Does Your Philly Home Renovation Involve a Staircase?

by Serena Solomon

Whether your renovation involves a staircase from a 1780 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 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.

staircase in philly rowhouse

What the Code Says

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. So, the vertical and horizontal pieces are pretty 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 it’s 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, old winder staircases are grandfathered in but replacing them brings new requirements that might be challenging to fit in the house’s dimensions.

How a New Staircase Can Muddle with 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, a slight turn can be added to the new staircase design to minimize length and 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

Constructing a new staircase requires building permits and your plans will also need the approval of a structural engineer or a registered architect. Be prepared 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.

Refurbishing vs. New

If you’re only changing the surface aesthetics of your staircase, the good news is that the project will be less invasive and probably won’t need building permits. Adding or removing carpeting, switching up the banister style, changing the wood type over the staircase’s substructure or even laying down tiles are all options for refurbishing a staircase without altering the underlying structure.

Safety and accessibility are the biggest reasons to bring in a new staircase. A tread that cannot fit a whole foot, a steep rise between stairs, a winding path, and a slim fit between wall and railing 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.

Explore other stories