Stairs with flair

As part of this renovation of a narrow Sydney terrace, CplusC Architectural Workshop moved the staircase to the front facade, improving the flexibility of the internal spaces. The semi-circular stairwell pushes into the front garden and is clad with strips of glass and timber, allowing a subtle visual connection to the street; it doubles as a greenhouse for the plants below the stairs. The spiral stair is made from angled steel welded on site, with recycled spotted gum treads; the timber unit that serves as the first three steps also contains storage. Image: Murray Fredericks.
The humble staircase can do far more than provide access to your second floor. Anna Cumming shows that with a bit of creativity, stairs can fulfil multiple purposes from storage and thermal regulation to design feature or just sheer fun.

As our cities grow and the need for clever urban densification grows with it, more and more new homes and extensions are going up to increase living space while preserving precious outdoor area. And to get upstairs, you need – well – stairs. It’s easy to think of a set of stairs as nothing but a space-hungry necessity, but with some thought they can be so much more, as architect Shae Parker McCashen of Green Sheep Collective counsels: “The need for stairs provides an opportunity for an exciting design feature. Any built element should offer more benefits than its traditional singular function – stairs can provide a beautiful aesthetic and offer many functions beyond travel between levels.”

This dramatic staircase is part of a Copenhagen apartment renovation by Danish architects JAC Studios. The lightweight steel upper section is suspended from the first floor level to give the impression of levitation; the lower section is a series of stacked concrete plateaux, some of which extend to form seating and a hearth for the fireplace. Note that tighter regulations would require a balustrade if this stair was replicated in Australia. Image: Karina Tengberg.
Stairs and their balustrades can be approached as a decorative as well as a functional feature. This one in a Melbourne house designed by Steffen Welsch is the centrepiece of the dining room, and boasts a beautiful cut-metal balustrade reminiscent of a dragonfly’s wing, designed by artist Laura Woodward. Steffen and his team ensured that it complied with regulations for height and maximum gap size. The staircase also incorporates storage underneath, heating and a hidden docking station, and allows light in from above. Image: Rhiannon Slatter.


Architect Steffen Welsch also loves stairs. “They allow you to explore a space. They can be a feature – we often involve artists in our stair designs – but they can also be hidden or in an unexpected location and add an element of surprise.” Depending on the space available and the look you’re after, stairs can be straight, curved or spiral; cantilevered, suspended or supported from underneath; open or closed-tread; tucked away behind a door or a sculptural statement.

Space-saving styles include spiral stairs, ladders, moveable stairs and alternate-step stairs which save on horizontal space by providing a half-width tread on each step. Note though that these styles are generally only permissible for “non-habitable” rooms such as lofts and storerooms not used on a daily basis.

The brief for these stairs in Techné Architecture + Interior Design’s Carlton North House in inner Melbourne was for “a simple, fluid form that created something of a ‘moment’ within the house,” says Techné director Nick Travers. “Taking out flex and bounce in the design required a bit of thought. The plate steel folded treads and risers act structurally in concert with the balustrading and handrail to provide stability.” The timber treads soften the aesthetic and also make using the stairs quieter. Image: Ben Hosking.
For this narrow townhouse, Melbourne architect Shae Parker McCashen designed an open stair to maximise natural light and ventilation. Timber treads match the flooring, and the almost invisible glass balustrade enhances the open feel of the stair and allows for views to the courtyard. The stairwell also acts as a ‘thermal chimney’ in summer allowing warm air to travel up to the second floor and exit via high level openable windows. Image: Emma Cross.


Whatever style of stair you choose, you’ll need to ensure it complies with the National Construction Code (NCC), which regulates stair construction and design. It sets out the requirements for balustrades, handrails, the height and depth ratios of stair treads, and anti-slip surfaces; these are designed to ensure stairs are safe and comfortable to use. For example, the gaps under open-tread stairs must not allow a 125mm sphere to pass through, a safety requirement to stop small children slipping through.

Future-proofed design: Latching sliding doors at the bottom of the stairs in this home built for a retiring couple in Woodend, Victoria, serve two purposes. For now, they allow the upstairs to be closed off thermally and acoustically. The design also accommodates the residents’ possible future changing needs: if reduced mobility required it, they could move into the downstairs bedroom and a second (currently unused) door to the entry lobby combined with closing the sliding doors could provide private access to the second storey accommodation for a tenant or carer. Read more about the design process for this house in Design Workshop, Sanctuary 34.
The tiny two-storey prefabricated Warrander Studio was an exercise in stripped back efficiencies (spatially, functionally and structurally), and the task of integrating storage to allow the spaces to function effectively was fundamental. The under-stair space was utilised for as much storage as possible, including a coat cupboard, two pull-out pantries for food storage, and integrated drawers in the stair risers for smaller items. The double height polycarbonate light shaft in the stairwell brings in soft translucent natural light, adding to the space’s sense of generosity. See our profile in Sanctuary 42’s prefab & modular special (summary here) for more detail on the Warrander Studio. Design and image: Makers of Architecture.


Commonly used materials for stairs include timber, metal, concrete and glass. Your choice will depend on the design for your stairs, your aesthetic preferences and your budget. Remember to take into account the embodied energy of the material, and consider using recycled material if you can.

For renovations, architect Terry Bail of Archology often crafts stairs and balustrades using timber reclaimed from the demolished part of the house. Steffen is a fan of glass, because “it is unexpected, it gives you a sense of floating, it allows light into the space underneath, and it pushes the capability of the material.”

Another option is to source and reuse an entire set of stairs, though this is best done early in the design process to ensure they fit seamlessly.

This staircase works hard. It’s unconventionally located in the centre of the living/dining/kitchen area to enable best use of space upstairs on this narrow site. At ground level, the space underneath is utilised for a dining table, but there’s still plenty of built-in storage: “By turning the traditional infill strategy to a stair upside down, we fit in substantial storage above the raking stair ceiling, accessed from the first floor,” explains designer Greg McNeil of Bios Design Build Sustain. The stair also acts as a thermal chimney, but importantly a door at the top can be closed to avoid this heat transfer to the upper floor when it’s unwanted. The open treads maintain sight lines through the interior. Image: Meagan Harding
A space-saving spiral staircase was chosen for access to the roof terrace above this backyard studio in Richmond, Melbourne, and placed externally to preserve the privacy of the studio. The stair is galvanised steel to withstand the elements and pool chemicals. “The double helix of the stair also works sculpturally against the brick wall – particularly the shadows in the late afternoon,” says the architect, Mark Austin. Design: Austin Maynard Architects; image: Tess Kelly.

Multi-purpose design

Beyond the basics, don’t miss the chance to make your stairs do double or triple duty. The under-stair space can be fitted out with storage, a resting place, a desk, or even an indoor garden. Stairwells can also work as lightwells, and as an integral part of the passive thermal design of the house: like many designers, Steffen uses them as thermal chimneys, explaining that “in winter they bring warm air upstairs and reduce the need for heating, in summer they can draw hot air from downstairs to outside and keep the house cool.” Where possible, it can also be a good idea to have a door at the top or bottom of the stairs to allow thermal and acoustic zoning of the house when required.

“A stair can double as a bookshelf, have a tread become a benchtop, allow views and a sense of connection to other spaces, or provide beautiful detailing in line with other joinery in the design,” says Shae. Terry agrees: “I like to use them for light and ventilation when you have sites that do not offer great opportunities for those.”

Give some thought to future-proofing the design, too, if possible. While acknowledging the difficulty of accommodating accessibility in multi-level homes, Shae says that providing wide, non-slip, straight-run stairs should allow for the future installation of chair lifts; another option is to plan in space for an elevator if it’s ever needed.

Sydney architect Terry Bail knows how to create a ‘wow’ factor with his designs. This incredible stairwell with slippery dip in his ‘Gibbes Street’ project was built by Create Constructions in conjunction with the immensely talented joiner Oscar Priekaerts. Image: Jon Bader
Part of a renovation to a single-fronted terrace house with a party wall on the north side, this staircase was deliberately located on the north boundary as a way of getting north light down into the living areas below. “Council wouldn’t let us put a north-facing window on the boundary, so instead we glazed the roof to the stair and put an external automated blind over it to protect from excess sun,” explains designer Ande Bunbury. As the stair runs alongside the kitchen, she decided to make the space underneath work hard as a “wall of storage” including fridge and pantry. The stair is constructed of recycled messmate with a Livos oil finish. Image: Ben Hosking

Top tips from the experts:

“Don’t miss a design opportunity to do something different. Think of your stairs as a chance to create a visually stunning feature in a room, the focal point to plan the house around. Choose the material and design depending on whether you need light access, ventilation, and so on.” – Terry Bail, Archology

“See a stair as a multi-purpose object and incorporate other uses – think of thermal performance, storage, a play or resting spot underneath, incorporate a slide if you dare. And make comfort a priority – if you can, make them wider and shallower so they are comfortable to walk on.” – Steffen Welsch

“Consider stairs as an opportunity for an exciting and beautiful design element – they can be so much more than a utility or forgotten design opportunity!” – Shae Parker McCashen, Green Sheep Collective

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