Getting the position and design of the stairs right is one of the most important elements of your loft conversion. Get the stairs wrong and the whole project will fail. That’s the bad news.
The good news is planning, designing, and getting the loft stairs built doesn’t have to be difficult. And getting them in the right place is the most important part of the equation – one which your architect or builder will be able to guide you through without too much difficulty.
Before we look at the loft staircase in detail let’s look at some quick takeaways. Just in case you’re in a hurry.
20 tips for choosing and planning your loft stairs
1) Weigh up the space you have available: Look at the size and layout of your loft to find the best position and design for your staircase.
2) Choose the right type of staircase: Consider spiral, straight, or alternating tread designs. However, the most practical and cost effective are traditional straight staircases.
3) Prioritise safety: Make sure your loft conversion staircase complies with the building regulations.
4) Make use of natural light: Position your staircase near windows or skylights to maximise natural light.
5) Think about space-saving solutions: If space is limited, consider a compact spiral staircase.
6) Don’t forget about headroom: You need to make sure the position of your loft stairs makes the most of available headroom.
7) Plan for storage: You can include storage solutions, such as built-in drawers or shelving, into your loft conversion staircase design.
8) Use the best materials: Make sure your builder or joiner uses high-quality materials, like hardwood which will withstand daily wear and tear.
9) Be energy efficient: Insulate the staircase to reduce heat loss and energy consumption.
10) Match your home’s style: Traditional or modern? Design your staircase to complement the decor and aesthetic of your home.
11) Stick to your budget: Loft stairs can get very expensive if you’re not careful. Set a budget and stick to it. We talk about the cost of stairs in this article: Why Are Loft Conversions So Expensive?
12) The pros know best: Rely on your architect or builder to make sure your stairs design is structurally sound and feasible.
13) Always comply with the building regulations: Get to know what you can and can’t do. Check out this article: What are the Loft Conversion Building Regulations?
14) Plan for the future: Plan for potential changes in your family, such as ageing or new family members. If you’re getting older or there are young children in the house you want a staircase that all can navigate.
15) Think about accessibility: Building on the point above, make sure your staircase is easily accessible and navigable for all family members, especially if anyone has mobility issues.
16) Customise your staircase: Personalise it with colours, unique finishes, balustrades, or handrails that reflect you and your personality.
17) Take advantage of vertical space: Use the space beneath your stairs for storage.
18) Consider a floating design: If planning and building regs permit, consider a floating staircase which will create a sense of space.
19) Let there be light: Make your loft stairs funky with LED strips or pendant lights.
20) Plan for maintenance: Your staircase design should be easy to maintain and repair. Just in case.
A homeowner’s guide to loft staircases
Let’s look at some of those main points in more detail.
Without a doubt adding the staircase is one of the most important elements, in both an aesthetic and practical sense, of your new loft conversion.
Getting the staircase and access right will have a massive bearing on the success of your project.
But the building regulations throw up a number of things that you will need to consider when planning your new staircase.
Adding a new floor or story to a home requires a permanent staircase except when a basic storage solution is being built.
In a very few instances a fixed ladder can be used but the vast majority of conversions will need a staircase. In any event, it is highly unlikely that you would even consider a ladder.
The usual solution is a traditional flight of stairs. Installing this style of access is usually straight-forward though it is desirable that there be a clear 2m of headroom though 1.8m or sometimes less can be worked around.
The usual standard width that the staircase needs to be is 800mm though in certain circumstances space saving stairs can be used which lowers the width required to 600mm.
And, of course, the structure must comply with the building regulations.
A landing will probably need to be provided at both the top and bottom of the staircase.
Another style of staircase often considered when converting the loft is a spiral design.
They look good and seem to save space but often use up more than a traditional staircase. And, actually using a spiral stair can often pose problems – especially when moving furniture!
Where is the best place for the loft staircase?
Deciding on exactly where to locate the stairs is a major part of the process when you plan a loft conversion and may have to involve some kind of trade-off on your original ideas, as it is unlikely there will be enough room on the second-floor landing to install a flight of loft stairs.
In most houses there is little space for a second staircase as bedrooms and bathrooms take up all the available second-floor area.
Because of this it may be necessary to sacrifice a second-floor room to locate the new staircase and make a bigger, or even two rooms, in the loft. Of course, any potential problems will depend on the house itself.
The good news for those who live in a traditional Victorian terrace is that there is often no problem whatsoever with the stairs as the new staircase can usually be sited directly above the existing stairs.
This is because terraced houses were often built with the staircase against the outside wall which makes it very easy to place new loft stairs against the same wall.
Semi-detached houses sometimes have the same arrangement but a conversion can run into difficulties when the house has a hipped roof.
If this is the case then placing new stairs atop the existing ones will probably be impractical as there won’t be enough headroom.
There are two solutions in this circumstance but both involve some extra construction by either converting the hip to gable or, probably the easier route, by building a side dormer.
But there are some other alternatives to locating the stairs when the roof is hipped.
Quite often the easiest course of action is to mirror the location of the ceiling joists by locating the new staircase parallel to the path of the joists which should be front to back. This is a common work-around used by builders.
Another is to build the loft staircase at a right angle to the loft space so that the new loft conversion is accessed from the side rather than front on as is usually the case.
This is achieved by positioning the new staircase adjacent to the internal wall that divides the bedrooms.
Whichever solution the architect or building company comes up with when positioning the stairs, it is hugely important that the staircase itself is well designed and sympathetically blends in with the rest of the house.
Bespoke loft stairs
Although building a flight of loft stairs isn’t easy a competent professional should have few problems and there are a number of advantages in having your loft stairs custom built.
Unlike pre-built units you will be able to specify the design and incorporate features such as ornamentation and decorations.
You can control the overall design, maybe leaving open risers if your house reflects a more modern style.
The problem with custom built stairs is one of timing. Individually designed and tooled items are notorious for being delayed or not delivered on time.
An efficient and cost-effective loft conversion relies on all the component parts being built and installed in time and in order.
If the custom-built staircase is delayed then work on converting the loft will grind to a halt.
Pre-built loft staircases
It is perfectly possible to buy pre-built stairs for loft conversions and these units can prove to be very cost effective.
The important point when ordering these kinds of loft stairs is to ensure that your measurements are exactly right.
Another potential obstacle apart from getting your inches and centimetres mixed up is that because loft conversions are generally unique it is difficult to find a pre-built unit to slot straight into place.
The stairs manufacturers will have systems in place to get around this but the process is a bit more involved than buying an off the peg suit.
Using the space
The actual staircase itself will either be built on site or, and a far more economical way, is to choose one of the many models of pre-manufactured staircases.
One thing to consider when planning your loft stairs is ‘what will you do with the space underneath?’
The area under the actual staircase should not be wasted and could have many uses.
Additional storage or a small work station for example. You are converting your loft to increase space so there is no point in allowing any ‘dead’ space so make sure you include the area under the stairs in your planning.
As for the loft stairs themselves there are some alternatives.
Installing a traditional flight of stairs is usually the most practical, easiest and good-looking solution to accessing your new loft conversion.
Installing this style of access is usually straight-forward though the building regulations stipulate that the maximum rise and going of the flight should be 220mm with a pitch of 42°.
There should also be a clear 2m of headroom though 1.8m can be acceptable and indeed even less can be OK for some loft conversions.
There isn’t any standard width for a traditional staircase into a loft conversion though the stairs need to be wide enough to ensure safe passage in the case of emergency though you should really be looking at a minimum width of 600 – 800mm with 600mm usually being sufficient if there is only one room in the new conversion.
A landing will probably need to be provided at both the top and bottom of the staircase with, no surprise here, its width needing to be at least that of the stairs.
A door can be installed at the bottom of the staircase providing it leaves a clear space of at least 400 mm across the width of the stairs.
There are several options here. A traditional staircase with a straight flight is the usual solution but, depending on available space, there are alternatives.
A dog-leg, in which the stairs double back on themselves, is a popular choice and can save a lot of space.
Equally, there are variations on the dog-leg theme with a small halfway landing being used before the stairs branch off at the required angle.
Deciding on the style of staircase to be used may be dependent on the available headroom. If there is insufficient headroom then a dormer may need to be incorporated into the final design of the loft conversion.
When considering which style of staircase to install lighting must be taken into consideration.
Lighting needs to be included in your plan – both electrical and natural. Switches have to be placed at the top and bottom of any flight of stairs but if you can include a skylight window, either directly above or at the top of the stairwell, the natural sunlight will greatly enhance your loft conversion.
The provision of fire safety is vital, not only from a common-sense approach, but also in order to comply with the building regs.
There are many safety factors to be considered when planning a loft conversion but staircases are particularly important as they act as a funnel to flames and help them spread in the event of fire.
For this reason, the building regulations stipulate that staircases should be enclosed by a door, wall or partition which is capable of resisting fire for at least thirty minutes.
Spiral loft staircase
A conversion featuring spiral stairs can look great but, as I always say, looks aren’t everything.
This kind of stairway needs to meet the same rise and going criteria of a normal staircase although this regulation can be relaxed when space is very restricted to a single room conversion.
A spiral flight of stairs of under 1m in width will need a handrail which needs to be at a height of at least 900mm from the pitch line
Accessing loft conversions by this style of stair can look good and does seem to save space but quite often this kind of access will use up more room than a traditional flight of stairs.
And, actually using them can often pose problems – especially when moving furniture!
But, for a modern look and if children aren’t a concern, a contemporary spiral design will certainly add that final polish to a loft conversion.
There are many specialist manufacturers of staircases and there are a number of designs available. Installing this kind of staircase will of course cost much more than a traditional flight of loft stairs and, for a spiral staircase at least, it is well worth seeking out one of the specialist companies.
Deciding to install a spiral staircase would suggest an individual approach and the specialist loft staircase manufacturers will be able to tailor their designs to fit into your planned loft conversion.
These types of stairs will be made to order and installed on site by the manufacturers so it will be important to ensure that their delivery and installation is coordinated with the rest of your building work as getting the timing wrong can result in costly, and inconvenient, delays to your building project.
The provision of fire safety is vital, not only from a common-sense approach, but also in order to comply with the building regulations. There are many safety factors to be considered when planning a conversion but staircases are particularly important as they act as a funnel to flames and help them spread in the event of fire.
For this reason, the building regulations stipulate that staircases should be enclosed by a door, wall or partition which is capable of resisting fire for at least thirty minutes.
A recap about loft stairs
An important change to consider when thinking about the staircase up to the loft conversion is that there is no longer a minimum floor to ceiling height.
The building regulations suggest a minimum headroom of two metres be maintained on both stairs and landings.
When planning a loft conversion, the building regulations state that when it isn’t possible to achieve the two-metre clearance then a reduced headroom is acceptable with 1.9 metres to the centreline of the stairs though there could well be a minimum of 1.8 metres on one side.
Another thing to remember is that a landing must be provided at both the top and bottom of the flight of stairs with the landings needing to be at least as wide as the flight.
Getting the staircase right is a crucial component of a loft conversion but that includes not only the design but also the access to the stairs as well.
When thinking about a staircase the usual solution is a traditional straight up and down flight.
This kind of flight is both practical and inexpensive though those of a more artistic bent, and with lots more room, may opt for the visually impressive and much more expensive spiral staircase.
Actually, fitting in the attic stairs can be a real pain but you need to make the right decision.
You may find that there may have to be a trade off or compromise on your original ideas as, in the majority of cases, there is very little room in which to position the staircase on existing landings.
Because of the lack of room, it may be necessary to use an existing second floor room for housing the stairs and making the conversion itself larger or even into two rooms.
Build your own loft conversion staircase
It’s difficult but not impossible. At least not for those with good joinery skills.
If you are a confident and handy DIY’er than making a staircase, either in full or part, is a viable and cost-effective alternative to buying a pre-manufactured unit from a specialist supplier.
A vast range of ready-made stairs are available with budget units costing from £800 though, for anything more than a very basic design, the cost will rapidly escalate.
But, for the competent DIY enthusiast, actually making the stairs should be feasible though care must be taken to exactly follow the plans submitted in your building regulations application. Before beginning work on the staircase, itself the supporting wall needs to be built.
Standing opposite the existing wall the supporting wall will be built from (second) floor to ceiling and enclose the staircase and provide support for the joists in the loft which will be sawn to accommodate the new entrance.
Once the wall is up any electrical wiring or plumbing will need to be diverted away from the location of the new entrance before the new opening is cut into the ceiling.
The next task is to install the strings to form the side of the staircase before making the treads and risers.
At this point it should be borne in mind that the building regulations stipulate the maximum rise and going of the flight should be 220mm with a pitch of 42°.
There should also be a clear 2m of headroom though 1.8m can be acceptable.
There isn’t any standard width though the staircase needs to be wide enough to ensure safe passage in the case of emergency though you should really be looking at a minimum width of 600 – 800mm with 600mm usually being sufficient if there is only one room in the new conversion.
When constructing the steps ensure that wedges are used to increase strength between the tread and riser and a newel post is firmly secured to the joists in the roof space.
Finishing off will include fitting handrails and balusters and securing the top of the loft staircase with railings.
A landing may need to be provided at both the top and bottom of the loft staircase with, no surprise here, its width needing to be at least that of the staircase.
A door can be installed at the bottom of the stairs providing it leaves a clearance space of at least 400 mm across the width of the stairs.
Plastering the newly built wall will be the final task before your partner hands you a cup of tea and a paint brush – not necessarily in that order.