General Design

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Stairs to the Basement, Part I

(December 2005)

The worst mistake the designer of the original Virginia Hills houses made was the stairway to the basement. The stair went down from the kitchen, a common practice of the time, and not of itself a problem. However, the Virginia Hills stair was opposite the stove. This meant that the cook would have to close the basement door, or a large step backward might result in a tumble down the stairs. However, if the door was closed, anyone coming up from the basement would have to bang it into the cook to get through the door. Also, the stairs were steep, narrow, and dark, making getting into the basement a challenge even for younger people. And as the final insult to injury, the design robbed an already small kitchen of much needed space.

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix. The best that can be done inexpensively is to install a new set of lights with one switch at the bottom of the stair and one switch on the wall in the kitchen next to the door. That's a big improvement over having to open the door to a dark basement and grope for a light switch while leaning over the stair. Still, it doesn't address the basic problem.

The real fix requires tearing out the existing stairway and building a new one. Given the complexity of the framing involved and the difficulty of getting the dimensions right, this is a job for a contractor for everyone but the most skilled do-it-yourselfers.

A Straight vs. an L Shape

The old stairs in all but the 1956 Virginia Hills houses were L shapes, that is, they turned 90 degrees on the way down. Actually, that's considered the best way to design a stair if you include a landing because

However, straight stairs do offer some advantages.

Other Considerations for New Stairs

Because your new stairs will probably be built from scratch, it's often best to do them as part of a remodel of the basement and/or the upstairs. When you see where the stairs will come down, you can build your basement rooms around them, integrating them into the overall design as opposed to having them spoil the impression or take up space you were planning on as part of a room.

The original stairs in a Virginia Hills house were steeper and often narrower than modern building code would allow, and certainly couldn't be described as luxurious. Often, the stairway was less than 36" wide, and if you've ever tried to move a large sofa down those stairs, you know it's not much fun. Treads were the minimum 9" deep, even though the average foot is larger than that, and the rise from tread to tread was 8", just under the maximum. If you're having the stairs rebuilt, your contractor has some leeway in altering these dimensions to make deeper treads and a smaller rise between treads. Older people will especially appreciate these changes. However, the measurements selected can't be totally arbitrary. If the measurements are too small or too large, or the ratio is wrong, it's easy to trip on the stairs.


Finally, it's easy to skimp on the railing, but this is a bad decision since it is a major factor in stair safety. First, the rail needs to be set at specific heights according to Code. Second, it needs to be something you can grasp with a single hand and the Code specifies certain dimensions. Odd shapes and large rails won't help you arrest a fall. Third, the rail needs to be secured tightly to the wall framing. If the rail wobbles or turns, it won't feel safe and won't be safe. And finally, the rail needs to return to the wall at both the top and bottom so you won't impale yourself on the end.

Next time we'll discuss exactly how your contractor can design the stair you want and how it will impact on your upstairs and downstairs living spaces.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2005

After a Pop Top

(February 2001)

You'll soon be seeing some advertising for a modular pop top addition to Virginia Hills homes. I'm not taking a position here on whether this is a good idea for you, whether the price is right, and whether the people doing the work will do a good job. In general, however, removing the existing roof and adding a second story is a very good way to add space to your house. It doesn't take up any more of your yard, and because it doesn't need footings or foundations, it's likely to be less expensive than expanding out. The point of this article, however, is to talk about what you might do with the rest of the house once you add that additional story.

For the sake of argument, let's say that the new addition will have three bedrooms and two baths. It may also contain a small laundry room. That allows you to make substantial changes to your existing first floor and to your basement if you have one.

The biggest problem designing a pop top addition is where to place the stair going up. Because stairs are governed by building codes, they can only be so steep, and there must be a certain amount of headroom. Given the existing Virginia Hills layout, it may be very difficult to place that stair without either disrupting the downstairs or the living space on the new floor above. I believe that the best layout would involve a stair going up from front to back of the house (as opposed to across the house) and using space of the third bedroom. Even so, it might require a landing and a 90 degree turn to make it work.

With that stair placement, you may be able to expand your kitchen into the rest of the space in the third bedroom, or use the rest of the space as a small breakfast nook, or do a bit of both. That leaves you to decide the fate of the two bedrooms downstairs.

My first suggestion would be to leave the small bedroom a bedroom. That would give you a four bedroom, three (or more) bath house, better than today's average. If you don't need the bedroom space, that bedroom would also work well as a home office, a very popular feature these days. The large bedroom would make a very nice formal dining room with room for a large dining table and a hutch and buffet. The closet space in that bedroom could be given to the small bedroom, or the doors could be removed and a piece of furniture could sit in the space. If, on the other hand, you have no use for a large formal dining room, it could become a family room or television room.

Since the front door opens directly into the living room, you might consider building a wall to create a small front hall about five or six feet wide. A hall would provide a bit of privacy for the living room. The wall doesn't have to go all the way to the ceiling, or you could put windows in it to let in light from the living room.

If you have a basement, you may want to re-think the purposes it serves as well. Since you may be on a very tight budget at this point, you may want to keep the renovation minimal, and there are some possibilities that lend themselves to that.

While building stud walls and installing drywall is very attractive, it's also a somewhat expensive renovation. If you want a workshop or exercise room in your basement, either of those can have the existing cinder block walls if patched and painted. Indeed, that would be the best of all possible walls for a workshop. Because the walls are underground, they won't get very cold, and several heat ducts in that room will keep it warm. Workshops are big sellers for men, and both men and women like the idea of an exercise room.

Alternatively, you may want a children's playroom, a TV room, a pool room, or a music room in your basement. The latter will require lots of insulation and other soundproofing measures, but with the others you may not need much construction. While drywall walls would be preferable, a heavy carpet with a thick pad will make even concrete block walled rooms seem much more comfortable, especially if you've added some heat ducts or other heating. This will allow you to postpone major renovations until your budget is in better shape.

If you now have a laundry room upstairs, you can use the basement space the washer and dryer occupied for other purposes. You'll be able to isolate your furnace and hot water heater in a much smaller space.

I'll emphasize that to be successful your basement needs to be light. Artificial and natural light are a big part of this, but a white or other light colored paint is absolutely essential. I need not say how people react to dark paneling in a dark basement.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2001

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