not sure about that one.

The point is, I’m not going to do anything that will not pass the building codes. And, again, if you missed it before, they are very conservative.

Also, the codes are different for one and two-family residences than for residences like apartment buildings, where they have common staircases used by dozens of families.

The codes are also less stringent for basements, as well. And, for roof decks, all you basically need is a ladder. haha


Below is the most recent iteration for the lower level.

You can see the entire process and previous versions, if you go here.


114 Comm Ave #2 Garden Level(2)The red is where the new hole will be. The blueish-gray is where the current hole is. The circle indicates the current staircase.


But, the part I’m the most excited about is highlighted above. That first step is actually going to fall where the floor joists are. And, that area is 15″. So, the step will not need to break through the ceiling.

However, there is one new issue. Now that our riser height is only 7.75″ unless we make it a full 8″, they will have to angle in the ceiling for a few inches because we won’t quite meet the 80″ minimum. It will only be 77.5″. And, we can’t do eight inches because then, the number of stairs won’t work out correctly.

114 Comm Ave #2 Garden Level(2)


A few more things about the plan.


I LOVE the location of the entrance. My storage locker is right there. I’ll have plenty of space for a second fridge/freezer that can go in a closet. I can also have a washer dryer in another closet.

Please note that I did not attach all of the doors. But, there will be doors! lol

That is not a real fireplace. I do need to address the heat and air-conditioning. Since I have a patio, I can do a mini-split HVAC unit.


As for the smaller bedroom area.


I am not a fan of big bedrooms. And, this is much cozier for me, without being claustrophobic.

Plus, I love the hallway. One of my favorite parts of my Bronxville, NY apartment was the little winding hallway.

OH! Please note that I have indicated a curtain on the floor plan. I’m super excited about that because I can totally close off the bedroom if I have people over or a party. And, they won’t be traipsing through my bedroom to get to the patio.

I now have a pretty table and chairs out there.



I got two of each chair and love both!


Much of this was already shared in the post about the killer spiral staircase, please go there, so I don’t have to repeat myself– too much.

Okay, that’s it for the staircase design and lower level. I’m still working on the upstairs. I felt that it was important to hammer this one out first.

OH! I forgot to say, with this plan, I won’t need to move the den door over. That’s huge! I wasn’t looking forward to that one. I’d rather spend the money elsewhere.

You may also enjoy this post that focuses on the more decorative aspects of stairwells.



PS: Please check out the BIG mid-week HOT SALES update! Many changes.


30 Responses

  1. Hi Laurel,

    I’ve been following your blog on your renovation, and you have done so many pretty things. I wish I submitted my idea sooner, but didn’t. Regarding your stairwell, I had the idea of creating. your stairwell in the space just next to your entryway. I believe there is a closet there. If you were to open this space to the floor below you could close up the stairwell you have in your living room and have more living space. In the end you new home will be lovely.

    1. Hi Janine,

      That’s a terrific idea and one that’s been presented before. Unfortunately, I don’t own the space underneath the closet. Somewhere, I think I made a diagram showing what belongs upstairs and how the downstairs differs in footprint. The upstairs of the condo is nearly 800 sq. ft and the lower level is about 425 sq ft.

  2. Tricia–you nailed it. I often become frozen when I think of a new update/remodel. One just needs to take those first measured steps and let the magic happen.

  3. Your posts about your staircase are an excellent example of how making changes in an older/existing home should work. All the measuring, planning and drawings get you a design that could work. It’s the tweaking and rethinking that gets you the design you never considered when you started but would not want to live without. All those restrictions and hurdles are often what draws out the best design. You have done the work and, IMO, improved the stairs greatly and in the process made the lower level way more functional and attractive. It took me several years to come up with the right design for a bath/bedroom/closet/hall redo in a my 120 yr. old home. I had many ideas but none that ticked all the boxes. Finally, two yrs. ago it all came together and I know it was worth the wait.

  4. I know your new staircase will be lovely and SAFE! I know you have planned a redo of it even before you signed closing, but every time you post a picture of your current DEATH TRAP, I get heart palpitations!

  5. Oh, Laurel, I couldn’t stop laughing at the photo of your son skateboarding down the stairs! I’ll stop worrying about the little tyke now!

    When we moved to Macedonia (State Dept), there was a staircase from the fourth floor to the main level–58 marble stairs. My seven year old son took one of our moving boxes, flattened it and SLEDDED down those stairs! My heart jumps to my throat every time I think about it. Cale’s photo reminded me of that day, which I can now laugh about, but then I was focused on the awful medical system in our lovely host country!

  6. I love your sense of humor and am thrilled that you get to design this home for yourself. It is great that you get to put your 30+ years of experience to good use for YOU1
    thank you for sharing your new home design with us.

  7. Thank you for the explanation of your bedroom curtains! I was just about to ask when you threw in the explanation at the end…Yay! Great plan. Looking forward to the pics as you go.

  8. Hello lovely Laurel,
    I am a faithful reader and I absolutely adore you and your blog. Thank you for teaching me so much. I just bought a house and I can’t wait to put all that I’ve learned to work.

    It also has a problem stair, so this series about your planned staircase has been great. I don’t need major renovations, just stair rails/moldings/paint/runner. It has no rails!! Just stairs that you walk up and hope you don’t fall off. And 1/2 molding, 1/2 blank wall; and swing doors covering just half. They are bizarre.

    We have a million plans. Fortunately, I am a big DIY person, and very artistic, and my husband is handy, so we will be able to do most things ourselves. But.. we will take your advice to hire a designer for the sanity check.

    They will have to get used to “but Laurel says” =)

  9. I second that. We live in a period house with a steep staircase, which nowadays is not up to code. My partner has balance issues due to Parkinson and we had a stair lift installed recently. No problems at all for him.

  10. Your newly-built staircase will be wonderful.
    Addressing any future reasons for not being able to climb stairs – electric chairs are available…
    Looking forward to your further designs..
    looks terrific so far…

  11. I didn’t comment on your staircase post, and I assumed that you would do something completely safe and beautiful. I’m sure there were many other trusting people who also didn’t say anything 🙂

    I loved this post and found it interesting. One tangent that stuck out to me especially was your comment about small, cozy bedrooms. Our house has a large main bedroom and I’m not sure how to make it cozy.
    It’s a weird problem to have – there are other spaces that I wish were bigger, and yet I don’t know how to best utilize the main bedroom space.

    Maybe a future post someday?

  12. Beverly, I so agree with you! I’ll be 72 in October and have been retired since 1995!!! In that time I terraced my 1/3 acre lot in stone and did all of the planting and maintenance. About five years ago the arthritis started and those 2 staircases we have inside have become a bitch! I tease my husband that we may have to move to get away from the garden…and, of course, the stairs. Forever homes have a way of laughing at us!

  13. The lesson we can all take from this is how much planning, reworking, then reworking again, good design requires. There are so many factors to consider. Watching a pro like yourself work through the obstacles is a great learning opportunity and a reality check. The end result will be smart, safe and beautiful. Of this, I am certain. Thanks for sharing the journey.

  14. Laurel, love love your blog. I was one of the elevator fans. Your home is coming along beautifully, and I look forward to the reveal. I am writing b/c I am 72, retired for one year from a mentally and physically demanding profession. I grew up as a nerd and bookworm (not a dancer), but remember that Mother Nature has her own plans, and your forever home should reflect that understanding. I do have 3 staircases in my home, and only one has posed a problem with a recent leg injury. Just saying!

  15. I love your new plan and I never for a moment thought you would design stairs that are unsafe, impractical or not to code. I noticed in your bathroom you have a large closet that shares a wall with your walk-in closet and that your bathroom is not generous. It may not be necessary for your personal needs but you might consider removing that closet in favor of a larger bathroom. You could either do a larger shower or perhaps shift things around to accommodate a larger (or perhaps double) vanity.

    Of course, I know that you will make a choice that fits your needs and it will be fabulous. I just tend to take a long view on this kind of renovation and think about future marketability.

    I love reading about your process and I can’t wait to see what you do!

  16. Laurel, thank you for saying you are not a fan of big bedrooms. I’m with you! I use a bedroom for sleeping, and prefer other rooms to be my sitting space, my office, my exercise space, or whatever else they are building enormous bedrooms for these days. I love your plan with the smaller bedroom, and it’s so fun to watch you put together this amazing project!

  17. Hey Laurel,
    No worries about your designs whatsoever.
    I’m sure it will be both safe and beautiful.
    I also know from touring so many really old homes from several hundred years, to pre war and on, that stairs were quite often more beautiful than they were totally safe. I also know that even stairs that are to modern code don’t fit my big feet going down and I just go down slightly at an angle like a true southern belle😉
    Good luck

  18. We have a completely to-code staircase, but if you’re not holding the railing while carrying a basket of laundry, you can still break your ankle (she said, from experience). That said, of COURSE you know what you’re doing!
    My daughter also turns 31 this weekend (Saturday). Sure goes fast, doesn’t it?!!

  19. Hi Laurel, I live in a 250+ year old home with some very wonky and dangerous steps. I assure you shoe size has nothing to do with how we climb stairs. We never put the whole shoe on the step, just part of it. My biggest son wears size 15 and he manages any steps you can give him! Looking forward to seeing yours! Susanne

  20. You think of everything! Love the curtain in the bedroom.
    We’re contemplating building for the second time in my life and I’m so excited but nervous. I knew nothing at 22 and still not enough (or maybe way too much?) at 65.

  21. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and really enjoy it! Thank you for writing it! Question: can you extend the closet in front of your stairs to under the stairs to give you more space?

  22. I like the size of the treads that transition the direction of the staircase. It looks as though you would not have to adjust your gait going down the stairs.

  23. Wonderful design! And all the closets! I too would never imagine you’d do something unsafe or not up to code. It is such a pleasure to follow the development of your ideas for your wonderful new home!

  24. My dearest Laurel,
    I have staircase stories and issues. I lived in a house with a spiral staircase to the lower level…I HATED it. Talk about dangerous, and a complete pain in the neck to use, and ugly whole n floor. When I bought my current condo (which you helped me renovate via your blog)…it had an ugly whde open, painted multiple times, staircase without rsers…openng so wide my dogs were afraid of it…. Then I met my new best friend, my finish carpenter buddy and he transformed it into lovely. Really really lovely. I spent the money on great materials and a talented guy.It took forever, but it is now a stunning feature in my condo.
    I can’t wait to see how nce yours will be.

  25. Laurel, the thought that you would design anything that is unsafe or not up to the building codes never crossed my mind 🙂

    The reason I am writing here is to say a BIG THANK YOU for one of your other posts about carpets on staircases.

    My daughter and SIL bought a lovely Georgian cottage 3 years ago, with a winder staircase, very similar to the picture above, only that it is more enclosed and the side edges of the treads a not seen. I helped them renovate the cottage, and gave them advice when they asked for one, and a lot of this advice was about things I learned from your wonderful blog.

    When we removed the old carpet, we realised that some of the original treads have been replaced with newer wood and they wouldn’t look good if left exposed, so they had to be carpeted with the same natural fiber carpet a the floor upstairs. I told my children about the waterfall and bullnose options, showed them your article, and they decided to go for the bullnose. They got a quotation from the carpet man and I stayed in the house while he was doing the job to make sure everything was going to plan. And guess what – he would do waterfall instead of bullnose (gave some lame explanation why it would be better, the real reason IMHO was that it would be easier and requires less time) if I was not there to stop him and to insist that he should do what was in the contract. Otherwise he did a good job and the stairs (and the whole little cottage) look great.

  26. Laurel – agree with you on the small bedroom. We have an enormous bedroom in the (newish) house we moved into 3 years ago, but a very small one with angled ceiling at our 2nd home, and i really love the small one – so cozy sleeping under the eaves and feeling more enclosed. Love the hallway design – so practical with all the closets but makes a gracious entrance so you don’t feel like you are trapsing guests through your bedroom.

  27. Your designs are really coming along, Laurel! A small sloping area on the ceiling to accommodate the legal minimum height isn’t really a big deal.
    I must say that I’m grateful such restrictions don’t apply here, as our house doesn’t meet any of the height requirements! We’d have to demolish half the house to do so, as 3-foot-thick doorways and the ceiling beam which supports the 9-foot-wide chimney in the kitchen weren’t designed for anyone taller than 6 feet. We already have friends who have to duck in the doorways and can’t get to the working end of the kitchen because of the beam.
    Fun moment: at a production of The Merry Widow in Geneva some years back, Danilo made his first appearance by sliding down the banisters of a grand staircase with great speed and panache, a show-stopping moment!

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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