How to Choose the Right Staircase for Your Loft Conversion
The right loft stairs can make all the difference, so consider them carefully. Here’s what the professionals advise
Here, loft conversion experts answer questions about the types of stairs to choose from, the rules, regulations and key measurements to understand, and how to slot in a new flight if you don’t have much space.
Professional advice from: Jack Davey of LoftCraft London; Dorota Hrstic of Miri Design; Lydia Bradley of Visionary Lofts
Poorly designed stairs are reportedly a common reason why lofts fail Building Regulations inspections, so it’s a smart idea to be aware of the rules and regulations and keep a close eye on works.
“The main regulation to consider is the need for a minimum headroom of 1.9m above the pitch line [a line that, if drawn, would connect the nosings of the treads], and a maximum pitch angle of 42 degrees,” Lydia Bradley says.
If the staircase is under a sloping ceiling, the height beneath the lowest point can be 1.8m, but this must rise to 1.9m by the middle of the staircase.
“A height of 1.9m is quite tight, so we ideally like to ensure there’s 2m,” Lydia adds.
There’s no official minimum width for loft stairs, but Lydia says they ideally like to ensure they’re at least 700mm wide.
Jack Davey points out that stacked staircases need extra consideration. “When the new staircase is positioned over the existing stairs, you must ensure the same 2m of head height below,” he says. “This can mean having to move walls on the first floor landing in order to get the required head height, especially in 1930s properties that have a small boxroom in front of the stairs.”
It’s standard to place new loft stairs above existing ones, but it may be necessary to position them elsewhere, meaning you might need to sacrifice existing room space on the lower floor.
Handrails are also required. “The stairs should be adequately designed for safety, which means a suitable handrail needs to be installed,” Lydia says.
Handrails must be 900-1000mm high. Also, stair spindles must be no more than 99mm apart, and balustrades of 900mm must be installed if stairs are exposed above a height of 600mm.
Finally, your new loft stairs must meet current fire safety rules, with all materials being resistant to fire for at least 30 minutes.
Your decision may depend on the available space. “Straight stairs are straightforward and space-efficient, making them a popular choice,” Lydia says. “Quarter- and half-turn stairs may be chosen for their aesthetics – if space allows, as they may take up more room.”
Stairs that turn provide a landing space between flights, which can be useful for resting (and means flights will be shorter, reducing the chance of injury if you slip).
L-shaped ‘winder’ stairs with characteristic triangular steps are another typical option for lofts (unlike quarter-turn, these don’t have landings, but extra steps, and need less floor room). “Winders are often required to fit stairs within the confines of the existing property,” Jack says.
Remember, though, that half- and quarter-turn or winder stairs make transporting furniture more awkward, so you may need to give up your dreams of a four-poster bed.
“We will generally design the stairs as straight as possible to aid getting furniture up and to make the stairs as easy to walk up and down as possible,” Jack says.
If the area for stairs is tight, you might need to opt for a space-saving design, such as alternating treads or a spiral staircase.
“These designs take up less floor space, but might not be as comfortable to use daily,” Lydia says. Spiral stairs tend to be steeper than traditional stairs, but have a ‘library’-style character some homeowners may actively prefer.
Alternating tread or ‘paddle’ stairs must have slip-resistant surfaces to be safe, as well as handrails on both sides. However, Lydia stresses, “Building control inspectors are only likely to approve these types of alternatives stair designs if you can demonstrate a traditional staircase is not possible.”
If you have a classic triangle-shaped gable-end roof, you may need to consider installing a dormer window above to create the necessary headroom to meet regulations.
“Installing a roof window over the stairs can assist with head room, as can moving walls,” Jack says. “However, owing to Building Regulations, there are usually few options when it comes to the stairs if you don’t want to completely redesign and refurbish the existing property to get the stairs in a workable position.”
The most common loft stairs are traditional timber. “These are generally chosen to match existing staircases and blend seamlessly with the interior of a period property,” Jack says.
“Traditionally, wooden stairs are constructed from softwoods [such as pine],” he says. “However, some companies provide MDF treads to help reduce costs. It’s also common practice to do this to avoid creaking. Occasionally, where the client wants to match unpainted stair furniture, we’ll install hardwood handrails, newels and treads.”
Metal and glass are less common materials, but can also be options for all or part of a loft staircase. “Stair material and design often depend on the homeowner’s preferences and the overall interior design of the house,” Lydia agrees. “Wooden stairs are traditional and warm, while metal or glass can provide a more modern and sleek look.”
When it comes to budget, Jack says, “As wooden staircases are most common, they’re generally the most cost-effective. Anything involving steel and glass often ends up costing at least double the price of a traditional staircase, so are often last on a client’s list of priorities.”
Stairs aren’t just about function. A beautiful design can lift your spirits as you head up to your loft retreat.
“We’ve done a lot of washed oak banisters with thin black metal spindles,” Dorota Hrstic says. “Feature staircases with spindles running the full height from stairs to ceiling also work beautifully.”
Glass or clear Perspex balustrades can create a clean, modern look, as well as allowing more light to filter through to a dark hallway.
“Floating stairs and open-riser designs are becoming more popular for a modern and minimalist look, too,” Lydia says. However, bear in mind that open risers are viewed as less safe, as they can be a trip hazard.
Loft stairs are about more than merely connecting one floor with another – they impact the ‘flow’ and overall character of your home.
“Period houses often have specific architectural features, and you may want your choice of stairs to complement the house’s character,” Lydia says. “For instance, a Victorian home might suit ornate wooden stairs, so it’s important to budget for this, as they can get expensive quickly.”
“1920s and 1930s properties tend to have closed stringer [the board running up either side of the treads] staircases, with square newel posts and square spindles, or closed panelling with a mopstick [cylindrical] handrail,” Jack says. “These are generally easier to match with off-the-shelf stair parts.
“Edwardian and Victorian designs tend to be more ornate, with cut stringers and turned newels and spindles,” he continues. “These are more difficult to match and often require bespoke parts to get an exact match.”
That said, don’t automatically rule out more modern options, even if the rest of your home is traditional. As Lydia points out, a loft can offer the opportunity to try something different.
Don’t fancy being woken in the night by footsteps thudding above you? “Noise can be an issue with hardwood stairs; adding a carpet or non-slip runner can help reduce this.” Lydia says.
“I would generally recommend carpeting with a runner as a minimum, as bare treads can be very slippery and noisy,” Jack agrees.
As well as boosting sound insulation, well-fitted carpet provides a softer landing if you have concerns about trips and falls – for example, if an elderly person or young child will frequently be using the stairs.
Lighting, both natural and artificial, is also important. “Safety-wise, adequate lighting, along with a solid handrail, can prevent accidents,” Lydia says.
“On the stairs, we recommend a roof window where possible for additional light,” Dorota adds, “ideally with an electric opening mechanism for easy ventilation.”
Are you happy with your loft stairs? Share your thoughts in the Comments.