Staircase Design FAQ
Staircase Design FAQ provides answers to frequently asked questions as well as Bisca content previously published in the media on staircase know-how, tips, tricks and trends.
Contact us by phone, via our website, or email and talk to us about your requirements; send us some plans, drawings or photos – Consultations and guide prices are free.
Bisca work locally, nationally and globally (see map on About page). The majority of our staircases and balustrades are in the UK where our nationwide service spans from Cornwall up to the Outer Hebrides. We have also worked in mainland Europe, US, Saudi & UAE. We are always keen to add some more locations to our map!
A staircase specialist understands staircases in the same way as a bathroom or kitchen specialist understands their own specialities. A staircase, unlike a kitchen or bathroom is part of the architecture of the property and will not need to be changed as trends and style preferences change.
A specialist will consider all options for your property and guide you to the best solution in terms of form, function, integration, specifications and budget.
There are a number of points to be addressed before you begin a staircase replacement or staircase renovation project in a period property.
1. Physical Interfaces
Architects plans for period properties rarely exist and structural analysis is usually required before major renovation work. Supporting walls need to be identified and the condition of timber and existing masonry must be checked before attaching or drilling into. Almost certainly interfaces between existing and new will need to be cleverly designed in order to integrate the staircase successfully into the property. Even if the walls are not sound enough to support a cantilever staircase, hidden framework can be erected to allow the client to have this style of design.
Listed buildings often pose a design challenge where our designers have to work around protected structures like old beams, or in a recent instance, stable ironwork in an 18th Century coach-house conversion. Helical staircases that require only connections at foot and head often work very well as walls can be avoided completely.
2. Contemporary or Classical?
Regardless of whether you want a traditional or contemporary staircase it has to be in empathy with the building and not look out of place or an obvious add on. Bisca take a sympathetic approach to restoration projects and period properties and use both traditional and contemporary materials for a seamless cohesion between old and new.
A contemporary staircase in a period property can look stunning if it is skilfully designed and built with the same care and attention to detail that was employed by the original craftsmen. Executed properly the staircase will update the property see it confidently through to the next century.
New does not have to look stark, or even new for that matter. Treads and handrails can be aged using many different treatments, even to the point where they blend with old timber. With metal uprights, a skilled blacksmith can recreate the patina of generations on uprights or handrails using century old forging skills married with modern technology.
3. Do modern day building regulations apply to staircases and balustrades in a period property?
There are many instances where existing staircases/balustrades in period properties do not conform to modern day building regulations. For example in mews or cottage properties staircases can viewed as very narrow and or steep by today’s standards. Replacement staircases in these instances must conform to regulations currently in force – space permitting.
Generally speaking for listed properties (depending on listing grade) staircase renovation or replacement may require approval by the relevant body and if the staircase itself is listed you have to replace like with like.
There are a number of ways in which an expert staircase designer can achieve both the aesthetic requirements of property and client and yet ensure the commission conforms to building regulations. For example some classical balustrades of intricate open scroll design have gaps of more than 100mm “babies head rule” and require discreet acrylic or glass panels; ancient beams and other protected architecture can be accommodated or circumnavigated with intelligent bespoke structural design. Bisca believe anything is possible.
We have a workshop and design studio in Helmsley, North Yorkshire and welcome visitors at any time.
All our staircases are complete one-offs and we don’t offer kits, component derived staircases or restrict ourselves to a “range” but there is always something going on in one of our workshops and you can meet the team and see how we work during your visit.
Richard McLane or one of the designers will take you through our portfolio and discuss aspects of any staircase that you are interested in. Normal office hours are 8am to 6pm and by appointment on Saturday.
In theory they can, but the results will be much improved by working with a staircase specialist.
Focusing on all aspects of architectural design, an architect may work on perhaps maybe 5 staircases a year, whilst Bisca, as staircase specialists design 50 plus bespoke ones. In much in the same way a specialist is brought in to design the ventilation, heating, cladding etc., anything other than a standard staircase requires a staircase specialist. The synergy between an architect and a specialist working together on a project is of greater value to the client than either one working independently; the working partnership between Bisca and architects has resulted in some fantastic commissions in the past.
The main advantage of an architect working with Bisca is that we will execute the design, from concept to installation with the client’s approval at every stage. If you chose not to use a staircase specialist then your architect would have to hand over the drawings to a fabricator or a builder to execute. The builder or fabricator may or may not have the ability to modify the design and resolve issues as the build evolves – and by that time it may be too late to rectify issues. Bisca certainly remain in constant communication with the project team so problems like floor to floor discrepancies, wall thickness variations, material substitutions are resolved and handled before we get to site.
Every bespoke staircase design involves a significant amount of CAD work to ensure interfaces, aesthetics, fixings, materials, specifications, loadings, head heights, going, rise, etc. etc. are resolved before materials are procured and certainly before a build begins. In our experience design can be one intangible aspect of a project that a lot of clients, and sadly some architects, cannot see the value in – once the actual build starts it becomes more tangible and they can see precisely what they are paying for as the staircase build and installation is effective, efficient and without problems.
Concept design is the first stage in our project process where we aim to provide you with a stunning design solution based on defined and agreed materials; allowing an accurate budget to be established. A concept design allows you to visualise your staircase or balustrade regardless of where how far your project has progressed – in fact even if you at planning stage.
A concept design is particularly valuable if you want to replace or renovate your staircase and are struggling to get past how the existing staircase looks. If you decided to commission a concept design Richard McLane our Design Director, would present this personally and it includes:
- Comprehensive survey, if appropriate
- Written definition of your brief
- Definition of Bisca’s design solution
- Outline specification & dimensions
- Quotation based on design presented
- Outline schematic plans & layout
- Sketched 3D visuals
- Scope of Works
- Material samples for discussion and approval, if appropriate
Each concept design can be tailored to your exact requirements, so for example if you wished to visualize how the staircase and balustrade would look from given areas in the property let us know and we would work these into our presentation so you can be entirely comfortable with how the staircases will look before going any further with Bisca and commissioning the design.
Your concept design fee is fully refundable against your final invoice.
There are several reasons why a steel staircase is a better option than a concrete stair.
1. Design and how it looks
If you want a visually lightweight design, perhaps to let in more light, then a slim steel structure will give you the look you want, as well as give you the option of choosing open treads to increase flow of light.
Concrete structures although substantial, and a very popular choice for basement stairs, can sometimes look clumsy and visually inelegant in main living areas, and it is important that they are designed to work with the space available rather than take over it.
A concrete staircase is created by a joiner/builder or site contractor building a timber staircase form (mould), on site, in site conditions – into which the concrete is poured. The result is very much down to the skills of the contractor and the quality of the form.
Liquid concrete is dependent upon many variables including temperature, consistency, mix and the experience of your builders and concrete structures can be difficult to cast accurately. Steel on the other hand is controllable through design and manufacturing methods to precision measurements.
Think also about the edges of the staircase – steel stringers can be clad in solid timber, veneered, painted or finished with a specialist metal covering. Most concrete staircases are simply plastered and painted or have to have an MDF stringer which can then be finished in the same way as steel stringers.
A steel staircase manufacturer will prefer to incorporate lighting into the staircase design itself and treat this aspect as an integral part of the staircase design ensuring mm accuracy and liaise with electricians and lighting specialist as necessary.
3. Build time
A significant amount of your builders’ time will be spent in creating, shuttering and reinforcement prior to actually casting the concrete staircase. If time is tight or the project is running behind schedule, choosing a steel structure from a staircase specialist will free your builder up to work on other areas of your project.
Steel staircase manufacturers will usually split the staircase installation into two parts – providing your site team with a useable structure for access early in project, returning to finish the area and clad the staircase towards the end when most of the construction work is complete and there is little danger of damage to materials.
Both concrete and steel structures will ultimately be clad with a material of your choice – timber, stone, marble or even Corian.
Cladding a staircase is an area where time can be won or lost and quality guaranteed or compromised.
Drilling concrete structures for purpose of cladding or balustrade fixing is both time-consuming and risky due to the danger of hitting concealed metal structures hidden within the concrete.
A steel structure is much safer and easier to clad as responsibility of design and installation remains with the staircase specialist who provides CAD data to the stone supplier to CNC cut all components accurately off site to reduce installation time and significantly improve the quality of installation.
Concrete staircases have to be templated on site by the stonemason who then sends off the templates to get the treads and risers manufactured prior to returning to site for installation. Installation of stone treads onto inaccurate concrete structures is never straight forward and high quality finish is usually compromised because drilling stone on site has inherent risks of cracking, entailing removal, remaking and resetting.
5. Handrail and balustrade
A staircase manufacturer will automatically consider a handrail and balustrade as part of a staircase; not so with some architects or builders. Bisca have been called in on more than one occasion to find that inadequate room has been left for a balustrade to be fitted.
It is possible to fit a balustrade and handrail retrospectively to all types of staircase, but the best scenario is when a steel staircase is built in a workshop under controlled conditions. This effectively provides a jig for the balustrade and handrail and installation becomes a matter of reassembly with all holes etc. pre-drilled and the confidence that everything goes together on site perfectly.
A concrete staircase will have to be templated in the property by the balustrade manufacture who could face a similar situation to the stonemason when they start drilling into the structure – and by this time will also have the cladding to contend with.
For the purposes of budgeting it is misleading to simply consider the quoted cost of a concrete vs steel structure on paper. In addition to the base cost of the structure, you should also take into consideration the many variables of finish, quality, accuracy, cladding, balustrade, handrail fixing and time in order to make an informed decision.
Regardless of which one you ultimately choose – concrete or steel – the staircase design must be properly thought out and scaled to sit comfortably within the space available.
Adding light to a staircase can dramatically change the aesthetics not only of the staircase itself, but of the whole area around the staircase and it’s worth exploring all the options fully before committing yourselves.
If you are a self-builder we recommend you discuss the subject with your architect, project manager or interior designer. The main question to ask yourself is: “What are you trying to achieve with light?” Your answer will most likely fall into one or more of the following categories:-
1. Area light over the entire staircase
Blends in with light levels in the surrounding area and provide safe, navigable lighting levels on the staircase itself. This will also enable the staircase to be visible when its surroundings are dark – something to consider if your property is open plan. Area light can be achieved using halogen or LED lights, either on or in the walls, ceiling or soffit above to illuminate the entire stairwell. A large number of small units gives a more even light and allows the light fittings themselves to be unobtrusively recessed, emphasising the light rather than its source.
2. Feature lighting
Perhaps in the form of a chandelier or stylish pendant lights – these look fantastic hung down the centre of the stairwell and illuminate the whole area.
3. Mood lighting
Creates or continues a mood with washes of colour to complement the décor or the ambient light. Use small lamps set into the walls beside the treads, or LED strips set into the undersides of the tread noses.
4. Illuminated glass
LED strips can be set under glass treads, or fibre optics positioned from the side. Treads themselves can be grit-blasted or acid-etched so that they scatter the light and take on an overall glow. Colour-changing LEDs are available, with adjustable light intensity to achieve the desired effect. Small lights can also be set into the wall beside glass treads, shining into and through the glass and being reflected around the inside to make the entire tread shine. This can be combined with grit-blasting or acid-etching to make specific areas stand out as the light is scattered.
5. Diffused light
For diffused light across treads & risers use recessed LED strip lights if timber or stone treads are hard up to a wall, or cantilevered from it. The LED strips can be recessed into the wall to emphasise the line of the steps and scatter light across the treads and risers. However, a point of caution: this type of LED strip should not take the place of area lighting as the effects are not spread evenly across the treads and will not enable the user to see what they need to for safe navigation.
6. Highlighting individual treads
Spotlights can be recessed into the wall or stringer alongside the stair. This effect is often more about the light itself than about illuminating the staircase. This effect must be considered carefully, as any light that uses a reflector can dazzle people walking up the stairs or passing by with the light at eye level. One area should not be overlooked and that is maintenance. Today’s LEDs, in the main, are durable and long lasting; however it’s worth thinking about how bulbs/units will be changed if and when they fail.
7. A word of caution
Over the years Bisca have been commissioned to repair several staircases designed by others, where lighting has been wrongly specified or poorly thought out. Instances include a “live” staircase where LED units failed over time; wall spotlights that were impossible to change without removing plaster; a basement staircase where the under-tread LED lighting was so bright it dazzled people travelling up and down the staircase and was in fact a safety hazard; wrongly specified drivers that failed every time the temperature in the property rose.
These instances however are relatively rare, and designed properly and safely, staircase lighting can be extremely effective. Like staircases, it’s always better to enlist the advice of a lighting specialist rather than rely on your electrician or builder. A lighting specialist will consider your property’s light and space design as a whole. Bisca will then work with lighting specialists to ensure that any staircase or stair area lighting becomes an integral part of the design.
Comparing quotations for any bespoke item on paper is always open to interpretation due to the variable nature of the item and its method of manufacture. It is really worth doing your homework to understand exactly what you are being quoted for so you can make an informed decision. For example.
a) What type of glass does the estimate include? Standard glass has a slightly green tint, especially at the edges and costs less than the superior low iron glass with reduced green tint and better optical visibility
b) What are the sizes of the glass panels? Large bespoke glass panels are difficult to manufacture but look stunning. In comparison smaller panels of glass are much less risky, can be easily bolted together along the run of the staircase but compromise the overall look.
c) What are the suppliers’ tolerances? Bisca will and do routinely reject glass panels that arrive marked or flawed in any way; the most common manufacturing faults being bubbles, poor bevelling, inappropriately placed kite marks and bizarrely thumb-prints – all of which we have seen on glass balustrades done by others!
a) Is the wood softwood or more expensive hardwood – and is it a stain or the real thing? For example a look of dark timber can also be achieved by staining a cheap softwood handrail, but is not as durable and will not have the depth of beauty, or tactile qualities that genuine hardwood timber will have; something you will subsequently notice every time you run your hand up or down the bannister.
b) Is it of a continuous design or multiple angular sections bolted together? A continuous design, especially with curved or helical staircases is more expensive to achieve as it requires CAD input but the results are worth it. Sections bolted together are much cheaper as they can be achieved without CAD and from a straight length of timber but can spoil the overall look.
c) If the handrail is specified as steel, what finish is included, how is it fixed to the balustrade?
d) If leather clad, check the quality and thickness of the hide specified – cheaper hides tend to be supple but are not durable and tear easily. Bisca only use quality hides of a thickness guaranteed to last a lifetime which actually improve with age.
a) What type of timber is specified? for example English Oak has a more figured grain than European Oak, but the English variety can be more expensive
b) Is the timber FSC certified?
c) What is the finish specified, oiled, waxed or varnished – how does it need to be maintained? Some laminates are so thin they wear badly and any varnish must be fit for purpose as well as comply with health and safety as far as slip risks are concerned.
4. Fixings and interfaces
a) How is your balustrade fixed? Companies offering a 24hour replacement service and lower cost options usually rely on visible fixings and clips from stock. A carefully designed glass balustrade without visible fixings may cost a little extra, but the massive visual difference outweighs the cost differential. You basically have to decide if you want a clean, crisp finish or are happy with something more institutional / shopping mall style featuring brackets, clips and clamps.
b) How is your staircase interfaced? With Bisca, the staircase accounts for approximately 60% of the design, the other 40% is concerned with how it interfaces with the property, how the balustrade connects, how the handrail sits, landing edge details, etc etc. Our designers drill down to the smallest detail to ensure your new staircase or balustrade fits perfectly into your property and is not compromised anywhere along the way by off the shelf interfaces, fixings or components.
5. Landings and nosing
How will the staircase sit in the stair space? Are any landings and nosing required? If so, have these been included in the quotation?
6. Galleries and landing balustrades
Do you have any balustrading to go around landings or galleries? Is this included in the quotation or does the quotation only include the run of staircase? Do you have any other areas of the property that require matching balustrade?
7. Steel uprights
a) Are all parties quoting for the same material thickness, finish, quality and shape? You need to understand the diameter and shape of the uprights, the process of manufacture – machined or forged – how they will be finished and where they are sourced.
Essentially asking for a price for x metres of uprights without a design/material/finish or a reference image really is like asking “how long is a piece of string”. One supplier may quote for imported simple, machined, steel uprights and other the hand forged, formed and finished; the difference in price will be as great as the difference visible, so it’s important to understand exactly what the upright will look like, where it comes from and what it is made of. Some of the cheaper imported uprights are of mild steel and deteriorate and rust very quickly.
b) How are the uprights to be fixed to the handrail – the cheapest option is to include a ribbon rail top and bottom, but this is not to everyone’s taste and may come as a shock if that is not what you were expecting.
c) On stone or marble treads, where uprights are drilled into the stone, are bezels included in the price? Some softer stones may chip when drilled, no matter how much care is taken and if your stone is of a softer variety you may want to think about the bezel option. Retrofitting bezels on a finished staircase can be done but is not recommended and is a time-consuming operation.
Finally, if there is anything you do not understand about an estimate or quotation, ask and ask again until you are clear. With a bespoke option it is possible to tailor your options to fit your budget and there is always an opportunity to up-spec or down-spec until you are perfectly happy.
We offer standard glass or low iron glass as cost options, but because Bisca products are bespoke we can investigate any other finishes you are interested in, for example sand blasted, frosted or even acrylics.
Our glass balustrades all comply with building regulations and are laminated or toughened as required. However if you have small children, or pets for that matter, you may not relish the chore of cleaning tiny hand (or nose) prints off the glass on a regular basis.
Consider your priorities within the hall space first. The balustrade is an integral part of the staircase so even if you just want a new balustrade the staircase needs to be considered in the equation as well. Feature newels could be included in a new balustrade design which would make a statement without necessarily increasing the footprint of the staircase. If space permits then tailored bottom treads could be added to an existing staircase to complete the revamp.
The most common way of dramatically transforming the look of a hallway and staircase is to replace traditional timber spindles with glass or steel uprights. The former is more contemporary and steel uprights can be either contemporary or ornate as your budget allows.
Dark hallways need as much light as possible. Natural light is best and there are many ways of introducing light into a staircase area, be it with glass balustrading, glass walls or lights set into the wall above each tread.
Yes, all our balustrades are designed and built to order so you can have any design and permutation of material you want, budget and structural considerations permitting.
For a new staircase we provide builders and flooring contractors with exclusion drawings to allow us to install the staircase without any damage to underfloor heating elements whatsoever.
In the rare occasion a replacement staircase is fitted into an area with underfloor heating the footprint of the existing staircase usually suffices. It is possible however, with extreme care, to lift the screed prior to fixing the stair and ensure that heating elements are not damaged.
If this is a major concern you may wish to consider is a Cantilever staircase which does not require interfaces at the head and foot as it is supported from the adjacent wall.
A landing, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “level area at the top of a staircase or between one flight of stairs and another”.
A landing has both form and function. Functionally, turning the direction of a staircase can be done by winders or by landings.
A single quarter landing turns a staircase 90 degrees, whilst the use of two individual quarter landings or a half landing turns the staircase through 180 degrees. Half landings do not have to be oblong and can be designed to hug curves in walls and circular stairwells – in these instances they are sometimes referred to as half moon landings.
Intermediate landings are typically used in the transition from single to multiple flights or vice-versa.
If space permits, then a galleried landing is a must. As the name suggests, a galleried landing is an excellent place to display objects and artefacts collected over the family’s lifetime.
Galleried landings are also a perfect place for intimate seating arrangements providing an area to pause and reflect away from the hum-drum of family life.
Landings are best executed when integrated into the staircase. Good design always comes down to proportion and elegance, and landings are no exception.
It is also important to remember that landings are also subject to current building regulations – parts K & M refer.
Regardless of how much it costs and how it looks and what type of property it is going into, there are some fairly standard points to consider when choosing your new staircase:-
If you have your heart set on a bespoke staircase, it’s always worth allocating a budget for the staircase element rather than lumping it in with main project costs, as basically your budget defines what you type of staircase you can have. Prices for a complete staircase and balustrade vary from as little as circa £400 for a DIY store MDF option to a fully bespoke design from specialist staircase manufacturers starting around £20,000
Consider the space as a whole, not just the hallway or immediate vicinity of the staircase. If you have an open-plan configuration, remember the staircase is on view from other areas of the property. Think about direction of traffic – how do you approach the staircase – would a curved staircase, or directional bottom treads be an option?
Do not under-estimate the amount of time it takes to commission a bespoke staircase. To avoid backing yourselves into a compromise situation its worth getting the staircase specialist involved as early as possible to get some layout ideas and outline costs. Bisca are able to give you a guide price based on drawings and their Concept Design Services provides layout schematic, sketched visuals, samples and a budget cost based on a survey and materials of your choice.
Open treads are a great way to let light into the area, and glass, timber, stone, marble or even Corian are all materials you could consider. Most bespoke staircase manufacturers will try to match existing timber in the property if this is important to you. Innovation in floor finishes has revolutionised timber available for staircase components. Bisca now offer a wide variety of washed, raised grain and pigment finish for timber treads and handrails.
Roughly speaking you have the choice between glass, timber, steel or plaster. Position, family requirements and budget are all important factors in making the right decision. It’s important to consider any landing or galleries when obtaining quotations not just the staircase itself. Glass is not perhaps the best option if you have a young family – unless you relish the chore of regular cleaning to remove tiny hand prints! Timber spindles will give you a more traditional effect and are a cost effective option, whilst forged or machined steel balustrades can be as simple or as ornate as you desire.
6. Comparing costs
Comparing prices on paper for any bespoke item is always open to interpretation due to the variable nature of the item and its method of manufacture. It is really worth doing your homework to understand exactly what you are being quoted for so you can make an informed decision. For example
- Glass – are you being quoted for standard glass (with a green tint), or premium low iron (reduced tint and superior optical quality)?
- Handrail – softwood or hardwood? Is it of a continuous design or multiple angular sections bolted together which are much cheaper but can spoil the overall look
- Treads – type and provenance of timber and finishes all vary in price – make sure you are comparing like for like.
- Glass balustrade fixings – companies offering a 24hour replacement service and lower cost options usually rely on visible fixings and clips from stock. A carefully designed glass balustrade will not have any visible fixings, unless specified by the client
- Steel Uprights – ensure all parties are quoting for the same material and the same design. You need to understand the diameter and shape of the uprights, the process of manufacture – machined or forged and how they will be finished. It’s also worth asking how they will be fixed to the handrail – the cheapest option is to include a ribbon rail top and bottom, but this is not to everyone’s taste and may come as a shock if that is not what you were expecting.
In short, if there is anything you do not understand about a quotation, ask and ask again until you are clear what is included and not included and more importantly how it will look.
See more information on this subject in ‘Comparing Prices’ question.
We want you to be completely happy with your commission when it is complete. Every Bisca commission comes with 5 year guarantee that provides you with complete peace of mind.
During our concept/design stage you will be presented with samples and specifications of actual materials so you can see for yourself the quality and finish. The natural characteristics of each material will also be highlighted at this point.
We seek approval of all samples prior to continuing with design or build. At any time during the design and manufacture process you are welcome to visit the design studio or workshop to view your commission being built.
In the unlikely event an issue does arise within the first 5 years following installation and final payment, then our team will return and put things right. Although obviously not covered by our Guarantee, if your commission becomes damaged in any way, at any time, we are always here to help and support.
Bisca designs are timeless. Every staircase or balustrade we design becomes part of the architecture and should last the lifetime of the property.
To keep your commission in tip top condition, you may be interested in our tailored Aftercare packages. These include a visit to site to oil, wax, refinish or clean your commission and leave it looking as beautiful as the day it was installed. Contact our sales team to discuss options.
Can’t find an answer to your question?
Every staircase or balustrade we design is unique, as are our clients and their properties; therefore it stands to reason that YOUR question about YOUR staircase or balustrade may not be included. Please do pick up the phone and give us a ring and speak to one of our helpful team. For out of hours you can send us an email on and we promise to get back to you within 24 hours (Monday to Friday).