A few months ago I was visiting an old friend at their new house, which happened to feature an amazing set of floating stairs. While they weren’t cheap, he was really happy about how they looked as well as the added space that they provided beneath.
The term “floating stairs” is often misunderstood. Typically they are considered any flight of stairs that doesn’t have risers, but that is actually incorrect. A true set of floating stairs typically has a single, recessed stringer in the center or side of the staircase, which gives the visual effect of the stair tread ‘floating’ in space.
Floating stairs are a sub-category of open riser stairs. There are also cantilevered stairs and spiral cantilevered staircases that are a specific type of floating stair but are in a category of their own. Cantilevered stairs are just that – they project from a side wall while cantilevered spiral stairs cantilever out from central support in a spiral pattern.
Below we’ll take a look at all the different types of open riser stairs, going over the pros and cons of each while explaining the details that might make each option desirable in your own home.
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What Are Floating Stairs?
Floating stairs are open riser stairs, but not all open riser stairs are floating. Confused? Don’t be. Open riser stairs cover any type of stairs that don’t have risers. So, that could be your deck stairs or your unfinished stairs leading into your basement, as long as they don’t have risers. An open riser staircase could also refer to a fire escape in your apartment building or an open spiral staircase to your loft – there are that many variations.
So, what are floating stairs exactly? Floating stairs refer to any stair with either a hidden, recessed stringer or some type of cantilever. While no stringer can truly be ‘hidden,’ floating stairs are optimized to hide whatever type of structure or stringer that stairs are attached to, thereby giving off a floating effect.
Floating Staircase Benefits
While a floating staircase might be seen as just a luxury for those with the means to have one, they do provide significant benefits over traditional stairs, such as:
- Aesthetic value – one of the primary benefits of a floating staircase is the aesthetic value – they can be an absolute showstopper in any given space. Why? First, they are simply different. In any home, nearly all of us are used to seeing the standard set of stairs affixed to a wall, or two walls, with closed risers and enclosed stringers beneath.
- Use of a wider variety of tread materials – the floating aspect of floating stairs allows the emphasis on the stair tread. Since stair treads can come in various styles and wood types, you have carte blanche in terms of how you want your stairs to look instead of being chained to meshing your stairs with an adjacent wall or floor.
- Simple design – the variety of stair tread materials makes floating stairs stand out. Since you don’t have to worry about matching treads and risers, the simplicity of floating stairs is what many find attractive. The stairs consist of only two parts – tread and stringer. A handrail is also required but is often an understated, neutral tone rail that is designed to blend in with the environment.
- Allows for an open floor plan – floating stairs allow for the use of space beneath the stairs. Unlike traditional stairs that constrict or restrict space beneath the stringers, floating stairs open up the entire space, creating a drastic improvement in floor space.
- Additional storage space – the increased open floor space that floating stairs allow results in more storage space. Whereas this space was traditionally closed off with standard stairs, or featured an awkward, small storage space, it becomes a huge area for storage when freed from the constraints of bulky stringers and walls.
Different Styles of Floating Stairs
As mentioned above, there are several different styles of floating stairs and the differences pertain to how the actual tread is supported. A tread does not need a stair stringer to support it, as cantilevered steps can be affixed to wall framing for support. Other floating steps rely on one or two recessed stringers to hold the floating treads.
Below we’ll take a look at some of the specific types of floating stairs and what sets them apart from each other, as well as the benefits and drawbacks each type provides.
Mono Stringer Stairs
Mono stringer floating stairs are simply a floating staircase that uses a single stringer in the center to support each tread. Typically this is a metal stringer and it supports each tread with either a welded bracket or a notch.
The stringer can also be wood – picture a notched log on its side with treads. Regardless of the type of material, the stringer is not the feature of these stairs and thus, the color is typically neutral to feature the treads.
Double Stringer Stairs
Double stringer floating stairs are the same as mono stringer floating stairs, except that they feature two recessed stringers instead of one. Instances that would call for double stringer floating stairs would be for extra-wide treads or staircases with many treads.
Stringers could be fashioned from metal or wood for this type of floating stair, but bear in mind that metal is the most common type of stringer for floating stairs for several reasons. First, it is stronger than wood. Second, the color of the metal is such that it blends in with the background and puts the focus on the stair tread.
Cantilevered stairs, besides looking incredible in a space, also have a variety of different types in that they can be installed in a variety of ways.
Typically, cantilevered stairs jut out from a wall. The way in which these steps affix to a wall varies. In some instances, there is metal support behind the wall with supports projecting out for the tread to sit on. Upon installation, the wall then goes up in front of the metal support, allowing the horizontal supports through for the tread to sit on.
In other instances, the tread goes through the wall and is mechanically fastened to the framing within the wall. Both installation methods have pros and cons, as well as meet code if installed properly. Often these cantilevered stairs come as a prefabricated staircase, with all supports and treads in one package.
Open Riser Stairs and Building Code
As you might expect, open riser stairs are subject to different building codes than closed riser stairs. Do many people often ask what a good thickness for open riser stair treads is? There is no “good” thickness, but there is a minimum of 1.5” thick.
Closed riser stairs can be much thinner in terms of thickness, but only because those treads are supported in part by a riser. Lacking any riser, floating treads must be sturdier and able to withstand constant foot traffic without the risk of cracking, splitting, or simply failing.
Beyond the thickness of the tread, there are several other stair size measurements that you need to know to ensure your floating stairs are up to code.
The open riser part of your stairs – the gap – cannot exceed 4”. Also, remember that risers cannot exceed 7 ¾” of vertical height. A floating staircase doesn’t have risers, but the distance from the top of one tread to the top of the next cannot exceed the vertical height limit.
If you were to have the maximum rise for your floating stairs, as well as the maximum gap, then you would need a 3 ¾” thick tread since you would add the gap and stair thickness, 4” + 3 ¾”.
The minimum rise you are allowed to have is 5”, so if you wanted thin, 1.5” thick treads you could only have up to a 5 ½” total rise to your staircase. Why? Because the maximum gap of 4” plus 1.5” thickness is 5 ½”. Typically, you are going to have thicker treads to make for a more traditional rise and run.
Another consideration is tread depth. The minimum stair tread depth is 10” – period. This is entirely a safety consideration, as 10” is deemed deep enough to safely accommodate the length of most feet. Even a 9” depth, while only one inch off, will seem narrow. This is not an area to skimp when it comes to designing your stair shape.
Even if you have floating stairs, you absolutely must still have a handrail. The railing design and materials should be no less than 34” and not more than 38” vertically from the top of the floating stair tread. If you do have cables or spindles, they cannot be more than 4” apart.
Are Floating Stairs Safe?
Floating stairs are entirely safe if they meet building codes. However, the very definition of floating stairs should make someone with small children take a moment to consider that “floating” actually means that there will be spaces – gaps – between treads that could potentially allow a small child to fit through or at least trip and hurt themselves.
But keep in mind, codes exist for the above scenarios. 4” is not a large enough gap for a child of any age to slip past. Therefore, parents can rest assured that their child won’t slip through floating stairs build to code.
Also, floating stairs must have handrails. If they are not against two walls, then one side must have a guardrail system with cables or spindles of some type. These also must be no greater than 4” apart. So just like the gap between treads, a child cannot fit between the cables or spindles, making them essentially child-proof.
The tread itself must be able to withstand 300 pounds of concentrated force. This is a significant amount of weight because most people don’t ever put their full weight on a tread. It is often distributed between two steps as you are either going up or down the stairs.
The danger for floating staircases is that there is no riser to physically stop your foot. If you misjudge a step, there is a risk of lifting your foot to reach the next tread and getting it caught beneath the tread above as you lift. How common is that problem? Not very common, but it “could” occur.
The other issue is the weekend warrior attempting to constructing a floating staircase on their own. Unless you are an engineer or carpenter, this is not a project you should attempt on your own. While I love DIY projects, you also have to know your limits, especially when an error could cause injury or worse.
A mono-stringer floating staircase requires an engineered stringer that you can’t just pick up at your local home reno store. Even cantilevered steps require a certain amount of technical know-how beyond just constructing a simple set of stairs.
Finally, the absolute beauty of a floating staircase can lead some to question if they might be more slippery than a traditional staircase. This, however, is completely untrue as floating stairs are no more “slippery” than any other set of stairs. It entirely depends on the finish of your stair treads – if you find them slippery, then use an over the counter product to enhance traction.
How Much Do Floating Stairs Cost?
Expect to pay a minimum of $15,000 for a full set of floating stairs. However, this is a minimum cost and should not be taken as an average. A more appropriate average would be between $20-30,000.
Of course, many people will pay far more than that average, and it isn’t uncommon for floating stairs to reach the six-figure range.
Why the expense? No floating stair space is the same. Typically homes are designed to accommodate a regular set of stairs. If you want to demolish your existing standard stairs in favor of a floating staircase, you’ll have to not only remove the old stairs, but also re-engineer your house framing to accommodate the different type of stringer(s).
Finally, it is highly likely that both the stringer and treads will be a custom design. Again, your reason for installing a floating staircase is aesthetic. Therefore you won’t – and likely cannot – run to the nearest Home Depot to purchase 12 treads for a cantilevered staircase.
Closed vs. Open Riser Stairs – Which is Better?
Open stairs cost more – period. They are less common and often custom-built, and retrofitting a home with floating stairs is not cheap. Whereas a seasoned carpenter can throw together a traditional set of stairs for a few thousand dollars – you are looking at nearly ten times that cost for a floating staircase.
Floating stairs can be breathtaking. Your design options are less limited and they give off the effect of space in your house. You can utilize the space beneath floating stairs better, which is why floating stairs are often found and are a great option for space-sensitive urban environments.
In terms of space, beyond opening up small spaces floating stairs can also add light. Since there are gaps between treads, light can pass through opening up space further. The use of transparent materials such as glass or reflective metal can also further brighten up an otherwise gloomy space.
However, traditional, standard staircases can also be built to add beauty to your home. The problem is that they must be constrained by at least one wall and have bulky framing beneath that must be covered up. That reduces space in your home and also blocks sightlines.
While you can jazz up stair treads on your standard staircase, you still won’t have the same “wow” factor that a floating staircase has in terms of pure, aesthetic look. Remember, your mind is the limit in terms of what you want a floating staircase to look like – some even feature glass as the primary material.
Whether you choose a traditional or floating staircase, be sure to consider safety first. Floating stairs are not a weekend project you can put together yourself. You’ll need a structural engineer to help you out – a more likely option is to consider a contractor specializing in floating staircases.
Both types of stairs can be optimized for aesthetics, but floating stairs are a truly premium set of stairs. If you are designing your dream home, consider floating stairs as they optimize both space and light better than a set of traditional stairs ever could.
When it comes time to design your next project that includes stairs, remember the stairs can be more than just a useful piece in your space. Best of luck with your next project, and please drop me a line or make a comment to let me know what you liked about this article and how I can make it better.