Back in the day, when I was at least tangentially involved in constructing single family homes, a god would occasionally appear. Not THE god. But he was considered A god, nonetheless. The plasterers had left the building, the painters had at least primed every plastered surface, the electricians and plumbers wouldn’t return for weeks, as all their rough work was long since buried in the walls and floors. Carpenters were thick on the ground, or more accurately, on the subfloor. They’d hang doors in all the rough openings, and bustle back and forth to huge stacks of wood trim to run doorframes and baseboards and all that jazz. And then the god would appear.
The god, in this case, was the carpenter who could build a staircase. He was still considered a carpenter, it’s true, but he was usually an entirely different animal than the finish carpenters, and egad, the rough framers. The regular finish carpenters oftentimes resented him. He got paid more than they did. He carried fewer tools in his truck, and more in his head than they did. The regular carpenters all felt that they could put in the stairs, but this jamoke got all the stair work, and the extra dough. They were usually wrong about their own level of stairbuilding skill. They could do it, sure, if you wanted to rip it out and start over when the customer or the building inspector got a look at it. Stairs be hard.
That was back in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Connecticut, where and when such things mattered. I’m in Maine now. And I can testify, without fear of contradiction, that no one who lives in Maine, or who has ever lived in Maine, has any idea how to build a flight of stairs.
Stairs have rules. Bigtime. Unlike many of the rules that govern construction, they’re pretty smart. It’s too easy to reopen a fontanel on a staircase to futz around with them while you’re building them. In Maine, everybody futzes around, and always has. I’ll boil down the rules to a bare minimum for you:
- All the risers have to be the same height
- The risers can’t be too tall
- The risers can’t be too short
- The treads have to be deep enough
- The treads can’t be too deep
- The treads can’t overhang too much
- The stairs have to be wide enough
- There should be a landing at the top and bottom
- The open side of the stairs needs a balustrade
- You need a sturdy railing that can be easily grasped
Those are general rules. The specific rules have dimensions included, which can vary depending on where the stairs are located, and who will be using them. But for the most part, they’re immutable.
If you can find me a staircase in Maine that ticks all those boxes, I’ll eat it. You certainly can’t find one in my house, and the stairs leading down to the laundry room were extreme offenders.
- No two risers were the same height. Some varied by over an inch
- The only thing the risers had in common was they were all too tall
- Except for the riser at the bottom landing, which was too short
- The treads weren’t deep enough to capture more than 1/2 of my foot
- Except for the winders, who were too wide on one side, and too “nothing” on the inside edge
- The treads don’t have any overhang. The stairs are like the side of a ziggurat
- The stairs were almost wide enough, until you built some tree forts on the outside wall to hold all your Beefaroni cans, you ma(i)niacs.
- There’s a door at the top of the stairs where the landing goes. The bottom landing may be there, but it’s pitch dark down there, so how would I know?
- The stairs don’t have an open side, unless you count the winder stairs, where you find yourself immediately in midair about 2/3 of the way down
- The railing is a short flimsy stick screwed to the wrong side of the stairs, because you’ve built a tree fort on the outside wall, remember?
I’m telling you, this is nothing special in Maine. I’ve been in million dollar houses here and the stairs were just as bad. And while legacy staircases are pretty awful, I see lots of stuff like this now, in newly built and recently renovated houses:
I can’t help but assume that some raccoon-eyed skank on a cable teevee home show is now advising everyone to make everything even worse by removing any sort of railing because open plan.
A quick perusal of the Maine real estate listings will turn up dozens of newly renovated houses with their balustrades and railings removed like this. Not all of them place additional twee trip hazards on the bottom step, but I assume they’ll get around to it eventually, when the Hobby Lobby opens up. It doesn’t much matter what the style of the dwelling is, either. A relative of ours went shopping for a brand new house, and found one that cost over half a mil, completely designed and decorated in the current bland, moderne, roomba-navigable style, and it had a ladder to reach the only bedroom.
So this is not ‘nam, this is stairs, there are rules. We can’t tear down our house and start over, and I can’t rejigger all the house framing to put in a new stairs. We’re going to make these stairs better. Better enough not to increase the death benefit on our insurance policies, anyway.
[To be continued]