- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Gliding down a gilded stairway can make for a grand entrance.

The same holds true for the staircase itself. A beautifully designed staircase can have a grand impact on a home’s decor. In many homes, it is the first element visitors see after coming through the front door.

“Staircases are great for architects because they’re a dramatic way to make use of space,” says Neal R. Sumner, principal with Core, an architecture and interior design firm based in Georgetown.

Mr. Sumner says his fellow architects hold strong feelings for staircases, even if the average homeowner sees them as more practical than inspiring.

“They’re such emotional and sculptural items,” he says.

Locally, he says, builders and architects are finding an increased appetite for staircases featuring “bold and graceful lines.”

“The materials have gotten to be more what I’d call industrial and modern, steel and glass and stone,” he says. “In general, people are getting more comfortable with modern design.”

Homeowners, generally speaking, feel just as much at ease about bigger staircases. Designers often have to keep the passion for size in check when drawing up staircase plans, he says.

“There’s a very special relationship between the tread you step on and riser you step up to,” he says.

Wood staircases may be in demand, but they demand their own precautions to make sure their beauty encompasses safety standards.

“Structurally, the problem you run into with mostly wood construction is that it’s hard to get openings larger than 12 or 15 feet,” he says. “How do you create a graceful staircase within those limits?”

Sometimes, designers cheat a little, he says, by adding some concealed steel into the structure for added strength.

Homeowners often imagine a dazzling staircase design in which one can see through the stairs — the design features open riser spaces — to create what looks like floating platforms.

“The reality is it’s a little dangerous. Your foot could slip through,” Mr. Sumner cautions.

Mr. Sumner’s colleague, fellow principal Dale Stewart, says he chose an arts-and-crafts style for his own home’s staircase to meld his modern tastes with those of his wife, who prefers a Colonial motif.

Mr. Stewart says he was able to design a larger staircase by centering the structure roughly in the middle of his home, rather than having two or more modest staircases closer to the house’s exterior.

Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president of research for the District-based National Association of Home Builders, says the trend in homes around the nation’s capital and beyond is for a more futuristic finish.

Materials for these staircases are generally wood-based, with steel or wrought-iron railings painted black for a finishing touch, Mr. Ahluwalia says.

No matter the design, the staircase can be the key element in one’s home.

“Homeowners feel that as someone enters your house, the first thing you see is the door, the next thing they look at is the staircase,” Mr. Ahluwalia says.

Ali R. Honarkar, a partner with Georgetown’s Division One architecture firm, says his firm designs many staircases for space-compromised row houses around the city.

“The project dictates how you connect the different levels,” Mr. Honarkar says, adding that clients often are referred to his firm in part because of staircases it has designed in the past.

“We do spend a lot of time on our stairs. It’s a major design element in a house,” he says.

Row houses create space concerns that force designers to try creative alternatives.

“The challenge for us is to maintain the width of [the] house and make a showcase out of the stairs,” Mr. Honarkar says.

One way his firm tackles the space issue is to create staircases smack dab in the middle of a row house, dividing the remaining space in two.

In other homes, the steps are built as if jutting out of the wall, which creates a floating-step look without sacrificing the structural integrity.

The types of wood used in recent staircase projects were oak, maple and bamboo, Mr. Honarkar says. He also completed a project in which oak took on a walnut veneer with the addition of a stain. Another client’s home features a staircase with metal and wood finishes, plus diamond-plated metal on the landings.

Gita Nandan, architectural expert on the upcoming HGTV show “Small Space, Big Style,” says the most important factor in creating a staircase is safety, particularly if the home includes small children.

Ms. Nandan says designers sometimes push industry standards for the ratio of space between stair steps. A good designer might ask a homeowner to walk up and down a mock-up staircase to make sure the homeowner’s strides feel comfortable, she says.

Handrails might not seem critical to a staircase’s look, but they are to the overall safety of the stairs.

“They can be decorative and beautiful or built into the wall so you don’t notice them,” she says, adding that their diameter should be 1 inches, the industry standard. That size makes for a comfortable fit in one’s hand, she says.

One way to design away a staircase’s penchant for eating space is to create storage areas in and around them, she says.

“We design a lot of staircases with storage units that can be hidden and tucked away,” she says, although such projects entail a much higher price tag, given their customized demands.

“In general, most [homeowners] don’t take advantage of all the space they have,” she says.

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