Universal Design: Updating the Staircase Without Sacrificing Looks

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Let's be honest, when it comes to the staircase, accessibility is not the first thing that comes to mind.  Of course, not having one makes a world of difference when an occupant suffers from limited mobility.  But what to do when the family home, in its multi-story glory, features at its heart a series of steps? And what happens when that elevating architectural element just happens to be aesthetically in tune with the rest of the residence? You drink.

Kidding of course.  The easiest solution is the stair lift which, sadly, has not had a design update since its invention.  They're obtrusive, get in the way, and are typical an eye-sore. The lift aside, there are a number of updates that can be made to the existing staircase that aren't just beneficial to those with mobility issues or other disabilities, but to the general occupants.

Today, we've done a bit of homework and found a number of aesthetic solutions to common stair barriers.

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Stair Barrier no. 1: Stair Treads Hazards - Low contrast/visibility between treads and risers; slippery/slick surfaces; shallow treads; loose carpet

ADA regulations regarding compliant stair tread depths and riser heights. Via the ICC

ADA regulations regarding compliant stair tread depths and riser heights. Via the ICC

Solution #1 - Low Contrast/Visibility: If your staircase has treads and risers made from a hard surface material like wood or composite, this can easily be solved with a coat of paint.  Using a contrasting color or finish on your risers can make a world of difference.

PRO TIP: Afraid of color?  Don't be!  Let your inner rainbow shine!  Or your inner graphic artist for that matter.  Think of your risers as mini canvases for your favorite color, pattern, or theme. And remember, if you don't like it, it can easily be repainted.

Let your inner rainbow shine. More contrast means better visibility | Via BHG

Let your inner rainbow shine. More contrast means better visibility | Via BHG

More neutral palettes still offer contrast but work well in historic applications | Via HGTV

More neutral palettes still offer contrast but work well in historic applications | Via HGTV

Of course, white risers work in nearly every situation | Photo by Elad Gonen

Of course, white risers work in nearly every situation | Photo by Elad Gonen

Solution #2 - Slippery/Slick Surfaces & Loose Carpet: Slippery treads and loose carpet can be the biggest cause of falls.  For an easy non-slip surface, opt for a low-pile carpet runner direct attached to the stair treads.  Or, should you not wish to damage the treads below, look for the more traditional runner rods, available in a wide selection of styles and finishes to complement more staircase styles.  For something a bit more intensive but sure to add an extra detail to your staircase, embed slightly raised metal strips (brass or stainless steel would be quite nice) in each of your treads.

PRO TIP: For something a little less traditional and a little more wow, embed a stone or metal mosaic as your non-slip "band" in each of your treads.  It's certain to be a conversation starter and well worth the dust.

A stair runner can make a brilliant addition to slippery staircases not to mention a dramatic statement in the foyer. Just make sure they're properly attached | Via BDHM

A stair runner can make a brilliant addition to slippery staircases not to mention a dramatic statement in the foyer. Just make sure they're properly attached | Via BDHM

More intensive but just as decorative, metal or anti-slip inlays are available for embedding into your stair tread | Via Just Stairs

More intensive but just as decorative, metal or anti-slip inlays are available for embedding into your stair tread | Via Just Stairs

Tackle loose carpet with runner rods, available in a multitude of styles and finishes | Via JANGEORGe

Tackle loose carpet with runner rods, available in a multitude of styles and finishes | Via JANGEORGe

Solution #3 - Shallow Treads: Shallow treads are not easily corrected, especially in existing staircases.  A simple method to gaining an extra inch of depth is to add cove or ogee molding and an additional finished nosing to the end of each tread and riser.  In doing this, be sure your finished treatment is under the 1-1/2" maximum distance from nosing edge to riser face.  For greater dimensions as well as possible finish changes, companies exist that manufacturer "slip on" casings which meet the necessary accessibility requirements while slipping over existing finishes.

Extend shallow stair treads with longer "caps" that install over your existing staircase | Via Ocean Front Shack

Extend shallow stair treads with longer "caps" that install over your existing staircase | Via Ocean Front Shack

The addition of molding can also help to extend the depth of existing risers | Via Stairtek

The addition of molding can also help to extend the depth of existing risers | Via Stairtek

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Stair Barrier no. 2: Hand Rails Hazards - Over or undersized rails; odd rail profile; presence of only one rail; rail doesn't extend past upper or lower newel posts; rail at incorrect height

ADA regulations regarding stair rail cross sections. Via the ICC

ADA regulations regarding stair rail cross sections. Via the ICC

ADA regulations regarding hand rail height. Via the ICC

ADA regulations regarding hand rail height. Via the ICC

Solution #1 - Only One Rail: Add a second hand rail where there isn't one already, usually the wall opposite the balustrade. Make sure to anchor rail brackets securely to the framing inside your wall and to mount your rail between 34 and 38 inches above the front edge of the stair tread.

PRO TIP: Have fun with your second rail.  Choose a rail design style and material which coordinates with the aesthetic of your existing staircase.  And don't forget your hardware.  Whether off the shelf or custom made, the right bracket can further accentuate your staircase.

A dark stained rail has been mounted at the wall, matching the style of the rest of the staircase. Polsky Perlstein Architects | Photo by Mark Schwartz Photography

A dark stained rail has been mounted at the wall, matching the style of the rest of the staircase. Polsky Perlstein Architects | Photo by Mark Schwartz Photography

Wall mounted stair rails needn't be simple or "builder standard". Material & finish options exist to make it unique to your staircase. | Via Slattery & Acquroff Stairs

Wall mounted stair rails needn't be simple or "builder standard". Material & finish options exist to make it unique to your staircase. | Via Slattery & Acquroff Stairs

Solution #2 - Incorrect Height/Rail Size: Install a secondary railing to your existing balustrade.  In the case of rails mounted too high/low or those with oversize/odd profiles, depending on your existing stair construction, a secondary railing meeting appropriate sizing can be added.  Secondary hand rails are also convenient for staircases frequented by children.

PRO TIP: Although it's never a bad time to think about accessibility, the absolute best time is when designing a new balustrade.  Think about incorporating a secondary rail into your new design rather than waiting until later.

A secondary hand rail made from Lucite can allow your existing staircase to stand out while providing a more accessible alternative | Via Pinterest

A secondary hand rail made from Lucite can allow your existing staircase to stand out while providing a more accessible alternative | Via Pinterest

The main staircase at the Yale Museum for British Art, designed by Louis Kahn, includes a secondary handrail - lower and continuous - for added accessibility. | Photo by Marc Harary

The main staircase at the Yale Museum for British Art, designed by Louis Kahn, includes a secondary handrail - lower and continuous - for added accessibility. | Photo by Marc Harary

Solution #3 - Rails do not Extend Past Newels: Necessary extensions can be added as part of the installation of a second or secondary hand rail.  Or, look for specialty grab bars designed just for the purpose of adding a helping hand.

PRO TIP: Grab bars aren't always pretty and nothing sticks out worse than a badly designed grab bar.  If your budget affords, seek out a local metal fabricator who can design and produce a more suitable, decorative option.

An easy add on, rails can be extended with products like this Newel Post Grab Rail from Easy Access Products

An easy add on, rails can be extended with products like this Newel Post Grab Rail from Easy Access Products

For a more designer friendly option, look to a fabricator for a custom option | Via The Henn Haus

For a more designer friendly option, look to a fabricator for a custom option | Via The Henn Haus

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Stair Barrier no. 3: Lighting Hazards - Little to no overall illumination; no illumination of stair surfaces; access to controls

Solution #1 - Dark/Shaded Stair Surfaces: One of the best updates to an existing staircase is in the addition of lighting.  Illuminating steps and handrails are not only beneficial for those with disabilities but for the general population.  Anyone who's stumbled on the way to the kitchen for a midnight snack knows.  A wide array of options exist include LED illuminated hand rails, small scale wash fixtures which recess into the wall near treads and risers, LED strips which attach under treads to illuminate risers, and even attachable nosings which include integrated lighting and non-slip surfaces.

PRO TIP: Think about controls.  Automatic sensors which turn on selected illumination work wonders as do optional remote controls.  This will make a world of difference when fumbling around in the dark.

Lighting Option 1: Illuminated hand rails are unobtrusive, continuous and make sure the light is where you need it | Via IAMDESIGN

Lighting Option 1: Illuminated hand rails are unobtrusive, continuous and make sure the light is where you need it | Via IAMDESIGN

Lighting Solution 2: In-Wall recessed lighting fixtures such as LED pin lamps can be small scale and stylish | Via Licht

Lighting Solution 2: In-Wall recessed lighting fixtures such as LED pin lamps can be small scale and stylish | Via Licht

Lighting Solution #3: the Illuminated Riser. This can be accomplished through any number of means including tape lighting, LED embeds, and even backlighting of the risers themselves | Via Klus Design

Lighting Solution #3: the Illuminated Riser. This can be accomplished through any number of means including tape lighting, LED embeds, and even backlighting of the risers themselves | Via Klus Design

Featured Image: The Crystals, Las Vegas. Courtesy DCoopMedia

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Brandon Smith, LEED AP is the interior designer turned Founder and Principal Editor of DCoopMedia, a design & luxury lifestyle digital media development firm. With a focus on redefining how the individual defines luxury, Brandon develops content for the firms’ quarterly journal and blog, theTwentySIX,  and moderates the weekly chat on Twitter #DesignLUX (Thursdays at 1pmPT/4pmET).  A lover of details and addicted to Diet Coke, he can often be found on Twitter @dcoopsd or via the blog D’Scoop.

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Corinne Gail Interior Design did not receive compensation for this post. All images copyright Corinne Gail Interior Design unless otherwise noted and may not be used without permission.