There are several different types of stairs that are used in architectural design. These vary for a variety of reasons, two of the most important being their visual appeal and consideration of space. Stairways can occupy a rather large footprint in a home but through some creative design, this footprint can be substantially reduced when necessary when space is at a premium. Here are the six basic stair shapes and their uses in a home.
Straight Stairs are the most common type primarily because they are very practical while being the most simple and inexpensive type of stairway. A straight stair is basically one that travels from one floor to the next without changing direction or curving.
L Shaped Stairs are basically two stairs that connect at a landing or by winder treads at a 90° turn. These are most often used when space is more limited and a full straight flight cannot fit. The intermediate landing or winder tread area of the stair may be centered between the two straight flights or nearer the top of the bottom. Winder treads are pie-shaped treads that increase the number of treads in the “landing area” when space is even more limited.
U or Switchback Stairs are two flights (often of differing length) that run parallel and joined at the top of the lower flight and the bottom of the upper flight by an intermediate landing. The landing itself may also be partitioned into two square landing platforms or several pie shaped winder treads to reduce the length of the straight flights and thereby reduce the overall footprint of the U shaped stair. Ideally, there is a space between the two parallel flights to allow room for skirt boards, stair tread overhangs and clearance between bypassing handrails. This distance may be as little as 6” to upwards of 12”.
Winder Stairs consist of pie-shaped treads instead of a true landing. A stair may be constructed of a series of these treads for its full flight, or as described above the steps take the place of intermediate landings. Winder treads involve several specific codes such as minimum width, walk line run, etc. which must be taken into account. Additionally, winder treads often add additional expense to a stairway due to the necessary inclusion of a Newel Post at the turn or handrail fittings required to make the transitions. Winder treads can be a valuable tool as substituted for intermediate L shaped or U Shaped stair landings when space is limited.
Circular staircases are technically winder stairs with the specific requirements that they curve around a center point or central axis and that they do not have a center post or column. They are large and sweeping and are available in several types. Freestanding circular staircases span between floors without intermediate attachment. They are basically attached to the lower floor and upper floor only. Hanging circular staircases are attached top and bottom like free-standing but they are also attached to one wall for their full length. Usually, this is the larger radius with inside radius open and complete with a sweeping balustrade. The third option is basically supported by its entire length as well as top and bottom by walls. These walls may be beneath the stair so that it has open balustrade on one or both sides or the walls may completely enclose the stair so only a wall mounted grab rail is required. Regardless of the type, circular staircases are the most luxurious and elegant style of staircase available. Still, they are often not substantially more expensive than L shaped, U Shaped or Winder when the balustrades are considered. This is because a typical circular stairway does not require a series of handrail fittings or newel posts at an angular turn.
Spiral staircases are circular staircases that curve around a central post or column. They are extremely popular because they are relatively inexpensive and occupy very limited spaces. They can be constructed from steel, wood or a combination of each. Exterior spiral staircases are typically constructed from steel and powder coated or painted. There is a wide variety of price ranges for this type of stair, from cheap one-size-fits-all kits to custom manufactured architectural works of art. The price range reflects the materials, quality and functionality. For some, cheap service stairs are all that is required and flex and movement aren’t a problem. Some situations demand a more durable and aesthetically appropriate stair and balustrade.
Finally, there are many grey areas of stair design. For example, stairs may be circular to straight, double L Shaped, elliptical, flared and more. This fusion of different styles is intended both to maximize space and perhaps more importantly to accentuate the design capabilities of these unique architectural features. Our advice when planning your staircase is to be as creative as your budget will allow and consider the entire stair/balustrade unit when evaluating that budget. As I mentioned, circular stairs are often considered “more expensive” even by experienced builders. The fact is that while this is true in most cases, it is not exorbitantly so. A circular stair and balustrade is often only slightly more than a U shaped or Winder stair. In my opinion, the beauty and elegance is often well worth the small additional cost.