Staircase Design Guide | Homebuilding & Renovating

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With its prominent position in your home, your staircase needs careful consideration. The perfect staircase design should combine practicality, style and safety, and as such you should think about size, layout, materials and lighting in line with Building Regulations requirements.


Whether you are building from scratch, opting for a replacement or updating your existing staircase, follow this design advice to ensure you are happy with the end result.

Staircase Regulations

Given the safety implications, make sure you are aware of Building Regulations requirements when it comes to staircases when thinking about your design.

  • Staircases should have a maximum rise of 220mm and a minimum going of 220mm
  • They should have a maximum pitch of 42°
  • Flights should have a handrail on at least one side if they are less than one metre wide and on both sides if they are wider than this
  • Handrails on stairs and landings should have a minimum height of 900mm
  • No openings of any balustrading should allow the passage of a 100mm sphere
  • A minimum of 2,000mm of clear headroom is required above the pitch line
  • For further Regulations see Approved Document K (available to buy from

How Big Should a Staircase Be?

The first thing you need to determine is what size your staircase needs to be. Begin by measuring the total rise. This is the measurement from the finished floor below to the finished floor level above.

You will then need to work out the number of risers required. To stay within Building Regulations, a domestic staircase needs a rise of between 190mm and 220mm. Standard risers are around 200mm, so aim for this.

A typical rise is 2,600mm, which divides easily into 13 200mm risers, or steps. Now you need to calculate the number of treads. Generally you require one less tread than the number of risers. Next, work out the ‘going’. This is the measurement from the face of one riser to the next.

To comply with the Regulations, the minimum going should be 220mm, whilst the pitch of the staircase should not exceed 42°.

There are no restrictions when it comes to width, but standard flights measure 860mm, and for a main staircase it is agreed that a width of between 800mm and 900mm works best. For secondary staircases a minimum width of 600mm is recommended.

Where Should I Locate the Staircase?

It is generally accepted that the base of a staircase is best located somewhere near to the front door and that if possible you should not have to cross another room to reach the stairs from the front door. This is vital if there is a third storey to the house, as the stairs will have to act as a fire escape route.

Does a Staircase Need to be Straight?

No, in many situations a straight staircase won’t fit in the house, or simply won’t work with the design scheme.

1. Half landing; 2. Quarter landing; 3. Quarter landing with winder; 4. Straight flight

When turns are required in a staircase, the simplest option is to split the flight in two and connect them with a 90° quarter turn landing. If you were to use a 180° turn it would be known as a half landing.

Steps that turn corners whilst climbing are called ‘winders’ and are often used to navigate 90° turns. A turn consisting of three winders is known as a ‘kite winder’. These are often used at the top and bottom of flights to get round corners.

Spiral staircases are not the most practical feature, making it hard to take furniture up and down and often being more expensive than standard flights. However, they can look fantastic and are useful where space is limited.

Staircase Design Features

If you are adding a brand new staircase, it is a great opportunity to add any more unusual design features that could not only improve the staircase itself, but also how you interact with the rest of your home.

Choose from more practical features, such as integrated storage or glass elements to help the flow of natural light around the staircase, to more aesthetic characteristics, such as wow-factor balustrades, extra width or even a staircase pod.


Staircases with storage capability are a great way to make the most of your space. Definitely one up from the understairs cupboard, this bespoke staircase by Bisca incorporates a run of cupboards made from solid wood, combined with a toughened low-iron glass balustrade and stainless steel rails.

Extra-wide Stairs

The owners of this house, designed by Granit Architects, wanted a staircase with wow factor so the existing staircase was replaced with an oversized stone and timber design. Italian limestone has been teamed with dark stained oak, with the lower treads extended to full width in order to create space for displaying artwork and books. It could even be used as a seating area.

Staircase Pod

This staircase pod was a design response to both budget restrictions and the large open plan spaces in this barn conversion.The ‘pod’ has been created using OSB, with the staircase within leading to a mezzanine level — slot ‘windows’ ensure the space is not dark.

Use Stickers or Paint for a Quick Staircase Update

For a speedy and inexpensive transformation, consider stair stickers or paint.  If you plan on painting your stairs, make sure you use a product designed for that purpose.

Incorporating Lighting into Your Staircase Design

A badly-designed staircase is one that suffers from a total lack of light, either natural or artificial, but sadly this is a common problem, with staircases often being located in the centre of the house away from main windows.

Good ways to allow light through to your staircase include using fanlights above doors, both internal and external, to bring light into the base of the staircase; inserting a rooflight above the stairwell; or using a lightpipe — a useful way to bring light to staircases in terraced homes or where space is tight.

Use artificial lighting to turn your staircase into even more of a feature. Although including practical lighting at the top and bottom of the staircase – controlled by a two-way switch – is a good idea, using LED lights set into the string, handrail or even the stairs themselves is a fantastic way of showing off your new flight.

(MORE: Clever Lighting Design Ideas for Your Home)

Introducing Natural Light

Consider how to draw natural light into your stairwell. A large window running alongside the stairs, a roof lantern or rooflights in the ceiling above, or even a glass balustrade that allows light to flow from one floor to another all work.

Choosing Timber for Your Staircase Design

Wood makes a fantastic staircase material as it is so versatile in the looks you can create. Wooden staircases for traditional homes should be quite substantial, with rounded stair nosing, turned balusters and carved newel posts. Contemporary timber staircases often consist of nothing more than chunky wooden treads that cantilever out from a wall.

Pros: Wood is strong, versatile, easy to work with and has a timeless look.
Cons: Very few, hence it being such a popular material. Though dark and heavy wood can be overbearing when used for such a central feature.
Costs: The cheapest option is engineered pine or plywood — ideal for a fully carpeted staircase and painted balustrading. These can be bought from around £500. Next up is parana pine, readily available and fairly cost-effective. This is often combined with hemlock, a good choice for balustrading due to its stability. Hardwoods, such as beech, ash and oak, are more expensive, varying from two times the cost of softwood up to five times the cost.

Glass and Acrylic Staircase Designs

Not only do glass staircases allow light to flow easily both between rooms and levels in a house, but they also add a touch of contemporary glamour.

Pros: It’s strong, being made up of two or three layers laminated together. Perfect for contemporary interiors.
Cons: Acrylic can be prone to surface scratches and as a flammable material cannot be used for staircases that will be fire escape routes.
Costs: They rarely come cheap, particularly if buying from specialists. The key to a low-cost yet striking staircase is to combine materials and be clever when choosing your supplier. Having a local glassworks make panels for your balustrading before combining them with a softwood staircase made by a joiner, for example, will work out to be cheaper than going to a specialist.

Metal Staircases

Metal staircases have now made the transition from being seen as purely industrial features, to the home. They are less heavy in their appearance than timber.

Pros: Perfect for spiral or straight flights, they look great paired with glass balustrades or even wire mesh or tension wires
Cons: Badly designed metal staircases can look overly industrial
Costs: Components can now be bought off the shelf, with full timber and metal staircases coming to as little as £500-600

Stone and Concrete Staircases

Stone or concrete staircases can be traditional – think grand sweeping stone flights – or contemporary in the form of industrial-style simplicity. Concrete stairs are usually supplied precast in sections to be assembled on site.

Pros: The perfect way to create a sense of solidity
Cons: Expensive. May have to wait a while for them to be made
Costs: Variable. They can be expensive, starting at around £10,000. An alternative is to clad existing stairs with stone panels

Buying a Staircase

I’ve see a design, but where to get it from?

More often than not, people spot a staircase they like the look of and wonder where to get one like it. Unfortunately it is not as simple as walking into a staircase shop and pointing to the one you want.

It is often the case that the striking staircases that grace the pages of this magazine have been custom-made rather than bought off the shelf, designed by the house designer or architect, or sometimes by the owners themselves. However, there are specialist staircase companies out there who will also design and make a staircase.

But I have a small budget…

Those aiming to stick to a budget are well advised to ask a local joiner – or the joiner already working on their project – to help them with a design.

Once you have a design it is entirely possible to buy a staircase from a DIY warehouse or timber merchant – assuming the sizes you require are fairly standard – and then customise it yourself with the addition of, say, a more decorative handrail or even a runner.

Anatomy of a Staircase

1. Handrail; 2. Newel; 3. Baluster; 4. String capping; 5. Nosing; 6. Closed string; 7. Cut string; 8. Carriage; 9. Tread; 10. Riser

Staircase Glossary

Going The horizontal distance between one step and the next, measured from the nosing to the nosing. Building Regs specify a minimum distance of 220mm to a maximum of 300mm.

Nosing The edge of the tread which projects beyond the riser.

Rise The vertical distance from the top of the tread to the top of the next one. Building Regs specify a minimum distance of 150mm to a maximum of 220mm. The total rise is the vertical distance from the floor to the floor of the level above.

Riser The board that forms the face of the step.

Tread The top section of an individual step on which you walk.

Balustrading Describes the combination of the spindles, handrail and newel posts on a staircase. Often it is these elements which give the staircase its character — they can transform an off-the-shelf flight into something special. Timber, glass, metal and even stud walls can all form balustrading.

H&R often gets asked how some homeowners seemingly get away without having balustrades. The simple answer is, we might occasionally photograph a house before it gets a completion certificate. We emphasise that staircases are one area where you should never compromise on safety.

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