Hardscaping 101: Entry Stairways

Okay, let’s get the song “Stairway to Heaven” out of our minds. Good, done, let’s move on to front stairways. Another creative idea.

A front stairway is an important design element in establishing the first impressions of a home. With every step we gather an expectation of what we will find beyond the front door. This means that a stairway should not be an afterthought, but a conscious—and creative– statement to welcome guests and family.

Above: A modern stairway in Mill Valley has stairs made of poured in place concrete and ipe wood. As the visitor moves through the garden toward the entry, the hardscaping changes to the warmer ipe material. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

What is a stairway?

A stairway is one or more flights of stairs that can have landings so one can pass from one level to another. It is different from a stoop in that a stoop is a small landing at the exit of a doorway, usually measuring about 3 by 5 feet.

Pathway to the porch of Flora Grubb's Berkeley home

Above: The well-appointed stoop of garden designer Flora Grubb’s Berkeley home. For more, see Landscape Designer Visit: At Home with Flora Grubb in Berkeley, CA. Photograph by Caitlin Atkinson.

What are the parts of a stairway?

You may be thinking, “Why do I need to know the parts? I just want to think about the design.” Well, it’s wise to know the parts because you can easily discuss different design ideas with architects and builders if you can dive into the nitty gritty of the elements.

So here it goes: the main parts of a stairway are the treads, risers, stringer, and landing. Let me break this down a bit: The tread is the horizontal element where we place our feet.The riser is the vertical element that separates the treads. Then there is the stringer that supports the side of the stair and holds the treads and risers in place. Finally there is the landing, the flat piece allowing the climber to rest before climbing again or providing a safe place to turn around and descend.


Above: At a home in Piedmont, California highly textured pavers recycle small granite stones salvaged from villages lost to the Three Gorges Dam project in China. Architects Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown had the stones set on edge in cast concrete, then installed them in a checkerboard pattern. Photograph by Richard Bryant (Arcaid), courtesy of Tsao & McKown.


Above: Architect Barbara Chambers’ Mill Valley stairway of bluestone and gravel. Boxwoods nicely act as a living stair border. Photograph courtesy of Chambers + Chambers.

What are the different styles of stairways?

Now we can get into the good stuff. The stairway can be many things: modern, classic, grand, or elaborate with details. But whatever style you choose you must always start with the basic design principals of functionality, safety, and aesthetic purpose.

Basically, the style of your house will greatly impact your design decision. You want your stairway to be consistent in design and complement your home. For example, a stucco house with ceramic roof tiles might not look so good with modern steel stairs. Think compatible materials and similar design aesthetic.

A well-designed stairway can transform what some think of as purely a mechanism to get from the street or driveway to the front door into an inspiring and pleasant greeting, and even journey.


Above: A steel and stone slab stairway in Stinson Beach, California mimics the undulating motion of the ocean nearby. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

Other rudimentary factors to consider when designing a stairway are elevation changes, whether you want a straight shot to the front door or a more gradual approach, and if this is your everyday stairway that gets a lot of use and therefore needs to be highly functional.

What materials are best for a stairway?

Any reliable material can be used to build a stairway, but the best choice is often a hardscape material that exists elsewhere in your landscape. Even a material that appears in your backyard, like concrete can be repeated out front to create continuity. Remember to choose materials that speak to your house’s architecture.


Above: A grand front stairway with poured concrete stairs greets visitors inside the gate of this Mark Tessier design garden in Santa Monica. Photograph by Art Gray. For more, see Landscape Architect Visit: A Majestic Sycamore in a Santa Monica Garden.

The most common choices are brick, stone, wood, and concrete. Here are some things to consider for each type of material:

  • Wood: The best choices are ipe (also called Brazilian walnut), redwood, or Alaskan yellow cedar. Ipe is excellent, because it’s long-lasting and rot-resistant, but it does not take paint.
  • Stone: Bluestone, limestone, granite, and slate are good materials, though they can be pricier than brick, wood, or concrete.
  • Concrete or brick: Both are economical and-long lasting. See Hardscaping 101: Poured in Place Concrete for a closer look into this material.


Above: Cut stone and generous landings slowly bring visitors up to the house. Billowy stipa grasses soften the hard edges. Photograph by Kier Holmes.

What are the design rules for a stairway?

As you can imagine, there is never any guesswork when it comes to building a stairway. Stair risers and treads, as well as width, are ruled by building codes. But these rules are also dictated by some good common sense. There is nothing worse, or more treacherous, than stairs that are too shallow in the tread (see, now you know what that word means) especially if you are carrying groceries up or down a flight of stairs. You also want to prevent stairs from being too high if walking up or too low if walking down.

Following are suggested specs for risers treads and width but please check with your local building codes:

  • Risers: 7 ¾ inches maximum.
  • Stair tread: 10-inch minimum so that a majority of your foot will have enough room to rest on the stair. Tip: Usually the deeper the treads, the lower the risers. This is a question of a comfortable walking pace.
  • Stair width: 36 inches minimum (not including railings).
  • Another design tip is that you’ll want the landing and steps to be wider than your door by a good 12 inches on both sides.

The rules and codes go on and on, so please make sure that your designer or contractor does the homework.


Above: A bluestone stairway in Westchester County seems to effortlessly navigate a steep change in elevation from the driveway to the front entryway. Photograph by Meredith Heuer. For more, see Before & After: A Welcoming Front Walkway in North Salem, NY.

When do you need a handrail?

I will answer my own question with another question…do you believe in safety? If you answer yes, then you need a hand rail. For a complete look at railings please check out Hardscaping 101: Railings. I always recommend a railing even if code doesn’t require it. Worrying about young visitors and the elderly can be mitigated with a sound railing.

Above:Above: Bluestone pavers are used on a staircase and landing by WE Design, a member of the Remodelista Architects and Designers Directory. Photograph courtesy of WE Design.
To give you a little primer on the subject of railings, you need a hand rail if you have more than four steps or if the top of the landing is 30 inches higher than the finished grade.


Above: Hardscape lighting that mounts beneath the overhang on a stair tread is discreet and effectively directs light downward. For more, see Design Sleuth: Hidden Hardscape Lighting. Flexible light tape also can be used. Photograph courtesy via Kichler.

When do you need stairway lighting?

Lighting a stairway dramatically improves safety and adds a welcoming glow to the space. If your stairway is not already lit by a street light, if you live in a shady part of the neighborhood, and/or your stairway is especially long, then you need lighting.  Either you can incorporate lighting into the steps themselves or attach them to the stair rails or walls. Led step lights can be used to enhance tread visibility and add a intriguing design element.

Please visit Hardscaping 101: Stairway Lighting for a complete look at lighting.

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