Stairs within stairs….

One of the (many) jobs on my infinite to-do list was ‘Finish the stairs’. It’s a job that had been on that list for quite a while because, as with so many things in the barn, it was never going to be a straightforward job, so as a professional procrastinator, I’ve been putting it off.

My original plan had been to carpet the stairs so I’d asked the builders just to put in a cheap softwood staircase. After all, no need for anything fancy if I’m just going to cover it with carpet.

So that’s what they did. A bog-standard straight flight of stairs. Can’t go far wrong with that can you?

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Well clearly that depends on your builder. Mine, as I might have mentioned once or twice, wasn’t the best in the business. Spot the problem…..

Yep – it doesn’t line up. Obviously he had a wonky tape measure. Or he didn’t take into account the additional height of the finished floor upstairs. Or maybe he just should have gone to Specsavers.  Whatever – it looks like the perfect trip hazard to me.

The top of the staircase touched just below the steel lintel. By the time you add the thickness of the wood floor and the underlay there was more than 3cm difference in height. Enough to give any conscientious health and safety officer nightmares.

I did briefly consider getting one of those ‘reducing thresholds’ that are specifically designed to cover the join between wood or tiles and carpet. An inch or so T-bar strip of wood, higher on one side, angled to accommodate the height differential. But they’re meant for between rooms and under doorways where you’re not likely to trip over them. I’m not sure I like the idea of a sloped bit of wood like that right at the top of the stairs – feels like an accident waiting to happen.

So I thought instead about just putting an extra bit of wood on the top stair just to level it. Then cover it in carpet so it was all nice and level with the wood flooring. Simples?

Maybe, but that then creates another problem – the top step would be a higher than all the others. Now I haven’t read the Building Regs on staircases in any detail, but I’m fairly sure that alongside the lengthy paragraphs about minimum treads, maximum risers and level steps there’s probably quite a bit on the need for even heights. Apparently our brains are wired for rhythm and uniformity. Having one step at a different height to all the rest makes us stumble.

(Put ’36th St station NY tripping staircase’ into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Lots of unsuspecting commuters falling over because one step in the subway staircase was a fraction of an inch higher than the rest – after that video went viral the powers that be in NYC sent in the repairmen.)

What I really needed was to find a way to raise the whole staircase by 3cm, preferably without all the mess, hassle and expense of taking the whole thing out and starting again. I tried my faithful fall back – Google it. However, if you type in ‘How to improve an uneven staircase’, all you’ll get back is a million decoration ideas for staircases, from the weird and the wacky to the elegant and the refined, but nothing that actually solves the fundamental problem – the difference in height.

Then I had an Archimedes-in-his-bath moment. Why not just build a staircase on top of the existing one? Inspired by a website selling stair treads and risers I figured that if I buy a load of decent oak stair parts I could just cover the existing one adding the necessary height at the same time. Posh oak stairs, no carpet, right height. Honestly – it’s not as mad as it sounds. So I ordered thirteen oak treads and matching risers.

One minor issue, even ordering the thickest treads possible, I still needed another 1cm to get the height exactly right on that problematic top step. But in true Blue Peter style, I just happened to have a whole lot of 1cm offcuts that came out of some balustrades parts I’d ordered. What could be simpler – stick a load of offcuts on the existing stairs and put the new treads on top of those.

Unfortunately – because nothing can ever be that easy in the barn – the risers that I’d ordered were still slightly too high to fit under the treads and would need to be cut down to size. For somebody who hates sawing wood, and who cannot saw in a straight line, the thought of sawing half inch off the long side of thirteen metre-long bits of oak was enough to relegate the ‘Finish the staircase’ task right back down to the bottom of the infamous Infinite List. In fact I nearly gave it all up as a bad job and had almost resorted to a tin of paint with a bit of that yellow and black tape to stick across the top step as a warning to would-be trippers.

Then I had another Eureka moment. (Must be something in the Scottish bath water.) Why not just rout a groove in the underside of the tread. Then the risers would just slot in to the treads, perfect height, no need for any sawing and with the added bonus that it would hold the whole thing together. Genius!

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Sorted. So now all I had to do was get out the glue, rout the other 12 treads and stick down a few offcuts of wood.

All it needs now is a bit of finishing off. Time to call in the man with the can – aka my Dad, the King of all things varnishable. An afternoon with a can of Danish oil and a lint-free cloth and there you have it – a beautiful oak stair case with no trip hazard!

One more thing crossed off the Infinite List…….

So, how do I build a staircase?

I’m sure my architect must have thought he was being super cool and trendy when he came up with the concept of sloping the corridor that runs through the middle of the house, and I have to admit I liked the idea when he first suggested it.

Well these ‘architecty’ ideas may be all very well on paper, but who ever thinks about the practicalities of decorating. I decided I want to contrast my slate floor with some wood, but have you ever tried getting wooden planks to bend downhill?

I hadn’t actually given it a thought when I ordered the flooring. Fortunately I bought engineered board, which does have a degree of flexibility, but only because that’s what’s recommended for use with underfloor heating. It was good luck not good planning. And even with that little bit of bendiness, laying a wood floor on a slope is not a job for the fainthearted. Particularly as the unevenness of the concrete in my barn means my floor doesn’t just slope downhill from top to bottom; it also randomly slopes from side to side as well. Oh, and I had to work out how to get it to go round a corner too… Cue a lot of swearing, a fair few bruises and, being very girly about this, lots of broken nails.

Still, it went down a whole lot quicker than the slates did, and wasn’t anywhere near as messy to put down (or clean up afterwards!) And it made a huge difference to the look of the place.

So now the only thing left in terms of floors downstairs was a few steps… There is a reason for the slope in the corridor – pretty much every room in the house is on a different level. Aside from the bog standard straight staircase connecting the ground floor and the master bedroom suite, there are actually 10 other sets of steps in the house. Some of them, like the couple of steps up from the main entrance in the bothy and the steps down into the music room, had been put in when the concrete screed was poured – so all I’d had to do was put down slates to finish them off.

The steps from the corridor up to the kitchen were put in when the first concrete (before the finishing screed) was poured.  But that was done by Mr Incompetent Builder – the one that I sacked – which meant I had six steps, all different, with heights varying from 5-25cm and treads varying from 24-30cm. Not exactly the look I was aiming for, and highly unlikely to be passed by any pernickety building warrant inspectors who may happen to drop in.

So first job was to swot up on the building regs regarding staircases – minimum tread, maximum rise, how to calculate every step was exactly the same height, (clearly Mr IB didn’t read this chapter of the regs). And all of this can be a bit of a challenge when building off a sloping subfloor………a whole heap of things to figure out before just going out and buying a load of timber.

After mulling over the mess Mr Incompetent Builder had made of the kitchen steps, I came up with a cunning plan. I would turn 6 steps into 7 slightly shallower ones, by building a wooden frame and filling it with concrete, and then laying slates. How simple is that?

Elsewhere was not so straightforward. From the corridor down to the living room there was a small cliff-face, 4m wide, that needed steps, and similar going up into the TV room. I’d originally had very grand ideas about having solid oak steps built, but by this stage, the bank manager was not my friend. So I had to fall back on Plan B – out with the trusty old ‘Practical Housebuilding’ book, and a bit of DIY – Building a staircase – well how hard can it be?

First off, I went out and bought me a new toy; because it doesn’t matter how much I mark it off or how slowly I go, I can never make a totally square cut in a bit of wood. And wonky stairs because I can’t saw straight was not a good idea – well with this little beastie, problem solved!

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I then I sat down with my calculator and a pencil and paper, trying to work out the whole tread/riser/wonky floor thing. And came up with a design that I have a suspicion is massively over-engineered! So terrified that it won’t be strong enough, I think I probably unnecessarily killed half a rainforest in the construction…

Still, when the frame was in place and I’d plasterboarded the risers, used up the leftover flooring on the treads, and added a natty but of trim to finish it off, you have to admit the finished result is impressive – if I do say so myself.

Another skill to add to the CV……!