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July 20, 2009
The stairway glitch of the day

Russell marks the possible stairwell footprint with masking tape

We have previously recounted all of the time and trouble Russell has endured trying to design the interior stairs for our mountain home. After several iterations, he finally arrived at a plan that was approved by our building inspector.

We have also recounted how Russell spent the last weekend up at the mountain installing the remaining shutters. This was not the original plan.

Russell’s original plan was to begin mapping out the stairs. He actually started doing this on Saturday morning. He got as far as marking the location of the first landing when he ran into yet another glitch.

To recap, the main issue is back during framing, Russell had moved Cameron’s bedroom wall so that it hangs over the stairway alcove by 16 inches. Unfortunately, this created a limitation in headroom that Russell did not discover until he started to design the stairs. The solution was to make sure that the landing under this section is no higher than a 40 inch elevation. This would ensure a clearance of 80 inches below the second floor, which has an elevation of 120 inches.

To be sure, Russell’s plan has the landing at 37.5 inches. This should have created a headroom clearance of 82.5 inches, passing the building code requirements with several inches to spare. In reality, it did not.

The current stair plan includes a landing (upper right) that is elevated 37.5” off the ground

On paper, Russell had failed to account for the fact that the second floor is supported by 2x6” joists. In other words, the second floor does not have a true elevation of 120 inches. It has an actual elevation of 120 inches minus the 6-inch joist, or 114 inches. As a result, the headroom clearance over the second landing is actually only 76.5 inches, below the 80-inch minimum.

The landing (blue) has headroom of 82.5” from the second floor (yellow), but only 76.5” from the joist underneath (red)

Russell and Gail spent quite awhile brainstorming what to do about this latest glitch. The simplest solution would be to revert back from 7.5” risers to 8” risers. While we would be allowed to do this because we are grandfathered into the old code, both of us hated this idea. Our current construction stairs have an 8” rise and they are exhausting to go up and down all day.

The other solution would be to physically move Cameron’s wall 16 inches back. Both of us hated this idea even more. In fact, Gail said that she would rather live with 8” risers than spend up to a week moving Cameron’s wall.

A panorama of Cameron’s wall. Unfortunately, it is the single largest wall in the entire house. Russell estimates that moving it would require several days’ work.

Unable to come up with any better ideas, we decided to punt. Russell spent the rest of the weekend installing shutters; it was not until Sunday afternoon that Dirk had time to join us for a second brainstorm. This one was more productive.

The trick would be to reduce the amount of space that the joist takes up under the second-story sub-floor. The current culprit is a 2x6” double-joist. Russell suggested replacing the 2x6”s with 2x4”s. This would only gain us 2 inches, and we needed 3.5 inches.

Cameron's wall where it overlaps the alcove. The wall is supported by a 2x6” double-joist.

Russell’s idea: replace the 2x6” double-joist with a 2x4” double-joist. Unfortunately, this would only gain us 2 inches.

Gail suggested laying a single 2x4” joist horizontally instead of vertically. While this would gain us 4 inches, Russell did not believe the resulting wall would be structurally sound. A 2x4’s bow (horizontal sag) is much weaker than its crown (vertical sag).

Gail’s idea: replace the 2x6” double-joist with a 2x4” single-joist laid horizontally. Unfortunately, this would make the wall structurally unsound due to potential bowing.

It was Dirk, listening to this banter, who had the magical “aha” moment that led to a breakthrough. “Why not move the 2x6” double-joist from below the subfloor to above the subfloor?” The idea was brilliant. We could still secure it structurally at both ends. On the outside, it would be attached to the exterior wall. On the inside, it would be attached to a new subfloor joist that had yet to be built.

Dirk’s idea: Move the 2x6” double-joist from underneath the sill-plate to on top of it. We have a winner!

Everything depended on whether this new scenario would be approved by the building inspector.

On Monday, after we returned to the Bay Area, Russell sent an email to Dennis describing the situation and asking for approval. By that evening Dennis had written back. “I have no problem with that.”

It was “happy dance” time once more. There are still several details to be worked out, including how to remove the current double-joist, how to make room for a new double-joist, and exactly how to attach the new double-joist to the exterior wall.

The main point is that we still have an approved plan with 7.5” risers. That is, until the next glitch rears its ugly head…

Russell's emails to our building inspector tend to include elaborate illustrations. Yes, we believe he is detail-oriented enough to build the stairs!


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