Modern Stairs – the timeline

June 11, 2012 — 55 Comments

Today I thought it would be interesting to look at the timeline for the modern stairs we put in at our modern project that is wrapping up. There are a bunch of posts that I am thinking about putting together but the stairs have got to come first since I haven’t featured them at the at all during the entire construction process.

I should have started off by saying that I hate and love stairs all at once. They are deceivingly complicated items – governed by all sorts of regulations – most of which exist so that some kid doesn’t try to stick their heads through the components. Normally I’d say that natural selection exists for a reason … but that wouldn’t be very nice of me would it?

No. No it wouldn’t, so I’m not going to say it, you know … that thing that I said before I said I wouldn’t say it. (Clearly natural selection didn’t work on me … or you for that matter since you’re reading this post).


modern stair construction drawing and detail

This is just one of the construction drawings I put together on this stair design. I know – it looks pretty simple doesn’t it? At least I hope it does because that is almost always the goal – make it look simple. But it never is, I mean NEVER. Rather than subject you to a bunch of text, I thought I would go back through the project record photography and put together a photo post showing the start to finish process of this stair.


In the beginning ...

The metal framework for the stair was one of the very first things to get built.

modern steel stairs

modern steel stairs - framework complete

modern steel stairs - windows and gypsum board walls in place

The house is dried in and gypsum wall board has gone up. The stairs are in a very raw state – one that will remain almost throughout the entire construction process. These stairs will get some serious abuse over the next 18 months, something we knew would happen and as a result, was considered in the finished design.

modern steel stairs - closeup look at tread base

A close up look at the metal base of the stairs. All the metalwork that is in place was built by the same steel fabricator that erected the structural steel for the building – and is not the same vendor who will install the finish stainless steel handrail – which will require a bit more finesse.

modern steel stairs - temporary handrails

Those wood 2×4’s will serve as temporary handrails for over a year.

modern steel stairs - stainless steel handrail construction begins

Finally the stainless steel handrails start to get installed. They will remain covered in blue painters tape until after the owners have moved in – all to protect the finished product.

modern stairs - stainless steel handrail spot welds

This is a look at the on-site welding. The entire handrail will get fabricated on site and in place. I know it doesn’t look very finished but those welds will get ground down and polished … in the end, you won’t even notice them.

modern stairs - stainless steel handrail spot welds

modern stairs - stainless steel handrail spot welds

The entire handrail is made from solid sections of stainless steel – most of it flat plate. Even the corner newels are flat plate on two sides rather than being a single square section.

modern stairs - stainless steel handrail spot welds

The small square sections in the picture above are glazing stops (they hold the glass in place). You can see three square sections are in place – those are permanent and are welded to the flat plate. There is a 4th square section that is missing here because it will screw into place after the glass is set .

modern stairs - stainless steel glazing stops

modern stairs - stainless steel glazing stops

modern stairs - precast concrete treads

These are the actual stair treads – precast colored concrete. Each stair tread was individually cast into a plywood form that has plastic laminate on the inside face so that the concrete comes out smooth with no patterning from the plywood.

modern stairs - precast concrete treads

This is a look at the dry fit of the precast concrete tread into the structural steel base. You can’t tell (and I don’t have good enough pictures to adequately tell the story) but the bottom of the steel base is bent from the months of heavy usage and as a result, we can’t just simply drop the concrete tread in place and be done with it.

modern stairs - precast concrete treads

modern stairs - adjustments for warping

What we did to correct the bowing that happens from welding 1/2″ thick steel plate together and from months and months of heavy usage is we thicken all the edges of the steel plate up with MDF (medium density fiberboard) and bondo the entire thing so that all the edges are square and true.

modern stairs - wood spacers and bondo

In the picture above, this is what the tread looks like after the edges have been prepared. The small strip of wood you see on the bottom is there because that is how we created our reveal joint.

modern stairs - treads after painting

The entire stair frame gets painted black …

modern stairs - treads with precast concrete inserts

… and here is a finished (although not yet cleaned up) look at the tread with the precast concrete tread insert.

modern stairs - landings with precast concrete inserts

One of the little details that came together really nicely was at the intermediate stair landings. The individual landings were too large to get a single precast concrete pad up there so we had to make it into two pieces. The picture above shows how the two panels came together where the handrail touches the floor.

modern stairs - we are close to the final product

A look at all the individual pieces and how they come together.

modern stairs - punchlist

A look at one of the intermediate landings … ignore all the little pieces of blue tape – those are there to “communicate” a message to the painting contractor.

modern stairs - lighting

This stairwell services three floors and will ultimately have some large format art pieces hanging on the walls. It is a tough space to light consistently from floor to floor because the space is so wide open – there wasn’t anywhere to hide conduits and light fixtures. We ended up casting conduit into the concrete landings so we could place wall washing light fixtures under the stair landings. It looks very clean – you can’t see anything except the fixture and even then, they are pretty well hidden.

modern stairs - mostly done

So here is the last picture I have of the stairs before the owner’s took possession of the house. From this picture (and you might disagree) the stairs look very simple, at least they look simple to me – and that was the point. Despite all the complicated codes and regulations associated with stairs, despite all the moving parts that went into creating this stairwell, when you look a the finished product, you don’t see any of that.

And that’s a good thing.






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  • Gavin

    Bob – any thoughts on stair rise and run dimensions? having a bit of an issue with a tight space and still having comfortable proportions. 7-3/8″ x 11″ manageable?

    • code dictates what you are allowed to have as you min and max risers and treads. I know this doesn’t help you but I always try and make the rise and shallow as possible (hopefully in the 6 1/4″ – 6 3/4″ max range) and I shoot for 12″ min for the tread. If you have to go less than that, I suppose you have no other choice.

  • Mark F

    Bob, how is the glass held in place if the third glass stop is screwed to the rail post and the bottom (between stops) is open?

  • Delilah Shaun


  • Prasert wongwhean

    Dear sir ( Mr Bob Borson )

    i am very interest for your design stair case in modern trend
    i am very like and match with my house ( right now state of construction )
    Can you please give for shop drawing this stair

  • Kane DuPont

    Wow. I’ve seen that section view elsewhere on the site and thought that it looked so familiar. I remember bidding on that staircase during construction. I’m curious if you know how those treads have held up? Unfortunately there is a lot of poor precast concrete work around Dallas. I’m glad that y’all decided not to go with cast-in-place stair treads.

    • We were never going to do cast the concrete in place – they would have become extremely beat up during construction. As far as I know, the precast treads are holding up beautifully, I’d probably have heard about it otherwise.

      • Kane DuPont

        Glad to hear that they are holding up well. The GC originally had me qoute cast in place. Later he asked for precast. I can see from the section view that you speced precast. Did you ever publish the finished photos of this project?

  • nguyen hai

    I don’t know how you can created treads – precast colored concrete! You can show me how?

    • the short and easy way to describe the process is that they make a form using laminate lined plywood – pour the concrete in, let it cure, and break down the form to remove the concrete tread.


  • Jackson Quantrell

    I’m a 4th year architecture student and I’ve never seen staircase design explained and illustrated so well. The end result is really simple yet elegant.
    I really enjoyed the attention to detail in terms of forward planning as to the use of the stairs during construction, it’s those kind of problems our design tutors are currently giving us to help us understand the physical element.
    I’ll definitely be sharing this!

  • Do you by any chance know the name of the fabricator who created the base for the stairs? I would love to use a similar style on my new construction home. Thanks.

  • Sherice

    I have lotttttttttttts of questions fro you… 1st year Architect student… Could you tell. Can someone tell me where to find his email address… Thank you!

  • arun kumar mirwal

    nice work youare write this is looking simple but not easy…
    well done friend

  • Binu

    Nice post! Thanks for explaining the thought process behind key decisions.

    I want to reflect on the selection of MDF… kind of doubtful about its durability(say, we consider 35 years..)

    • yeah – me too, but I don’t think that the measuring stick shouldn’t be “will it hold up as well as the steel”. Considering that it is on the underside and outside faces of the steel tread, it won’t take any direct abuse. Whatever happens, it will be an environmental condition.

  • Ray-Lee

    You’re nice! My husband says it all the time…you know…the statement you won’t say.
    This is impressive work.

    • Thank you Ray-Lee

      … to be fair, I might actually say it but writing it down that you say is another matter.


  • cfriedsam


  • Wow, I love the finished product. Very nice and clean looking. Thanks for giving us some insight into the process.

  • jwkathol

    I like the added thickness of the bondo/MDF solution. I think the slightly beefier look adds to the design and kinda plays off the thickness of the concrete.

    • hopefully you got all the looks you might have wanted to see. I was on site yesterday just checking in and now that everything was clean and put away, I was tempted to start taking pictures… but it’s not “my” house anymore and I would have felt funny doing it.

  • Bob, Thanks for the post. I agree it’s a love / hate relationship with stairs. So easy to detail, but so difficult to detail well. Very few people can appreciate the time and talent it takes to make it look so simple.

    • Thanks – it’s even hard to explain why it so hard!

      Thanks for leaving a comment

  • Mikheil

    Bob, great design and execution! Only thing really bothers me from your pictures is one that shows concrete tread notch out around steel plate post. I’m sure you could have done better, let say shifting post little outward or make tread pan’s side thicker.

    • Thanks – glad you like.

      As for the notch – you are correct. That condition was created as a result of field conditions (and solutions). Originally the post engaged the concrete tread 2x as much but because of the extent of the steel warping, we had to size the MDF and reveal solution to accommodate the worst condition – which might even have been this tread which would explain why I have a picture of it).

      Cheers and thanks for commenting

  • shanley

    NIce stairs. Very clean lines…..I really appreciate the composition of the raw materials… steel, concrete, and glass together. I’m not so sure I’m a fan of the MDF and bondo treatment to finish them and “fix” the bent tread supports. Couldn’t some sacrificial 2×10’s have been inserted to take the abuse during construction? It certainly would have offset the cost to finesse the bondo to make the joint between the steel and MDF disappear.

    • I try not to get too technical in these post but there was several reasons for the MDF and bondo. The heat created from welding 1/2″ steel plate together warped the steel creating part of the situation (which we could have dealt with be either not using concrete treads, not having a reveal line between the materials, or some combination of the two). The other issue was that the inside corners of the steel treads had a radius edge due to the process of welding (the weld itself) and the cost to drill and spot weld these plates together would have been far more costly than the MDF and bondo solution.

      • shanley

        Thanks!….I’m a professional engineer and project manager for a design-build construction company….being technical is in my blood. I can appreciate that though. Bondo is an amazingly fantastic product. I just used it to smooth out all the corners of a melamine mold for a concrete vanity counter top with an integral single slope sink. Concrete is still in the mold now…..gets stripped tonight.

  • Eric

    A far-off picture doesn’t do those justice. Likewise, I enjoyed seeing your work up close-up, and seeing the work you put in them. However, as a dad of four, I could never have stairs with no storage space below! Poo for me!

    • In a house like this, there is enough storage space for a family of 20! Stairs get to be just stairs – it’s quite the luxury.



  • Thanks for sharing the detailing and process for creating those fabulous stairs. Great look! This is a great use for precast concrete, but I would assume the stair base would work well for any number of surface options. Super cool. Gotta love stair porn!

    • Thanks Lisa – my pictures don’t really do the materials justice. The precast looks a lot better in person and there is a very large multi-story window to the side of the stairs that lights up the space really well. Hopefully we will get our hands on some post-construction photography and really be able to show some stair porn!


  • DXA


  • Connie Hendseth

    Fabulous looking staircase! Congratulations on finishing it! I was kinda waiting for the sealant between the concrete and the steel… is there really not going to be any?

    • Hi Connie – there will not be any sealant between the concrete insert and the steel. It looks really crisp and clean without it and strictly speaking from a construction standpoint, it doesn’t require any sealant or caulk.

      Thanks for leaving a comment

  • stunning modern staircase. Love your details. Thanks for sharing the process with us Bob! Love your blog too!

    • Thank you for taking the time to chime in – I appreciate it (and thanks for the compliment on the blog!)

  • Awesome design, it’s unbelievable how well that all came together. A great example of how thorough design creates an unbeatable product.

    • Thanks Ben – after assembling all the images here I was a little disappointed that I didn’t have more “after photos” – I suppose I’ll have to wait until the project gets professionally photographed.

  • Cooper

    The worst part of drawing and detailing the above process – is finishing it, then having the architect make changes to the floor to floor dimension, or in some other way making changes that effect the rise and run. Yeah, hate that. =)

    • Cooper

      PS. I enjoy looking at others techniques using CAD. I like your use of the open arrow leader. I think ‘RIVET’ and the BIM software is killing the last shred of art left in our drawings. But, that’s just my opinion.

      • Thanks Cooper – that was a custom arrowhead I made about 10 years ago. I have to admit that I probably pay too much attention to pen weights but I really like the way the drawings I create appear and can’t help but think that the contractor and his sub’s will recognize that I took the time to draw it, they should take the time to build it.


        • nycontractor

          Your early statement about natural selection is exactly how I feel, but that being said (and agreed upon!! lol) here in New York State, home of no natural selection, without kicks on the risers, you will not get a C of O for your project. I thought that this building code was universally applied but it appears that where you are it is not.

          • We are under the 2006 International Residential Code which required that the gap between treads not exceed 4″ – the same as between pickets on handrails.

          • brokenkeys

            No gaps in stair treads here in Florida either… and those handrails wouldn’t work here too… graspable area has to be a specific size and shape. And….. ya know what ‘ef it! I need to move.

          • brokenkeys

            No gaps in stair treads here in Florida either… and those handrails wouldn’t work here too… graspable area has to be a specific size and shape. And….. ya know what ‘ef it! I need to move.