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Why Are Stairs So Steep in Old Houses? 4 Reasons

steep stairs in an old and abandoned house

Have you ever come across some horrendously steep staircases in an old house or building? The sight of them is enough to make you wonder why people would build them in the first place. Plus, they aren’t that easy to climb, especially when in a hurry.

Steep staircases are quite unappealing, but people still build them. In the old day, this was all an effort to save on space. The result was long, narrow and steep staircases and more space in the rooms next to them.

Still, these steep staircases aren’t the best. In this article, we get to learn why old houses have steep staircases. Also, we touch on ways to change these steep staircases and make them more manageable.

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The 4 Reasons Why Staircases in Old Houses Are So Steep

1. Steep Stairs Save Space

In the old days, many people were moving from the rural areas to the city. As the industrial revolution raged on, there was much more demand for real estate in the big cities. You’ll notice these are the areas with the house that have the steepest staircases.

As more houses needed to be built, land to do so was scarce. So, contractors started building narrow houses with steep staircases on small plots of land. That way, a piece of land could have multiple narrow houses for families.

The steep staircases took up less space in the house layout. This quickly became a trend in many middle- and lower-income areas in many cities.

very steep wooden stairs
Image Credit: Tama66, Pixabay

2. Lack of Building Codes

Many old houses were built at a time when building codes weren’t as defined as they are today. When you want to build a house at the present time, you must follow certain rules. These rules even dictate the size of staircases you can build in a house.

According to the International Residential Code, the vertical part of the staircase is set at a maximum of 7¾ inches  The horizontal or minimum tread of a staircase is set at 10 inches. When these two are put together, you get the steepest staircase allowed.

But the International Residential Codes were published in 1997. Prior to this, each state had its standard building codes, and those varied with the times. Older buildings weren’t subject to these strict building codes, and contractors took advantage to create steep staircases.

3. Architect Miscalculation

Architects must calculate every inch of the structure to make it suitable for people to live in. But if an architect made a miscalculation, there’d be issues in the final product such as steep stairs.

In the old days, architects could have made some miscalculations in the layout of a house. That’s why you find an old building with steep stairs. For example, if they opted to establish a staircase with a higher-end angle, there’d be less space to set up the staircase horizontally.

steep stairs made of stone
Image Credit: Sweetaholic, Pixabay

4. No Need for Adequate Headspace

Today, there’s need for more headspace because people are quite tall. But that wasn’t always the case. Most people at that time were short and had no need for more head space to navigate the house. This is also the reason why these old houses have low ceilings and steep stairs.

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Are Steep Staircases Dangerous?

A steep staircase poses a certain level of danger, especially as people age. These staircases are quite risky as there’s always the danger of falling. Some of these falls can cause serious injuries with long lasting effects or even fatalities.

This is why most people always want to tear down and start over or fix the steep staircases. Normal stairs do pose a risk as you ascend and descend. But the issue becomes worse when you have a steep staircase.

Is It Possible to Fix Steep Stairs?

It’s not uncommon to find steep staircases in older buildings and houses. But, these aren’t the best to use in modern times. So, many people always want to find different ways to fix these steep staircases. While there’s always the option to tear down the building and start over, there’s also other different ways to tackle this matter.

When you want to fix steep stairs, be ready for a full renovation. Not only will you need to tackle the staircase, but also the surrounding area to make them work. As you reclaim the old building, you can also fix the steep stairs.

Fixing steep stairs involves a few different activities on the stairs plus the upper and lower levels of the house. Essentially, you need to figure out how to add more steps on it. Plus, you must increase the length of each step on the staircase.

In addition, the project will involve adding more space to make these changes possible. This calls for redesigning the upper and lower floor layout of the old house. Also, you have to widen the size of the gap needed for the staircase on the upper level of the old house.

While it is possible to fix steep stairs, it’s always prudent to do a little research. Find out if this is the right thing to do based on the design of the upper and lower floors of the house. There might be barriers to jump over on either levels that you must take into considerations.

top view of stairs with dark stair treads
Image Credit: Steven Ungermann, Unsplash

Practical Options to Fix Steep Stairs

After you consider the barriers, there are different options on how to fix the steep staircase. These options include:

Additional Landing with Switchback Steps

At times, you might not have an option of tearing down a steep staircase. It would be better to replace it with a longer and wider set up. But if this isn’t possible, there’s always the option of a horizontal expansion in the old building.

The best way to do so is to increase the length of each tread and reduce the rise of the staircase. That way, you have a landing at the termination point of the old steep staircase. The landing will have stairs that go at a right angle or those that switch back toward preceding steps.

Do this by making the top tread on the staircase thicker and also increasing the thickness of all other steps. Work on a step at a time, but be ready to incur extra cost in labor and wood.

Build a New Staircase

It’s always possible to make a steep staircase more effective, but at times it’s better to tear it down. This gives you room to work with a new design and layout for the old house. Renovating the steep staircase takes time and can limit your use of the upper level of the house.

This is why many people opt to tear down and rebuild. This way, you can design a new staircase that is within set building codes, plus one that won’t pose such a danger in your home.

Can You Add More Headroom on Stairs?

Old houses have less head room and steep staircases. People weren’t as tall back then as they are today. So, if you want to create a better staircase, you also must work on the headspace. Increasing the space above your head gives you more room to ascend and descend without knocking on something.

But, before you can adjust the headroom, always check the layout of the house. See if there’s anything that will be affected when you raise the headspace above the staircase. Figuring out the effect of this change can help you redesign the house layout. That way, you end up with ample head space and the staircase you need in the house.

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Old houses, especially in busy cities, are notorious for having steep staircases. Most were built on small plots of land and contractors wanted to save on space. Also, this was a time when building codes weren’t implemented as strictly as they are today.

There are different reasons why an old house might have a steep staircase. But you can always change them to suit your need. There’s the option of readjusting them or tearing them down and starting over. In addition, you also have to increase the headspace to make the setup work.

Featured Image Credit: Tama66, Pixabay

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