Ask the Architect

The stairs are in the way


Q. Our house needs upgrading, and we’re hoping to create more space. Our stairs to the basement and the second floor are right in the middle of the house, and block everything. They’re also only a few feet from our front door. We’re thinking we can save some space by moving the stairs, and read what you wrote about circular stairs not being legal (as a main exit stair). Is it possible to have an addition on the front or side of the house, and how do we get to the upstairs hallway without losing a room? We want to have an open first floor after we move the stairs — that’s our main objective. What should we do?

A. You have stared at your stairs and now realize how complicated this change can be. Usually the best way to go about it is to hire an architect who has the structural, construction, code and space planning knowledge to figure this out, since every home and every property is a little different.
The question about adding on leads to doing the zoning analysis, which means taking your property survey, which hopefully is readable and has setback distances and dimensions of the house. Many surveys are missing this information, or are unreadable because they have been hand-drawn or are old photocopies, but if they can be read, your building zone requires only a certain amount of lot area coverage by the home and a front side and rear setback distance from your property lines that must comply.
The next challenge is to accurately measure and produce the floor plans of each floor so that the whole picture can be worked with. Moving the stairs around means trying to keep the basement stairs below the stairs to the second floor to save space, since the two stairs work together. Hallways, closets and bathrooms all need to be looked at to see if the stairs can be joined to the upper and lower spaces from a different direction without altering the main plumbing or greatly reducing the adjacent rooms. The building codes dictate that there are minimum sizes of rooms, especially bedrooms and hallways.
Whenever this type of work is to be done, the whole design has to include the main first-floor living space objective, so a kitchen expansion, relocation of a dining room or elimination of a living room, for example, are taken into account. This is generally not a simple process, because the structural system of beams and walls will be changed and all loads, from the roof to the basement, must still be resolved through either the existing columns and beams or new ones that will need to be calculated. I often see where people have started the planning process themselves, sketching out ideas and realizing how complicated this can be. Until the whole picture of each floor plan, the structure and codes are applied, together, the final plan can’t be fully resolved. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.