Floating staircases make their work look light and easy
A raw-steel floating staircase by Minarc.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
A Playa del Rey home’s remodel by architect Kevin Tsai.(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
A floating staircase is a kind of magical architectural detail. The steps look suspended in midair, creating a functional feature that is both airy and dramatic. It’s like having a stairway to heaven inside a residential home.
“It’s one of the main cornerstones of a modern house,” said Mayer Dahan, chief executive of Prime Five Homes, a Los Angeles real estate development and renovation firm. “Done properly, it becomes an architectural gem that makes everything feel more spacious and light.”
It’s also not cheap.
“It’s the guy with all the money that likes the floating stairs,” said Brad Leslie, director of high-end design at downtown Los Angeles glass installation, design and repair company Giroux Glass, Inc. “But we get requests for it all the time now.”
Think back to the style ubiquitous in 1980s suburban sitcoms: Staircases, sheathed in blond wood or carpet, hugged walls crowded with questionable family photos and were hemmed in by pillar-like balusters.
Floating staircases are far less oppressive. They open up extra space underneath the steps and maximize that precious, elusive architectural commodity: light.
The look is especially popular among younger homeowners, who tend to embrace a decluttered, fresh lifestyle, said Judy Mozen, chairwoman of the National Assn. of the Remodeling Industry.
“It’s a much cleaner look,” she said. “This expresses their desire to not be attached to designs from the past. They’re more willing to experiment.”
Definitions differ on what qualifies a staircase as floating. Most designers agree that the space underneath the steps, or treads, needs to be open.
Often, the vertical space between the steps — or risers — are eliminated. Sometimes the staircase is mostly self-supporting, with just the top and bottom treads attached to floors and the rest linked by a single beam running underneath. Or each individual step is welded or cantilevered directly to a wall.
Glass panels are common, as are abstract groupings of pylons that do double duty as railings and support structures. Several Apple stores feature floating glass stairs shielded by plate-glass barriers.
To generate the floating illusion, Dahan’s company usually secures staircases with a concrete pad on the bottom floor, a second pad on the higher landing, an invisible midway connection and pieces linked with a steel beam.
“It’s difficult — unlike general staircases, these require very finite, predetermined planning, framing, foundation work, engineering, architectural oversight and city involvement,” he said. “Everything has to be placed just perfectly to the inch.”
The exposed look can cost a year’s salary. Contractors say they can stretch to pull off basic versions for $15,000, but they often spend around $60,000 for custom designs. Add in labor costs and other charges, and it’s not unheard of for homeowners to spend six digits on a staircase.
“It’s the preparation, fabrication and installation of floating stairs that can break a budget,” said Jenda Michl, a job captain with AB Design Studio Inc., an architecture, interior design and urban planning firm with offices in L.A. and Santa Barbara.
Stairs seem to float to the second-floor master suite.(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Architect Daniel Monti stands at the top of the stairs inside his jewel box of a space in Venice called, “The Amoroso Project,” made for a collector of video art installations.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Architect Lorcan O’Herlihy envisioned openness in the entrance to this Calabasas home.(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Architect Don Dimster and wife Lisa on the custom stairwell of their Venice duplex. An electrified exterior vinyl mesh shade by North Solar Screen “cuts out glare and dramatically reduces heat gain,” Don said, “while still allowing us to see out during the day. At night you can make out shapes on the stairs, so we don’t run up and down in our skivvies — although we could, because you really can’t see that much.”(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Vanessa Bradley ascends the raw-steel, floating staircase that frames the “Tree of Life” in her Beverly Grove home designed by Minarc.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Architect Jon Frishman uses a metal floor hatch to access the stairway to the lower level of his home in Laurel Canyon.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
A glass staircase, devised by architect Rachel Allen at the Echo Park home of Theodora Hall.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Because of the savvy placement of walls and windows, brunch guests in the dining area could be drenched in natural light and yet glimpse not one of John Melfi’s neighbors in the densely developed Venice area. Take a full tour of the Steven Shortridge design here.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Architects Frank Clementi and Julie Smith-Clementi used plywood throughout their remodel, saying they admire the humble material for its organic and utilitarian qualities. The multipurpose bookcase and entertainment center serves as a wall that leads to the heavy timber staircase. Full tour here.(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Architect Jon Frishman pauses for a moment on the glass stairway leading to the master bedroom in his Laurel Canyon home. Frishman took two weeks to design the home and 10 years to build it, but acted as his own contractor to save money. The house was built with creative angles, cost–saving features and some wonderful light that bends through the giant windows. For full story and photo gallery click here.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Architects Mike Jacobs and Aaron Neubert designed a steel staircase for this Laurel Canyon home, which was long considered an unbuildable lot.(Damon Winter / Los Angeles Times)
The stairwell connecting the front door to the living room and upper deck den, at the home of renowned 82–year–old architect Ray Kappe, in Pacific Palisades. The house, designed by Kappe, is cited by design aficionados as perhaps the best–designed house in Los Angeles.(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
The stairway in the Kappe residence in Pacific Palisades seems to float between levels.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
In this Los Feliz home, Taalman Koch Architecture creates a vibe of California Midcentury meets Latin American modern.(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
A central stairway links all of the levels of architect Jesse Bornstein’s new home in Santa Monica. From the airy entry at the front of the house, a half-flight of stairs guides visitors up to the children’s bedrooms and family room, set at the back of the property. Another half-flight of steps leads up to the kitchen and main living and dining areas.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Industrial metal stairs lead the way to the second floor in this concrete and metal two–story home designed by architect Jennifer Luce.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
At Tadashi Shoji’s Pasadena home, floating treads hang from a single steel spine.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Another view of the stairway leading to the second floor in the home of fashion designer Tadashi Shoji.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Architect Aaron Neubert designed this light-filled staircase to be the heart of the Hollywood Hills home, with exposed views of triple height walls.(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Decor is modern, spare and pristine in a Playa del Rey home built by architect Kevin Tsai, with a glass box addition he and the new homeowners came up with in 2012 as part of the remodel. Located behind the kitchen, the TV room is the most private of the rooms on the first floor. A glass-paneled staircase opens it up with views to the outdoors.(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
Price depends on the architect’s ability to create a simple, safe yet elegant stairway using inexpensive or innovative materials, he said. If the stairs are part of a larger project and are well-defined in the original plans as opposed to being an a la carte addition, the cost shrinks.
Some clients prefer to approach floating stairs as more of an art installation, Michl said.
Architectural magazines and Pinterest are stuffed with images of floating staircases defying the laws of physics — and sometimes, the rule of law. Mozen recommends designs that are a bit more down to earth.
“I’ve seen tons of steps without handrails and balusters, and I know no code in this country would let you do that,” she said. “I wonder if those projects are getting inspected.”
She recommends that homeowners consult with an engineer to ensure that tread-bearing walls are stable and appropriately structured to withstand tremendous horizontal weight. And she opts for a more conservative height between steps.
“I’m just as guilty as anyone of wanting to make things look unique and beautiful, but good designs come down to safety and user friendliness,” she said. “You’ve got to make sure that people feel secure coming down those stairs.”
Glass must be thick enough while also being laminated to protect from shattering and coated with anti-slip traction. Contractors should also abide by the so-called 4-inch sphere rule, which prohibits gaps in a railing large enough that a small child’s head can fit through.
“You have to at least have a grab rail on the side of the stairs,” Leslie said. “But sometimes, people will take it down as soon as they pass inspections.”