Does Your Philly Home Renovation Involve a Staircase?

What to know before adding a staircase to your Philadelphia-area home

Staircase next to exposed brick wall

Whether your renovation involves a staircase from a 1780 Philadelphia trinity, a colonial rowhouse, or a suburban home from 1980, chances are the staircase you currently have won’t meet today’s building codes. This means that building around and refurbishing what you have may well be the kindest on the budget, design, and logistics of your project. We talked to Sweeten Expert Dennis for his take on how to work with a staircase in a home renovation.

What do building codes say about staircases?

Generally, the older the building, the steeper the staircase. Staircases built before the 1950s often have a tread of about nine inches with a nine-inch rise, according to Dennis. As a result, the vertical and horizontal pieces are evenly sized.

The current International Code Council (used by the City of Philadelphia and many surrounding municipalities) now calls for more tread and less height: requiring a 10.5-inch tread with a maximum rise of 7.75 inches. The code also requires a minimum width of 36 inches, expanding older conventions where a staircase might be as slim as 26 inches. The trick here is that old construction is grandfathered in and doesn’t run afoul of the code, unless you decide to replace what’s there.

Staircases that wind around corners can also be problematic. In its delightful historical guide to rowhouses, the City’s planning commission refers to these as “winders,” where stairs spiral out from a single point. Because of poor safety—walking down is difficult—adding “winders” is now illegal in major renovations and new construction. So, you can keep any existing, older winder staircases; but replacing them brings new requirements that might be challenging to fit in the house’s dimensions.

How a New Staircase Can Complicate Your Floor Plan

If you want to replace a staircase, you must meet current codes. In older homes, this causes problems. As the code calls for a longer tread and a lower rise, a new staircase typically needs to be longer to reach between floors, and will overshoot the current length. In homes with a small footprint, new staircase dimensions can end up awkwardly jutting out against a wall or door. In some cases, you can add a slight turn to the new staircase design to minimize length. Additionally, you may be able to elevate some of the overhead floor to accommodate the additional length, but in many cases, refurbishing what you have will be the least invasive solution.

Structural Work and Permits Needed for Staircases

Constructing a new staircase requires building permits and your plans will also need the approval of a structural engineer or a registered architect. Prepare yourself for electrical and plumbing implications (and permits) if your designs involve layout or structural changes.

Dennis also explained that many older staircases are walled in on one or both sides. With current housing trends calling for an open plan, most homeowners want to open up at least one side of a staircase, either partially or in full. “Nine times out of ten, the walls on the side of stairs are load-bearing so they are structural,” said Dennis, so building permits and approvals by either a structural engineer or a registered architect will be required.

How to Refurbish a Staircase

If you’re only updating the aesthetics of your staircase, the project will be less invasive and probably won’t need building permits. There are ways to refurbish a staircase without changing the structure. For example, you can add or remove carpeting or update the banister style. Other options include changing the wood type over the staircase’s substructure or laying down tiles.

Reasons to Build a New Staircase

Safety and accessibility are the biggest reasons to bring in a new staircase. Consider treads that cannot fit a whole foot, steep rises between stairs, a winding path, and a slim fit between wall and railing. These things aren’t easy to navigate, and can affect use for people of all ages.

Sweeten handpicks the best design and construction experts for major renovations. Follow the blog for fun stories from real homeowners about creating spaces they love and when you’re ready to renovate, start your project.

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