An Examination of the Humble Stair

Anyone who has ever seen Scarlett O’Hara make a dramatic entrance, sweeping down the curving stairs of an antebellum mansion, knows the dramatic impact of a staircase. Less well known is the power of stairs to help set the character of an interior, provide a focal point of architectural interest, or entice a viewer into exploration of a space. Although most of us don’t live in houses as grand as Tara, stairs are a uniquely interesting architectural element that have a profound effect on the design of a space.

Despite the simple functional purpose of connecting stories or levels within a building, stairs have a lot going for them that contributes to their impact. First, stairs allow us to defy gravity. In every other room of the house, we can only move horizontally along the floor, but a flight of stairs gives us the ability to move on the vertical axis as well. Ascending toward an upper floor with light spilling down from a skylight above, following a narrow, winding stair down to a hidden wine cellar, or viewing a gathering space from above – moving through three dimensions gives us perspectives and experiences we wouldn’t ordinarily feel.

Second, no matter how tall the flight, stairs are uncommonly scaled to the human body. Treads are sized to comfortably support the foot, while risers reflect the length of our strides. Handrails sit at hand height to provide balance and assistance, and are sized and shaped to comfortably fit our grip. What’s more, the rhythm produced by repeating treads and balusters is appealing and provides visual interest. All of these factors make stairs feel approachable and comfortable, as well as beautiful and dramatic.

However, as long as the stair meets functional and ergonomic requirements, the available options in stair design and materials are practically limitless. Whether your stair is traditional or contemporary, every choice in design and finish can affect the character of the stair and the space it occupies.

One of the fundamental choices is whether the stair is open, with space visible below the stair, or closed, with walls below. While the choice can be affected by functional considerations – a closed stair can hide a closet or a less attractive stair to an unfinished basement – it is also a main driver of the character of the stair within the space. A closed stair feels solid, opaque, and grounded, while an open stair evokes lightness, transparency, and vertical movement. An open stair connecting three or more floors creates a dramatic shaft of light and space through a building, allowing rare vertical connections between stories. Open risers, which allow views through the stair itself, dematerialize the stair’s appearance, contributing to a feeling of maximum lightness and delicacy.

Material selections are nearly infinite, and each decision creates its own ripple effect of personality and appearance. Wood is a predominant material for stair design in both classic and modern houses, although grand mansions of the Gilded Age sometimes included carved limestone or marble, and avant-garde designers might stack irregular stones or arrange polished slabs on invisible supports to create steps. Wood handrails can be as ornate as an intricately carved Victorian walnut balustrade or as simple as a smooth maple ribbon with a natural oiled finish. Combinations of materials can create striking contrasts of color, texture, and transparency, where solid blocks of timber seem to float weightlessly alongside crystal glass panels with a fluid wooden rail.

Metal can be used in innumerable ways, from handcrafted wrought iron balusters evoking old-world elegance to laser-cut sheet metal stringers suitable for the most high-tech installation. Art nouveau floral patterns, industrial chic I-beams with exposed bolts, or layered metal mesh creating ever-changing patterns of light and shadow – all can be incorporated into stairs suitable for any style or environment.

Although often overlooked, stairs provide a valuable opportunity to break away from the expected and create a memorable architectural element. Small tweaks to materials or designs can transform the simple means of moving between floors into a centerpiece of a space.

Written by Alan Cook, LEED AP, Studio Director
Since 2014, Alan Cook has brought his passion, leadership, and expertise to Purple Cherry Architects. With a deep understanding of environmental design, coupled with over twenty years’ experience, Alan brings to each project a valuable interdisciplinary perspective. A graduate of Syracuse University School of Architecture, Alan has extensive experience with custom residential, historic preservation, adaptive reuse and commercial projects. He notes, “My passion for architecture is fueled by the fulfilling aspects of problem-solving combined with the delight of helping clients create homes of remarkable beauty and functionality.” Outside the office, Alan serves on the board of Girls on The Run Greater Chesapeake.

An Urban Oasis in Harbor East

Purple Cherry Architects was excited to take on a new challenge when we were offered the opportunity to design a 3,400 square-foot urban condominium. A client for whom we had recently designed a custom waterfront home wanted to create a spacious and stylish retreat in Baltimore’s thriving Harbor East neighborhood, in a new multi-use building containing retail, apartments, and condominiums.

After taking over a space that had been originally divided into three smaller units, the owner asked the PCA team to design a unique living space that took advantage of the sweeping views of the Inner Harbor and Key Bridge. We responded with a design that placed the luxurious master suite at one end of the long unit and the guest bedroom with ensuite bath at the other end, ensuring privacy for the owner and guests.

Between the private areas, the public spaces unfold along a fully glazed wall with panoramic views and private balconies. The modern kitchen is open to the dining and living areas beyond, creating a dramatic open great space with a gracious proportion that is rare in a multi-family building. The ceiling height was increased in the living room by introducing a tray ceiling, creating visual interest and highlighting the importance of the space. Cove lighting provides an accent and creates a relaxing ambiance, allowing the full-height stone fireplace with brass accents to shine.

Adjacent to the open living space, but slightly separated and defined by built-in cabinetry and a second tray ceiling, the home office contains possibly the most dramatic feature of the project- a six-foot by eight-foot granite and quartz stone slab set into a wall. Illuminated from behind to allow the breathtaking veining of the stone to shine, the slab from Gramaco appears at times like a giant fireplace, warming the space with an exhilarating glow.

A fully equipped, mirrored home gym provides a workout space for the owner at any time. Post-exercise, a spacious steam shower beckons from the elegant marble-tiled master bath.

Purple Cherry Architects was fortunate to provide interior design services for the project as well as the architectural design. As this was the second project we had completed for this client, we felt we understood the client’s taste, but the design aesthetic for the condominium project was much more modern and urban than the previously completed country house. Having the chance to work with the same client on two projects with such different moods was an unusual opportunity, which we were grateful to have. Our architectural and interior design teams worked with the owner on all aspects of the design, from furniture, rugs, and fixtures to colors, tile designs, and custom cabinetry and millwork.

The project came together beautifully, with the architecture and interior design elements combining to create a truly one of a kind oasis of serenity and comfort in the heart of a busy city.

Written by Alan Cook, studio manager at PCA

The Design Process

The Journey from Concept to Completion

Architectural design is not a job when you are a passionate architect who loves your profession. Rather, it is a design process that starts with the conceptualization process and ends with a complete design drawing submission and 3D presentation model. This process usually starts when the client or owner brings their ideas to an architecture firm. The firm takes these client visuals and verbal wishes and designs a structure with all appropriate zoning and code standards to suit a particular site. From the initial client inquiry through to project completion, a good architect is dedicated to helping a project succeed while taking the time to listen carefully to their client’s needs, conduct necessary research and explore options.

This is when the exciting design journey begins! An architect can walk you through any part of the design and building process. From helping find the right property, guiding the building orientation, providing plan options through sketches, displaying design views through computer technology, assisting in contractor award, overseeing construction, and selecting final colors, fixtures and furnishings, an architect can bring the “fun part” of the design journey to the forefront. They allow you to imagine opportunity and help you to see potential conflict in old living patterns. They are true problem solvers while creating amazing works of art.

Initial Introduction/Consultation. This is where the client and a member of the design firm (typically the business development manager) discuss the client’s needs and budget. The client shares information regarding their project such as general vision, design intent, and desired architectural style and/or details. After this, the principal architect helps the clients understand their goals and identify next best steps.

Site Visit. The site visit allows the design team to learn more about the client’s project. It also allows the client the opportunity to “interview” the firm. From the start of each project, architects believe in cultivating a positive client-architect synergy. The site visit is the next step in building this important relationship.

After this phase, a Letter of Proposal and AIA contract is provided. The Letter of Proposal defines the firm’s understanding of the project and provides related potential architectural fees.

Kick-Off Meeting/Programming. Once the client has reviewed, signed and returned the Letter of Proposal and the AIA contract, a Kick-off Meeting to discuss project details is scheduled. During this working session, the programming of the home with related room sizes is developed and images that speak to the client’s preferences and inspiration are shared. The design team sketches room relationships and diagrams to create visuals that help illustrate the client’s intent. Houzz and Pinterest accounts are typically shared by the client so that the design team fully grasps the client’s tastes through inspiration imagery.

Schematic Design. This phase includes the freehand concept sketch of floor plans and exterior elevations. This is a collaborative process in which the design team is very sensitive to client input and approval. Having a well-developed client wish list in place, as well as having both the client and architect fully engaged in the process, helps to expedite this phase and minimize the cost related to initial concept sketches.

Design Development & Construction Documents. During this phase, the project information is loaded into the firm’s design software in order to develop the construction documents and the 3D Revit model for the project. The construction documents include plans, elevations, sections, framing, detail and specifications. Everything needed to build the home.

At the client’s request, a design team can assist with final color selections and finish schedules; kitchen cabinet design or assistance; tile selections and pattern design; assistance with selection of all countertop materials; assistance with selection of flooring; assistance with selection of all lighting and plumbing fixtures; selection of furniture, upholstery, accessories and window coverings; and selection and placement of artwork. The firm can also provide designs for interior custom built-ins.

3D Revit Elevation

Coordination of any Related Consultants. During this phase, the design team can assist with the coordination of any additional consultants that may be needed for the client’s project such as Civil and Structural Engineers, Landscape Architect, Interior Designer, Lighting and A/V Consultants.

Permit Filing. At the client’s request, once the construction documents are complete, the team can coordinate all building permit applications for the project.

Bidding Assistance. At the client’s request, the design team can assist with the bidding process including preparation of the bidding documents, distribution of documents to bidding contractors, and selection of the bidding contractor through the review of references, portfolios, and final bid submissions.

Construction Administration. At the client’s request, the design team is available to support the construction process in a variety of ways: interior design assistance such as the final selection of finishes and materials; developing millwork details such as replace mantels, bookcases/built-ins and ceiling treatment details; site visits with the client and/or the Contractor; review of applications for payment; review and negotiation of change orders; coordination of all field questions; preparation of Contractor’s final punch list; and issuance of Substantial Completion certificate.

The skills of an architect can be all-encompassing or very limited. When the journey is truly successful, architects are the creators of places and spaces that evoke joy, inspiration and contentment. We at Purple Cherry Architects are truly motivated to have incredibly successful outcomes – for our clients, for our designs, and for the contractors that make what we draw on paper become a reality.

Cherry Thoughts – A Note from Cathy Purple Cherry

I’ve been practicing architecture for 30 years and it never gets old. Architecture is art and interior architecture is the brushstroke that creates the whole. When you’re truly passionate for your profession, it no longer is a job but rather an incredible journey. And when opportunities are presented that blend the passion of architecture with compassion, it is the greatest joy. I have been so very blessed to have incredible opportunities. They come in many forms and I’d like to share a few.

Architectural opportunities led me to the Ronald McDonald House and now, 15 years later, my team has made dinner for the residents over 80 times and will continue to do so as long as I live. This experience was crucial for me to share with my PCA team. I believe it is incredibly important to be able to show compassion and support to others struggling and to be able to know that others around us can be suffering greatly and need our tenderness.

Architectural opportunities led me to Hospice of the Chesapeake. And during that architectural journey, my aging mother joined me from Florida. We shared 21 months together before she went home to God. During her time with me, I learned about palliative care from Hospice. That ultimately led to Hospice carrying her to the end. And now, my family and my PCA team continues financial and volunteer support with this incredible organization.

Architectural opportunities led me to serve clients who then experienced the journey of cancer. This allowed me to have incredible faith conversations and the great honor of bringing my friends and team forward to help not in a professional way but rather in a nurturing way. Moving these clients physically into their homes, unpacking their lifelong possessions, setting each personal item in place and sharing meals and company. These memories and ongoing experiences continue to fill my soul!

Architectural opportunities led me to touch the special needs population. Having a brother and an adopted son with special needs gave me a special gift for these environments. And in return, each of these programs (locally – Opportunity Builders, Arundel Lodge, Benedictine School, Cisco Center and many others across the country) have engaged my heart and the hearts of my other children and my team. I have been forever formed by this journey with family members and others with special needs.

And the stories go on and on. The constant lesson for me is lead with your heart and don’t miss out on the opportunities presented for reasons beyond your profession. Why else are we really here? We are guided by God to be kind, compassionate, loving, and supportive human beings rather than shallow, selfish, greedy and evil. Look in the mirror and decide what path you will take. And if it is the path of compassion, then lead by example.

Architecture & Interiors