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Efficient staircases

By having a proper scale, proportion, careful location and lighting, any staircase can become a green design statement by itself.

Design discussions are not singular streams that can restrict themselves to one single theme. As we go along analysing one aspect, the other related issues emerge, demanding equal attention of analysis. As such it’s natural that discussing simpler and judicious stairs has lead to e-mail queries about efficiency involved in the staircase itself.

Such larger enquiry needs to look not only at structure or materials, but equally at the location of staircase, the overall design or even lighting it up. Only such a comprehensive approach to understanding architecture, both in its entirety and subtlety, can lead us to sustainable habitats.

The Green Sense series hopes to weave the weekly themes into such a larger overarching sensibility.

Effective spaces

Mere eco-friendliness without effectiveness defeats the very purpose of design, and spatial locations greatly matter in this direction. Staircases need to be as conveniently located as possible, to minimise walking distances and reduce movement areas. In case the first floor works out better, the corner or end-locations could be considered.

Often people desire the stairs to be a style statement in the living room, with the space below for water bodies, artefacts or a dry garden. It works if the total built area can be stretched. Otherwise, locating the stairs in the dining or family area helps, where one can provide household storage or guest toilets under the stairs. In case of basements, of course, this storage also moves down to the basement.

In all kinds

In principle, running the stairs along a wall, with one side open, has many advantages over a staircase room with both-side walls. It facilitates carrying of large items; the width of stairs adds to room space; stairs becomes fully visible complimenting the image of the house; and it eliminates the need to widen the steps or leave a gap between railings. As such, stairs open to the side saves space, materials and money.

Curves in skylight

Incidentally, stairs along a gentle curve with an exposed wall behind and skylight on top not only appears great, but also functions well. In case of two or more floors, all of the skylight may not reach the ground floor, but an open riser design would let in soft light filtered through the gaps in the steps. The central area, flanked by the stairs, is ideal for an internal court lit from above.

Such staircase courts cannot function as double height spaces, connecting people and activities across the floors, but do wonders to daylight factor and indoor air quality. The court level can take dry gardens, informal seats or be a part of regular house activities.

Highlighting the functionality of stairs is not to undermine its possible aesthetic contributions. It is to caution ourselves about the futility of grand designs, wasteful consumption of wood and converting them into over-designed concrete monoliths. By proper scale, proportion, careful location and lighting, any staircase can become a green design statement by itself.

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.


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.

Vernacular vs. modern

By default, sustainable solutions seek judicious ideas, irrespective of their source, be they traditional or modern, global or local

Many sustainability discussions are increasingly getting into debates outside their technical applications, often leading to digressions and delayed actions. One common area where this phenomenon can be observed is to do with local knowledge systems and traditional technologies. Our ongoing essays on staircase are not an exception – while the novelty of having stainless steel and glass plate stairs is now a possibility in India, why are we shunning them and questioning international ideas? In this new-age global living, why are we glorifying the local “stone age” living, by supporting the idea of stone staircase? Village houses were eco-friendly, but can we return to the regional vernacular style as a solution to urbanising India?

Not just debates

If a reader gets to react as above after looking at the cantilevered stone slab staircase that was featured last week in The Hindu-PropertyPlus , in a way, it is valid! The mandate of Green Sense is not getting into theoretical debates outside implementable ideas; however, it is important to clarify upon such queries, as a process of convincing ourselves. By default, sustainable solutions seek judicious ideas, irrespective of their source, be they from traditional or modern; global or local. Reinforced cement concrete is a high-ended construction option that can withstand sun, rain, fire, heavy loads, breakage or such others, and be secure against any actions of possible burglary. None of these qualities are among the required design criteria for an indoor element! Evidently, RCC stairs are technological and resource overkill. However in the modern times, we cannot avoid RCC on most occasions, especially in high-rise and commercial structures where time is money. Suggesting a vernacular and local option is not to negate the global solution of RCC stairs, but to remind ourselves about regional alternative ideas that could be employed where appropriate.Wider stairs

Traditionally, stone treads were kept thin, often only 2 to 3 inches if its kota stone and around 3 inches if granite, but the width of stair too was restricted to 2′ 6”. Nowadays, we seek wider stairs, say min. 3 ft. wide, hence it’s desirable to cut the granite slabs to min. 4 inches thickness. For stairs that need be wider than 3 ft., stone slabs are an ideal solution, though can be tried upon the expert advice of the stone mason. In case the wall above the steps is not wide or heavy enough to put counterweight, site-specific measures like sand-filled hollow block, staircase beam, built-in concrete layer or such others can be considered. The temporary support of the stone steps can be retained until the super structure is ready, just to ensure the steps are safely put in position.

Despite the foregone discussion, there is one fact: after all is said about green ideas, often it is the prevalent practice that gets built. It’s both a truth and a tragedy.


Negotiating heights

Among the early materials used for external staircases, stone slabs were the most popular

What is a staircase in its basic and essential form? How did early humans negotiate heights? What are the methods of constructing steps judiciously with least resources and money? What are the maintenance costs of stairs? We are raising these questions not only to define a staircase, but also to be able to design one appropriately and eco-friendly.

Even before people had to climb up to the first floor of a building, they had to climb down to an open well or to a water canal. Walking down the slope of a river bank, carving horizontal levels down to a water tank, digging wells with steps leading to the bottom and such others were among the early explorations in the act of climbing up or down. Climbing up a tree would also have taught the humans to seek a firm and horizontal level beneath the feet. This level, called as tread, and the height to the next tread, called as riser, together form a step. The series of steps is termed as staircase.

Among the early materials used for external staircases, stone slabs were arguably the most popular. A casual trip down to most Indian villages will showcase slabs jetting out of the external wall of the house, going up to the terrace.

With no member in the riser part, this void would let in light, minimise material usage and make the whole assemblage of the steps comparatively easy. Possibly, the inspiration for such stairs might have come from the steps leading down into an open water well, a method with continued application.

Wall and slabs

As the wall is being built, at the pre-marked locations, the stone slab is inserted into the wall, with temporary support at the other projected end. Once the main wall rises, its weight pins down the tread and the temporary end support can be removed.

The thicker the wall, the better for stability. In case the wall is only around 9” thick, the stone slab needs to project out on the other side of the wall at least by 6”, to provide the necessary strength.

Staircase dimensions

If the illustration makes us feel that the tread and risers could be of any size, we are wrong. There are scientific rules that suggest staircase dimensions. The height to which we can lift our feet up and there upon, the forward distance possible is governed by our body measures called anthropometrics and limb movements. Generally, 12” wide tread and 6” high riser has been accepted as the design norm, but this can vary slightly.

In principle, the higher the riser, say 7”, the narrower the tread has to be, say 11” wide. Despite all the talk about standards and measures, humans are uniquely blessed. We can climb up a tree which is like a vertical pole and also climb up a hill which is like the expansive inclined earth!

Romancing the ‘ladder’

The present generation may not relate well to the word ‘ladder,’ which has been replaced by ‘staircase,’ yet the idea of moving up has parallel connotations both in buildings and life. 

Among the many paraphrases on living that have evolved from design and architecture, the most popular one appears to be about ‘moving up the ladder.’ Needless to elaborate, this line is directly taken from a house with upper floors. Our present generation may not relate well to the word ‘ ladder,’ which today has been replaced by the word ‘staircase,’ yet the idea of moving up has parallel connotations both in buildings and life.

A walk in the antique markets will showcase ladders lying next to old doors and windows, as part of salvaged wooden elements from the past, for modern re-use. Normally with a steep angle, these old timers were having thick wood planks for the steps, also called as treads; thinner ones for the vertical face called as risers; sectional beams as underside support; and sides covered by planks again. They were produced by the carpenters easily and locally, using hard wood for permanent structures and alternatives like soft wood or bamboo for temporary uses. Either way, they were ecologically sustainable, economically cheap and easy to erect, remove, shift and re-use.

RCC to the fore

When steel was discovered, long M.S. sections replaced the wooden beams under the stairs while retaining all other timber members therein. Subsequently, with reinforced concrete gaining popularity, RCC replaced both steel and wood, leading to the now popular ‘all concrete’ staircases. The changing preference for stairs while being in tune with evolving technology has also evolved towards visual grandeur, social image and resource consumption.

It is not wrong to claim, from an eco-friendly, appropriate and judicious criteria, that staircases are among the least of critically analysed building solutions to negotiate heights. Unlike the RCC roof where protection from rain and sun is important, besides the confidence of security, the internal stairs does not face sun, rain or security issues. Hence, it does not always warrant reinforced concrete as the primary material or technology.

Yet, we are building today as if there are no substitutes. The argument is not against RCC as an option, which also has its bag of advantages, but to state that in many cases, non-RCC solutions would have sufficed, with savings on monetary and material resources.

From stone steps

Bamboo, both as a single pole with the thorns left short for steps or built up with two poles with a horizontal member in between, possibly provided the early solutions for the ladders.

Besides the wooden staircases discussed above, we also come across stone slabs used as steps, virtually all over India. The farmer’s house may have a thin granite slab compared to the thick carved stone stairs of a palace.

However, both seem to have been inspired by the stone steps of traditional village open wells, where people had to find a way to reach the bottom of the well.

The stone slabs projected from the wall of the well, going round in an orchestrated manner casting dancing shadows, is a sight to be remembered, and may be applied to houses too!