Stepping up in style

PHOTO: Stepping up in style

Forget the clunky concrete staircases that you might have trudged up and down in your youth.

With the shift towards a visually lighter design style as embodied by open risers and floating staircases, today's stairs are a marked departure from the utilitarian ones of the past.

Not only do they give a visual flair to the home, they also allow architects and interior designers to push the boundaries of design.

According to Chan Wai Kin, a partner at architecture consultancy firm Timur Designs, the movement towards such open designs can be attributed to an architectural preference for structures that are "visually light".

He adds: "As architects, we are always ensuring that the structure is designed as part of the architectural expression, and not something that needs to be concealed from sight."

Examples of this would be open risers sitting on steel beams or cantilevered stair treads, which go one step further by concealing the beams.

Among homeowners, the growing popularity of such open staircases can be attributed in part to Singaporeans being more well-travelled and reacting against the more conventional "closed" staircase design of the past, observes Terri Tan of Designworx Interior Consultant, adding that today's designs have the added effect of helping to open up the home to give the illusion of a larger space.

Owing to its visual lightness, steel is often used in the construction of open risers though other materials, such as wood, granite and marble, are popular choices as well.

In instances where budget isn't an issue, there is also the option of using structural glass treads to create a truly stunning floating effect, as illustrated by the Steve Jobs-designed glass staircases in Apple's flagship stores.

A less expensive option would be to install a glass balustrade instead, which also adds to the visual transparency of the staircase. 

The list of possibilities is endless. However, for those who do choose to install such an open staircase in their homes, extra attention needs to be paid to detail as there is nothing to conceal workmanship flaws or any other kinds of imperfection.

"When you work on an open riser staircase, you've got to make sure that the top and bottom are finished as beautifully as each other. When a staircase is open, there's nothing underneath it to hide the structural support stringers or steel welding marks that have not been polished up, which can make the whole staircase look like a disaster," says Cameron Woo, founder of interior design firm Cameron Woo Design.

While such staircases do offer a striking aesthetic appeal, some architects such as Robin Tan of Wallflower Architecture & Design say these staircases may not be for everyone.

Due to the lightness of the structure, there is the possibility of a slight vibration when one goes up and down the stairs, which might create a sense of discomfort for some people.

"I have come across young homeowners who will not go for these kinds of staircases probably because they suffer from vertigo," he says.

"Those who do not have such a fear will see the advantage of having such a staircase as it improves the air circulation of the space and its visual transparency."

At the other end of the spectrum, there are homeowners who, in wanting to emphasise the floating effect of their staircase, choose to do away with the balustrades altogether.

Mr Woo cites one of his projects, which features a modern distilled timber staircase without any handrails, as an example, explaining how the client had been adamant about not having balustrades on the open side so it wouldn't hinder the visual effect of the stairs, despite being informed about the safety aspects involved.

Hence what he did instead was to attach "an artistic metal branch" onto the wall, which extends all the way up and helps users get a grip as they go up and down the stairs.

Beyond the aesthetic attributes, homeowners should also keep in mind that a staircase is a space just like any other part of the house. 

And just like any other part of the house, it needs to be well-lit, with proper consideration given to ventilation and air circulation.

Hence, in addition to taking full advantage of its design attributes, one has to pay attention to the location of the staircase on the plan as well.

"A staircase is more than just a functional construction," says Mr Chan.

"You can sit on the staircase to read, kids can play on it, so we always like to place it touching the external perimeters of the house where there are windows and ventilation."

He offers the semi-detached houses of old as an example, pointing out how their staircases always used to face the inner wall, with the result that they were "dark and dingy, with a lack of air circulation".

Apart from considering where to locate the staircase, another factor that homeowners have to consider in relation to space is whether they have enough of it to justify the installation of a staircase.

Citing the trend of homeowners seeking to maximise a high ceiling volume by adding a loft to their property, Designworx's Ms Tan says that in such an instance, "care needs to be taken to ensure that the height underneath the loft and from the loft to the ceiling is ergonomically practical".

Wallflower Architecture & Design's Mr Tan advises homeowners to weigh the trade-offs of having a staircase and an extra loft in a small house.

While a tight spiral staircase might seem like a space-efficient solution, it still takes up space, thereby visually narrowing the room that it is in.

In addition, tight spiral staircases have narrow treads, which make them cumbersome to navigate, especially when moving large furniture.

"If you need more space, either add it to the same level or go the full works and add the entire floor, instead of just a small space, to make it worthwhile to add the staircase," he says, adding that he would not recommend installing a staircase in a house with a floor plan of less than 1,000 square feet.

However, if homeowners insist on installing a staircase in a small property, then they should make sure to use the space underneath the stairs to full effect.

"If you can create a little kitchenette, a pantry, reading nook or library or entertainment unit, it's really not a waste of space. While it does take up the footprint because you have to go upstairs, it's all about design," says Mr Woo.

He cites the example of how staircases in Paris's hôtels particuliers - townhouses that 17th century noblemen built for themselves as urban retreats - manipulate space.

"Every tread winds down a really tight corner. Yet it looks seductive and glamorous while allowing you to go upstairs in the shortest distance possible comfortably."

Whatever kind of staircase homeowners choose to install, they should remember that it is often the first thing that visitors - and potential buyers - see when entering a home for the first time.

Says Mr Woo: "A beautifully designed staircase is the architectural and design element that sweeps people off their feet when they enter a home. When you enter a home and see a stunning staircase, that's the iconic moment, isn't it?"

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