Designing the Staircase for our Bed & Breakfast in Asheville, North Carolina
June 17, 2012 by Susan Murray
The addition is finally finished here at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast and the last thing to be completed is actually one of the first things we started working on: the staircase.
After exploring every avenue in creating a private living space for James and myself, we found that between the city ordinances, fire laws, and restrictions on building in the historic district, we were limited to adding on to the original house but we were not allowed to get any closer than four feet from the cottage and certainly not to incorporate the cottage into the addition. This left us with a usable but relatively small envelope for the building. Space needed to be conserved wherever possible.
After looking at many, many pictures of stairs online James and I determined that we wanted to build a “floating staircase” and to make the stairs a design feature of the house as well as a utilitarian one. Ours is not a true floating staircase in that the treads are supported by two beams running up the middle instead of separate supports coming out of the wall for each tread, but it was still a challenge for Caine, our contractor. The stairs rise above the wrought iron screen from India which separates the office from the living room and needed to complement it instead of masking it.
In January we met with an artist whom friends had suggested could design the wrought iron banister. Berry Bate is a local woman who has been working with iron for more than 25 years. Her work is sublime, she brings the iron to life with her hand rendered work and we were very impressed with her. However, we had our doubts that we could afford her, especially after we found out that she was on the commission to restore the Statue of Liberty, had designed the gates to the Biltmore and, for her first commission, created the iron barricade on Chimney Rock. And sure enough, when she finally come back with an estimate it was three times more than she had originally indicated it would be, so we sadly decided we would have to find another way.
After looking around, we found our way to Welding Unlimited and their design division: Metal Creations. We talked with one of the designers and looked at samples. It was clearly machine beaten and formed, with a regrettable (to us) tendency towards attempted realism which made the work kitschy (again to us). Berry’s design had been suggestive of trees and leaves. Her metal was stretched and pulled into shape, giving it a certain lightness and artistry. We knew we weren’t going to get that here, but we thought that we could work with them if they would consult with us along the way. They agreed to do this and even took us back into the shop to meet with the welders.
Having sorted out the design and fabrication of the bannister as much as possible, we moved on to the design of the staircase itself. The floors in the living room are Canary Wood, an exotic hardwood from Brazil which we were able to buy in a limited quantity at the Scrounger’s Paradise. Canary wood is striking for its variation in color and striation but we weren’t going to be able to find any Canary wood for the stairs. After spending a lot of time at wood mills we decided on hickory for the treads and pine for the beams. It’s at times like this that one is most aware of the logging history of this area. The men we met at the lumber yards could identify any wood and talk about the finish one would get from it with great authority!
Once we had chosen the wood, it was sanded, cut and re-sanded by Caine and his men. The treads were finished at separate location and after they arrived we had to determine how they would sit on the beams.
I would have liked to have a single beam running up the middle which would leave the treads as exposed as possible but Caine doubted we would get an inspector to pass it like that. Every inch of separation was debated until we came up with one he thought would pass inspection and I thought was acceptable.
Finally the addition was finished. The walls were painted, the electricals in place and the plumbing working. The stairs were up and Peanut, our painter, had stained and varnished them. It was time for the banister to go in.
We had seen a sample of the artwork when Brian came over to measure the stairs. Brian used to be a fireman and it was re-assuring how much he knew about the regulations surrounding stairs and banisters. We were slightly less assured about the finished product. We were happy to spend the time with him explaining once again that we didn’t want “bark” on the railing and that the trees not only could, but should, be different and, no, we didn’t want veins in the leaves! But he clearly listened and I can’t tell you how happy we were when we saw the railing. They carefully brought it into the house and welded it into place, including the underneath support which we needed, and it looks fabulous.
And just in time too. The stairs were finished in the morning, the inspector came in the afternoon and we were done!
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