22nd March 2016
If you build a house of more than two storeys, you have to put the staircase behind fire doors in order to protect the escape route from the upper floors should a fire start on the ground floor. This is, no doubt, quite sensible, as most building regulations are, but the result has been the marginalisation, quite literally, of this once-proud architectural feature. Scarlett O’Hara could not sweep down the staircase of Twelve Oaks if it was built in London today.
Which is the main reason why we built a two storey house, despite all our neighbours being three storeys high. Yes: we wanted a fabulous staircase worthy of Scarlett O’Hara, and we’ve now got one thanks to the artistry and craftsmanship of metal designer-maker Jonathan Rowlandson. His remarkable organic, curving staircase is complete and the house is transformed.
We’ve worked with Jonnie before – if you know Tree House, he made the gates at the front and the fence at the back – so he had a line in the very first budget for The Orchard. The design of the staircase took some time, beginning with quite complex Arts and Crafts motifs and ending up, true to the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, with something quite simple but exceptionally graceful and delicate. Everything is made from steel, burnished to a deep bronze, except for the treads which I sourced separately. As you can’t get single oak boards wide enough today without being jointed, I bought wide 200-year-old reclaimed boards from a French barn. ‘Character grade’ oak would be an understatement.
The staircase was made in Jonnie’s workshop, then dismantled and brought to site to be put back together again. Jonnie and Dan began with the two critical stringers, the rising bases of the balustrades that also provide the support for the treads. In a curving staircase, the inner stringer is necessarily much more tightly curved than the outer stringer. But they must both end up in just the right place if the treads are to fit and sit flat. Once the stringers were in place, the metal supports for the treads could go in, followed by the gorgeous balustrades and handrails.
The geometry of a curving staircase is tricky, to say the least, especially if the curve is not a precise semicircle. If you look carefully in the pictures below, you will see that our treads start perpendicular to the stringer but slowly move away from this line, becoming more oblique as the staircase rises. Although this is highly unusual – our architect recalls encountering such stairs in old French hotels – it ensures that the steps are all consistent, albeit constantly changing, You mustn’t surprise anyone on a staircase or they are liable to fall over. As every tread was different, I had to template every one and cut the oak with great care.
So now we have a four metre high work of art slap bang in the middle of our home, visible from the open plan living space downstairs and our double-height library upstairs, and also the bedroom as I haven’t got round to making the internal doors yet. I’m happy that we finished the wall behind it with square birch ply panels as these provide a foil to the shifting pattern of the balustrades. And the staircase provides the perfect multi-level platform to enjoy our stained glass window, especially when the sun lights everything up first thing in the morning. Thanks Jonnie!