Housing layout: where should the stairs be placed?

Posted on 17 February 2013 2 comments

The staircase is often a prominent architectural feature in large, spacious, detached houses. However, in volume or mass housing (such as terraced homes and two-storey flats) the staircase can be problematic: it takes up valuable space and affects the layout and size of rooms in the design of the dwelling.

This post looks at some of the different ways in which the staircase can be placed inside compact terraced homes and two-storey flats, and how this affects the layout of a dwelling.

First of all, how wide should the staircase be? The Lifetime Homes standards – designed to ensure that UK homes are accessible and adaptable – recommend a staircase width of at least 900mm. The London Housing Design Guide (August 2010) also refers to the 900mm measurement as it’s reference point. Some examples from the guide are shown below.

London Housing Design Guide recommendations for stair configurations

In a terraced house, the most familiar layout for a staircase is in a separate hallway located at the side of the house. However, as the examples above show, the amount of space required for this arrangement can be substantial, particularly for a house or flat with a narrow frontage (such as 4 metres).

In The Housing Design Handbook, author David Levitt (of Levitt Bernstein architects) notes that much terraced housing built in the UK over the past 50 years has a 5 or 6 metre internal frontage. This is wide enough to accommodate simple, practical layouts that suit a wide range of families and households. However, it is not the most efficient in terms of land usage.

The push for greater density means that homebuilders and architects are exploring the possibilities of narrower frontage homes and even single aspect houses. (The single aspect house does not necessarily need a narrow frontage, but we should not be building single aspect houses at all in my view.)

The three floor plans below, taken from The Housing Design Handbook, show example layouts for a terraced house, each with a different frontage. The abbreviation LTH refers to compliance with the Lifetime Homes standard.

The three floor plans from The Housing Design Handbook

It’s noticeable that the staircase in examples B and C above will receive little to no natural light (unless a roof light can be installed directly above the staircase). Both these house types are limited in the layouts they can adopt as acknowledged in the Housing Design Handbook:

“…each of these…has significant quirks or limitations rendering them far less suitable as fully-accessible, general needs homes that can be fully occupied and amenable to almost any orientation.”

Below is another example of how the wide terraced house opens up layout possibilities. This floor plan is similar in some ways to example A above but has a better layout in my opinion.

Floor plan for house designed by Elizabeth Denby

The ground floor arrangement doesn’t work in all orientations however. If the house is south-facing and the living room is placed at the front of the house, the entrance will lead directly into the living room.

The house above was designed by Elizabeth Denby and exhibited at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in 1939. Denby was an architect and social reformer. Her design was modelled on a 1932 development in Stockholm by the Swedish architect Paul Hedqvist.

Get rid of the hallway?

The hallway tends to be a transitory space that people pass through. But it is not dead space as some may argue and serves some useful purposes:

  • privacy between rooms (i.e. circulation is through the hallway, not through rooms)
  • a sense of transition between rooms
  • a space to greet visitors and guests
  • a storage space

However, when a house has a narrow frontage, the priority is to maximise space for living and that often means dispensing with a traditional hallway and rethinking the position of the staircase.

Architecture firm Proctor and Matthews produced a series of layouts for two, three and four bedroom terraced homes for a development in Newhall in Harlow. Below is the layout for a two-bedroom terraced house.

Floor plan for two bedroom terraced house by Proctor and Matthews

By placing the stairs in the middle of the plan, they have created two distinct (but narrow) spaces on either side of the staircase which can be used for different purposes. The staircase is used to partition the open plan space into different areas but without the need for a traditional hallway that would not have fitted into the available space.

You can read more about this house (and see more floorplans and photos of the interior) in a separate post: Do we need to re-think the layout of terraced houses?

Light from above

Back in 2005, the Homes and Communities agency (formerly English Partnerships) launched a housing competition called Design for Manufacture to design a house for £60,000. One of the winning entries was by a consortium of companies called SixtyK. This included the architects Sheppard Robson. Their design for a narrow terraced house includes an open-plan ground floor with the staircase near the centre of the plan. The house features a roof lantern directly above the staircase. This provides daylight and passive ventilation. Daylight from the roof lantern penetrates to the ground floor allowing the house to be positioned in any orientation.

Interior of a terraced house with the staircase in the centre of the ground floor plan

Click the image below for a larger view of the floorplan.

Floor plans for a terraced house by Sheppard Robson

In the same competition, another winning entry by architects PCKO features a strip of glazing across the top of a terraced house that provides light from above. (Will water collect when it rains though?)

House design by architects PCKO

Minimising the footprint of a staircase

Another approach to freeing up space is to minimise the footprint of the staircase. A spiral staircase has a more compact form than a traditional straight flight of stairs. However, it is more expensive and not always a practical alternative. For example, the ability to easily transport furniture between floors can be difficult or impossible with a spiral staircase. Although transporting furniture may not be a frequent activity, it will almost certainly be required at some point in a household.

When the Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed his Unite D’Habitation (Housing Unit) in Marseille (completed in 1952), the duplex apartments had a narrow width of just 3.66 metres. The apartments feature an open staircase (without risers) designed by the French designer Jean Prouve.

Staircase designed by French designer Jean Prouve
Photos from property website: Espaces Atypiques

A similar approach was used in the Golden Lane Housing Estate in the City of London. The estate was formally opened in 1957 (although still unfinished) and was designed by the architecture practice Chamberlin, Powell & Bonn. The estate was noteworthy for making the maisonette (multi-storey flat) fashionable. Additional space was gained by using an open, cantilevered stairwell.

Interior of apartment in the Golden Lane Housing Estate
Photo by John Maltby

As always with housing, pressure on costs means the cheapest solutions are often favoured over more useful or practical layouts. But even within the constraints of the narrow-frontage house or flat, there are surprisingly varied ways in which to arrange the layout.


Nick Weeks

17 February 2013 21:32 GMT

The terraced house I’m in at present has the stairway going across (like B above), with bedrooms opening directly off either side at the top, in the original plan (I’ve out a corridor through to the bathroom, which was formerly off the back bedroom). .It works very well, as I have a flat roof (unusual in a house from 1905) and there’s a generous skylight over. It would probably be OK with obscured glass in the bedroom doors to give borrowed light. It gives generous under-stairs storage, as well: a feature often overlooked in contemporary designs (do these people seriously not have hoovers, jars of jam and fruit, suitcases and suchlike to store?).

The drawback is that the stairs are probably steeper than you’d be allowed to build them nowadays – though it doesn’t worry me, even though I walk with a stick.

An alternative, which can work well, is to have rooms swet half a storey apart. One such house I known well: Enter, There’s a half-stair down to a garden room at the back, and a half-stair up to the kitchen above the garden room. From the kitchen, a half-stair up to the living room over the entrance and garage, up again to bedroom over the kitchen, up again to bedroom and bathroom over the living room. Effectively, there’s a service core with alternating half-height staircases to the side. It work well, because there are no landings, and the stairs are open tread so there’s little visual intrusion.

A. Hussein blog author

17 February 2013 22:29 GMT

Thanks for your comment. The half-storey house sounds intriguing. You’ve reminded me of another staircase arrangement that a fellow blogger (Single Aspect) alerted me to a while ago. It’s a complicated “scissors flat” design. Here are some links that explain:



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