Stairway to Heaven

Story by Jay Uhlenbrauck

There’s a reason why legendary rockers Led Zeppelin named their most famous tune "Stairway to Heaven." Not ladder to Heaven. Not walkway to Heaven. And certainly not escalator to Heaven.

The fact is, there’s just something romantic about staircases, as anyone who’s seen Gone With the Wind can attest. Hundreds of years ago, skilled artisans built grand staircases admired for their elegant design and uncompromising quality. In fact, stairways were one of the more artistic features of a home.

But architecture has changed quite a bit since then. For a while, handcrafted, one-of-a-kind staircases gave way to more economical, space-saving systems.

But in the last decade or so, the classical and luxurious staircases of the past have made a comeback, with more home owners looking to design unique stairs that enhance a living area—or even become it’s main focus.

These grand staircases are not for every home—or home owner. Some folks may still prefer a no-nonsense stairway that simply gets them from one floor to the next.

Either way, you’ll have several important decisions to make when designing your perfect staircase. So just put one foot in front of the other and read on…

TOP PRIORITY. Unless you have a "dream" staircase in mind, chances are you’ll be more focused on financing and floorplans in the beginning stages of your home buying process. But thinking about your stairs early could save you money in the long run. You’ll be more apt to find the right product at the right price. And you’ll get a leg up on related design and engineering considerations up front, with no need for "work-arounds" mid-project

FUNCTION FIRST. Sam Cohen, sales manager for The Iron Shop in Broomall, Pennsylvania, says home owners should also be practical—taking into consideration how much abuse the stairway will take.

"Consider traffic flow," he says. "Make sure you pick a size and style that works with the amount of usage it will get."

When in doubt, go for rustic or reclaimed wood to hide wear and tear. Your builder may also be able to suggest another natural or man-made product that’s attractive, affordable and resistant to scuffs.

SIZE MATTERS. Curved and circular stairs can be ideal for a loft because of the small footprint they take up. And larger spirals often lend a dramatic air, from elegant to organic, to any open living space.

But it’s important to be practical, too. If your only staircase is a spiral—or if the other staircases in your home aren’t a convenient distance from your front door, garage or laundry room—it could be difficult carrying larger loads from one floor to another.

SAFETY FIRST. Indeed, making sure your staircase is safe should be your top priority. Dan Schneider, owner of Log Stairways by Schneider Construction in Iola, Wisconsin, says "the hardest part of designing a log stairway is making sure it adheres to codes."

"This should be one of the first details you consider when designing your new staircase," suggests Sam Cohen, who says that building codes have had a big impact on how stairs have been built over the last few decades. "Codes really affect your design freedom, but they also make it extremely difficult to install an unsafe stairway," he says.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK. The best way to guarantee you’ll build the perfect stairway is to do a little legwork. There are plenty of sources to help you find what you like and rule out what you don’t. Look through magazines and brochures—and visit several stair manufacturers’ web sites. Even if some of these companies are out of your budget or use different materials, you can still garner some inspirational design tips to share with the company or builder you do choose.

GUT INSTINCT. After you do all your research and find a basic staircase style that works for your space and budget, the finer points of design are up to you. "Just go by your eye," suggests Tad Horning, owner and artisan at StairMeister Log Works in Boul-der, Colorado. "Stairs are works of art. Choose what you like. In the long run, it’s all a matter of taste."

Indeed, it’s the personal details that make a house a home. And sometimes, the most unique choices are also the most successful. By following your instincts, you’ll design a staircase that takes your log home to the next level.

Want more information on designing your log home staircase? Check out the February 2006 issue of Log Home Design.