Monthly Archives: May 2012

Select the right materials

Materials for stairs have to meet multiple demands: be safe, uncluttered, non-slippery, durable, and easy to maintain.

Among the factors critical to good architectural design, appropriateness of materials could be rated as very important. How we design needs to be complimented by what we build with. In a steel staircase, the decision on support member is pre-determined, but the step or tread member could be a studied decision, based on the location of stairs and type of users. The only pre-condition appears to be that the step should be in a single piece.

Wood is not only the most traditional staircase material but also the most popular one found in different countries. Wooden steps are non-slippery, can be given desired degree of smoothness and ensure a feel good factor. Bolts and nuts make up good fixing detail, while nailing also can be employed in select places.

If a building has marble flooring, a matching look can be achieved by using marble for the steps as well. They appear rich and classy! The slabs can be placed within the angle frame, provided with rounded off or double-layered edges with rough finish at the nosing to reduce the danger of slippage. Marble tends to appear fresh where we keep walking upon, leaving the corners and sides with less usage with a brown patch over the years.

Natural stones like granite when locally available can make a style statement, matching with the floor or contrasting with it. It has a good colour blending with steel and comes in a single piece like wood or marble. Highly polished granite can be slippery, hence should be avoided. Alternate single piece stone slabs of kota, tandoor and such others can also be considered, if additional frame support can be provided to counter their tendency of cracking.

It’s glass too

Nowadays glass has joined the list of optional materials, possibly more for shops and galleries, where certain fancy looks stand to advantage. Elegant and long lasting, thick plate glass is a novel idea, strikingly different to all the traditional materials.

Railing materials have lesser options, with wood and steel being the two major choices. The top handrail has to be in good quality wood, for the comfort of hands and good grips. Balusters, as the support members are technically called, can also be in cast iron, but should be designed with the desired gap to make them child safe.

It is only in the lower part that the members need be closer, leaving a choice of design otherwise. Once the design of vertical support is sorted out, additional members like wood, glass or thin steel sections can be employed to provide good aesthetic appearance.

Unlike for normal flooring, where many materials fit, appropriate materials for stairs are limited. They need to meet multiple demands: be safe, uncluttered, non-slippery, durable, and easy to maintain.

Simple and replicable

We need to encourage new ideas in staircases today more for the green sense they make.

The idea of steel staircase in residential interiors originated not so much from eco and green considerations, but as minimalist, new age, style statement. While these are slowly catching up in urban centres, most small town contractors and fabricators are yet to wake up to these options. Though complicated at first appearance, in reality these are so simple and replicable that any fabricator can keep repeating them. However, we need to promote these new ideas today more for the green sense such stairs make!

With M.S. members

While running M.S. members on two sides is generally safe, one central string beam is also possible. The stringer beam needs to be of higher gauge and size, since all the weight falls on this beam. In case of longer spans or lesser support points, there could be two stringer beams within the width of the stairs.

These stairs without the side beams tend to slightly vibrate when people walk with heavy foot, but there is no need to worry. These vibrations happen also because the frame of each step gets lesser welding points.

Look for professionalism

Often it may be difficult to get every stairs structurally designed by a qualified engineer. Most contractors on such occasions place heavy sections by guess work. Doing such un-professional work with unnecessary material will defeat the purpose by consuming more material and becoming costly.

As such, the first time one works, it is advisable to get all design details and only then proceed with steel stairs. The frames should not be placed too close to the wall, such that no mason can work within the gap. The contractor on the job can decide the gap needed as per the case.

On-site fabrication tends to damage the materials around due to high heat and electric sparks. In case of exposed bricks and stones being used for the walls next to stairs, they have to be adequately covered up. There have been some cases where the riser member needed to be covered up as desired by the users. This can be easily done with or without additional steel members, depending upon the material to be used for the riser, like wood or stone.

Major myths

Among the major myths about steel stairs is the belief that they do not appear grand. With the fabrication technology available today, we can have them straight, curved, in marble, stainless steel, glass and in all such variety. The complete stairs can be in steel plates; treads can be supported by angles from walls with no long beams at all; every step individually cantilevered from the wall as simple slabs where we see no beams, no risers and not even visible steel.

Though we may not feel like spending upon a fancy staircase, it being the less observed and remembered part of a house visit, steel offers an opportunity to design the staircase in any fancy shape and form.

Heard of hybrid stairs?

In our search for an eco-friendly, cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing option, we may land up with hybrid solutions.

Every design element has been associated with specific context, image and expectation. They can become powerful overriding factors, leading to sustainability, culture or even budget being ignored. Despite stone stairs being local or steel stairs being economical, users may reject both of them, considering them inappropriate for a home or a school. Given this position, typical steel stairs have such an industrial look and the additional need for repainting that no house owner may like it indoors, while it functions well for outdoors. In our search for an eco-friendly, cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing option, no wonder we may land up with hybrid solutions.

More materials

The staircase can be assembled with two or more types of materials, designed specifically to fit the context. While the lack of standardisation can be an obstacle, the overall approach could be similar for comparable stair locations. Among the most efficient options are steel section frames topped with wood or such material as the tread. With no riser member, these stairs are very light weight, enable complete on-site fabrication and use minimal quantity of materials. Barring daily dusting, there is no major maintenance issue or life cycle costs.

Among the simplest of frames, there could be two steel box sections in each side of the stair with horizontal angle frame welded within to take the tread or step member. The frame of the tread would have all its four corners welded, so the frame width will be same as tread width and the vertical gap between these frames will be the rise of steps. The angular line connecting these frames of the steps decides the angle at which the main frame gets positioned. The supporting members of the staircase, called balustrades, get fixed to the side steel frame itself and not to the step frame. From the side elevation, one gets to see the frame and also the steel angle within which the chosen step material sits.

More to it

There have been stairs with only one side steel member when the step frame gets welded into this side member, having only two points of welding. Such stairs get a minimalist appearance, but end up with the steps centre fixed, rest all with a cantilevered projection. Even the balustrade gets welded into the steps frame.

Though more attractive, it is not advisable where larger number of users are expected or precise fabrication is difficult.

Conceal the looks

Another alternative to conceal the looks of side frame has been to weld a steel plate to the sides and paint everything with a single colour. If high cost is not a criterion, a thick M.S. sheet metal can be directly used on both sides as the frame, to take on the angle frame of the steps. Just the way the steel frame design has options, the material for steps also has options. Once we study all these, the most judicious staircase could be found for any situation.

A sense of space and a style statement

Simple as a supportive structure, steel stairs appear minimalist and are completely recyclable. 

The steep steps to the attic floor could be among the childhood memories of many people who lived in houses with large tiled roofed houses. Completely made of wooden planks with an angular base and sides, the steps are found fixed between the side planks. To ensure this staircase is in single piece finally, there would be considerable height between the steps and a rope hanging by the side to support oneself. Curiously, there would be no wooden member in the vertical side. No wonder, every child would fantasise climbing these forbidden steps someday!

Today, many such old wooden stairs are found in the antique market, salvaged from demolished heritage homes. The design standards for the width of steps and height of riser does not permit us to build such stairs anymore, but there are many design ideas we can get from them towards reduced resource consumption, minimised space needs and a sense of lightness in construction. Being recyclable, these stairs could get maximum votes for being eco-friendly constructions.

Minimal supports needed

Even if made up of many parts joined together, staircases need to be a monolith member, connecting the two floors. To that end, steel sections are best suited today, being strong, thin, weld-able and available in long lengths. They can be erected between the floors with minimal supports. Steel frameworks can be fabricated in a variety of shapes – straight, free flow, linear, curvilinear or turning at non-perpendicular angles. Simple as a supportive structure, steel stairs appear minimalist and are completely recyclable. The visible quantity of materials, of course, appears far lesser than any concrete staircase.

The step member or tread gets fixed to this frame, with no riser member. Hence people may have apprehensions that open risers may effect tripping while climbing, which is not true. When we climb, the leg is lifted up by the height of riser and moved forward by the width of step in such a synchronised manner that the leg does not get trapped between the steps. The elimination of the riser member creates a void in between the staircase, lending a sense of space through the steps, making the smaller rooms look more spacious. The standard concrete steps being a heavy mass, block our view up to the wall edge, while the open riser staircases let the wall be seen through the steps, thus resulting in a sense of light-weight construction and extended space.

Limitations

Among the limitations of open riser steel staircase, a minor one is about finding a good fabricator who can assemble all the parts to perfection at site. Achieving the levels, proper corners, fully welded joints and rounded edges require skill and attention. Some builders fear that the steel frame may get spoiled during the construction, hence prefer a temporary staircase until the finishing stage. However, once we study the advantages and comforts of such stairs, the benefits outweigh such minor limitations.