[Worldtrippers home] [Mountaintop home]

June 29, 2009
Stairing into space

Russell studies Topsider's blueprints for our mountain house

Thanks to our friend Dirk, the wiring installation for our mountain home is now proceeding rapidly. As a result, the critical path for an occupancy permit is now the finished stairs. And while wiring was Gail’s domain, the stairs are Russell’s responsibility.

None of us knows anything about building or installing stairs. And while we could pay someone several thousands of dollars to do it for us, there is a certain challenge in building them ourselves. Furthermore, Gail did some reading and decided that Russell matches the exact profile of a good stair builder: analytical, meticulous and detail-oriented. Not to add any additional pressure, but Gail kept saying – more than once – “You know, the stairs are going to be a showcase of the finished house!”

For four years we’ve had temporary stairs, first assembled by by Russell's brother-in-law Matt in 2005 (the alcove is in the background)

There are stairs indicated in our blueprints from Topsider, but Gail doesn’t like them. They show a set of four flights (with three intermediate landings) that wind clockwise as you go up. Gail doesn’t like them because they have too large a footprint downstairs. She wants the lower floor to be as unobstructed as possible, especially given the huge walls of panoramic windows.

Topsider's blueprints call for stairs that wind clockwise as they ascend from the lower floor (left) to the upper floor (right)

We investigated spiral staircases, which have a very small footprint. Unfortunately, residential building codes state that if you have a spiral staircase, you must have a second staircase for fire safety. We actually investigated building a second staircase outside leading up to the deck. Ultimately, we rejected this for security reasons.

Instead, we decided to design a staircase that would fit into the alcove next to the front door, with as little protrusion into the downstairs as possible.

So during our long week up on the mountain in June, Russell took an initial look at the stair alcove. In fact, when he wasn’t derailing Gail and Dirk with door hanging, he was derailing them with long discussions about stairs.

The alcove is 114” wide by 36” deep by 120” high. Current residential codes require steps that are 36” wide (minimum), with a 7-3/4” rise (maximum) and 10” run (minimum). Fortunately, we are grandfathered into the old code, which has more lenient requirements of 8” rise (maximum) and 9” run (minimum).

Initially, Russell thought the stair design would be easy. Under the old code, we would require a total of 15 steps to reach the second floor. Simply compute how many steps will fit into the alcove, add a landing, make a 90º turn and add the remaining steps to the first floor. Simple, right?

It was not until we actually taped out this design on the floor that we ran into “Glitch No. 1.”

Back when Russell framed the upstairs, he had to move several walls from the blueprint spec in order to work around the center pole of the house. One of these walls was Cameron’s bedroom, which originally lined up with the north wall of the alcove. As built, the wall now protrudes 16” over the alcove.

Glitch No. 1”: On the north end of the alcove (right side of drawing), Cam's bedroom upstairs protrudes 16” (red) over the alcove opening (blue), limiting headroom

The problem is that the proposed stairwell landing would be 48” off the ground. This would leave headroom clearance of only 72". Residential code specifies minimum headroom of 80”. Oops.

Scenario “A”: the landing (on right) does not have enough headroom

Back to the drawing board. Russell’s scenario “B” involved adjusting the stairwell 16” over. This caused two problems. First, the lower landing would now protrude much farther into the lower floor, which Gail wanted to avoid. Second, the uppermost step encountered “Glitch No. 2.”

On the other end of the alcove (the south end), the second floor has both a joist and a glu-lam beam. Because the upper flight will reach the second floor here, it is critical that the tread clears both the joist and glu-lam. Under scenario “B,” the last tread would cut into the joist. Oops.

Glitch No. 2”: On the south end of the alcove (left side of drawing), the stairs can’t extend past the point where the joist (red) and glu-lam beam (brown) intersect (yellow circle)

Scenario “B”: The stairs have been shifted 16” over. Unfortunately, the upper flight cuts into the glu-lam beam and the lower flight’s footprint is too big.

Undaunted, Russell designed scenario “C,” which now had three flights and two landings – one on each end of the alcove. He actually drew this one at home, phoning the instructions to Gail and Dirk on the mountain. They measured everything out, even holding up some scrap pieces of wood to check site lines. Everything looked good.

Scenario “C”: A moment of success!

It wasn’t until Gail returned home that she began to have second thoughts. Wouldn’t it be better to have 7.5” rises instead of 8”, especially as we got older?

Russell explained that 7.5” rises would require 16 steps, not 15. Unfortunately, there was no way for scenario “C” to add that one extra step. It couldn’t go on the lower flight, because that would reduce the first-landing headroom below the minimum. It couldn’t go on the second flight, because the alcove was not wide enough. And it couldn’t go on the third flight, because the extra step would hit the glu-lam beam upstairs.

Gail resigned herself to 8” rises. Russell saw it as a challenge.

Over the next several days, Russell looked at additional landings, winders, and even curved steps. Each of these alternatives was rejected. (Russell has enough of a learning curve just building stairs; creating a curved stairway would probably make his brain explode.)

Russell created more than a dozen different stair scenarios, all of which had problems

In the end, Russell created two new scenarios with 7.5” rises, both of which were questionable. Scenario “D” added the 16th step to the upper flight, letting it cut into the glu-lam beam. Scenario “E” kept the same upper flight, but turned it at an angle to avoid the glu-lam beam.

Two scenarios with 7.5” rises, requiring an extra 16th step.
On scenario “D” (left), the extra step just nicks the glu-lam beam.
On scenario “E” (right), the entire upper flight is angled to avoid the glu-lam beam.

Russell emailed both drawings to Dennis, our building inspector, with the related questions:

  1. Are we allowed to “nick” one of the steps to avoid hitting the glu-lam beam?
  2. Are we allowed to construct a flight at an angle less than 90º?

Amazingly, Dennis’ answer to both questions was “yes.” He would approve either design.

For now, Russell hopes to proceed with scenario “D”. Secretly, he hopes that he measured something wrong and there is actually an extra inch or two between the alcove and the glu-lam beam.

He will find out on July 4th weekend, when he will return to the mountain with a tape measure.

Gail has already picked up two stair stringers from a salvage yard. We hope to re-use the treads and risers


[Worldtrippers home] [Mountaintop home]