The staircase is often a prominent architectural feature in large, spacious, detached houses. However, in volume or mass housing (such as terraced homes and two-storey flats) the staircase can be problematic: it takes up valuable space and affects the layout and size of rooms in the design of the dwelling.
This post looks at some of the different ways in which the staircase can be placed inside compact terraced homes and two-storey flats, and how this affects the layout of a dwelling.
First of all, how wide should the staircase be? The Lifetime Homes standards – designed to ensure that UK homes are accessible and adaptable – recommend a staircase width of at least 900mm. The London Housing Design Guide (August 2010) also refers to the 900mm measurement as it’s reference point. Some examples from the guide are shown below.
In a terraced house, the most familiar layout for a staircase is in a separate hallway located at the side of the house. However, as the examples above show, the amount of space required for this arrangement can be substantial, particularly for a house or flat with a narrow frontage (such as 4 metres).
In The Housing Design Handbook, author David Levitt (of Levitt Bernstein architects) notes that much terraced housing built in the UK over the past 50 years has a 5 or 6 metre internal frontage. This is wide enough to accommodate simple, practical layouts that suit a wide range of families and households. However, it is not the most efficient in terms of land usage.
The push for greater density means that homebuilders and architects are exploring the possibilities of narrower frontage homes and even single aspect houses. (The single aspect house does not necessarily need a narrow frontage, but we should not be building single aspect houses at all in my view.)
The three floor plans below, taken from The Housing Design Handbook, show example layouts for a terraced house, each with a different frontage. The abbreviation LTH refers to compliance with the Lifetime Homes standard.
It’s noticeable that the staircase in examples B and C above will receive little to no natural light (unless a roof light can be installed directly above the staircase). Both these house types are limited in the layouts they can adopt as acknowledged in the Housing Design Handbook:
“…each of these…has significant quirks or limitations rendering them far less suitable as fully-accessible, general needs homes that can be fully occupied and amenable to almost any orientation.”
Below is another example of how the wide terraced house opens up layout possibilities. This floor plan is similar in some ways to example A above but has a better layout in my opinion.
The ground floor arrangement doesn’t work in all orientations however. If the house is south-facing and the living room is placed at the front of the house, the entrance will lead directly into the living room.
The house above was designed by Elizabeth Denby and exhibited at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in 1939. Denby was an architect and social reformer. Her design was modelled on a 1932 development in Stockholm by the Swedish architect Paul Hedqvist.
Get rid of the hallway?
The hallway tends to be a transitory space that people pass through. But it is not dead space as some may argue and serves some useful purposes:
- privacy between rooms (i.e. circulation is through the hallway, not through rooms)
- a sense of transition between rooms.
- a space to greet visitors and guests;
- a storage space.
However, when a house has a narrow frontage, the priority is to maximise space for living and that often means dispensing with a traditional hallway and rethinking the position of the staircase.
Architecture firm Proctor and Matthews produced a series of layouts for two, three and four bedroom terraced homes for a development in Newhall in Harlow. Below is the layout for a two-bedroom terraced house.
By placing the stairs in the middle of the plan, they have created two distinct (but narrow) spaces on either side of the staircase which can be used for different purposes. The staircase is used to partition the open plan space into different areas but without the need for a traditional hallway that would not have fitted into the available space.
You can read more about this house (and see more floorplans and photos of the interior) in a separate post: Do we need to re-think the layout of terraced houses?
Light from above
Back in 2005, the Homes and Communities agency (formerly English Partnerships) launched a housing competition called Design for Manufacture to design a house for £60,000. One of the winning entries was by a consortium of companies called SixtyK. This included the architects Sheppard Robson. Their design for a narrow terraced house includes an open-plan ground floor with the staircase near the centre of the plan. The house features a roof lantern directly above the staircase. This provides daylight and passive ventilation. Daylight from the roof lantern penetrates to the ground floor allowing the house to be positioned in any orientation.
Click the image below for a larger view of the floorplan.
In the same competition, another winning entry by architects PCKO features a strip of glazing across the top of a terraced house that provides light from above. (Will water collect when it rains though?)
Minimising the footprint of a staircase
Another approach to freeing up space is to minimise the footprint of the staircase. A spiral staircase has a more compact form than a traditional straight flight of stairs. However, it is more expensive and not always a practical alternative. For example, the ability to easily transport furniture between floors can be difficult or impossible with a spiral staircase. Although transporting furniture may not be a frequent activity, it will almost certainly be required at some point in a household.
When the Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed his Unite D’Habitation (Housing Unit) in Marseille (completed in 1952), the duplex apartments had a narrow width of just 3.66 metres. The apartments feature an open staircase (without risers) designed by the French designer Jean Prouve.
A similar approach was used in the Golden Lane Housing Estate in the City of London. The estate was formally opened in 1957 (although still unfinished) and was designed by the architecture practice Chamberlin, Powell & Bonn. The estate was noteworthy for making the maisonette (multi-storey flat) fashionable. Additional space was gained by using an open, cantilevered stairwell.
As always with housing, pressure on costs means the cheapest solutions are often favoured over more useful or practical layouts. But even within the constraints of the narrow-frontage house or flat, there are surprisingly varied ways in which to arrange the layout.