The Beautiful, Modern, Budget-Friendly Floating Staircase

A closer look at tips and trends for designing with this new staircase style
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Sponsored by Viewrail
By Jeanette Fitzgerald Pitts
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Railing System

The railing system consists of posts, handrails, and infill that fill in the open space on either side of the floating stair system. The posts are available in stainless steel, aluminum, and several power-coated finishes. The handrails can be wood, matching the color and style of the treads, or aluminum or stainless-steel handrails can be selected. The infill materials can be cables or rods that run horizontally, parallel with the handrail, or they can be glass.

Popular Combinations

With all the tread options in wood types, thicknesses, and finishes, mono stringer colors, and railing systems, there are countless combinations of floating staircases available to make the perfect modern addition to any interior. Interestingly, from the sea of possibilities, a few trends are emerging in terms of the way that tread colors are being selected to complement the interior decor and new textures that take the experience of the floating staircase to the next level.

In the past, it was common to match the treads to the predominant interior color, so, for example, lighter floors would be complemented with lighter-colored wood treads. Now the trend seems to be in creating contrast. Designers working on interiors with lighter floors are selecting floating staircases with darker wood treads to make the element even more dramatic.

Manufacturers are also now offering scraped finishes that offer a touch and feel that is different underfoot from the traditional smooth and flat finish. The texture adds character to the journey up and down the stairs. These distressed or hand-scraped details provide the added benefit of camouflaging wear and tear on the stair tread.

The Functional Details of Floating Staircases: Codes and Configurations

Depending upon the needs of the project, staircases can be designed to be bold and dramatic or hidden and unremarkable, but, regardless of their aesthetic qualities, there are two properties that any staircase must possess. It must be compliant with the applicable codes and regulations, and it must enable people to travel from one floor to another in a way that fits the available space. Although they may look quite different from conventional staircases, floating staircases are code compliant, safe, and available in several configurations.

Code-Compliant Features

The International Building Code (IBC) and the International Residential Code (IRC) contain a few design and performance criteria that must be satisfied to ensure that the floating staircase is code compliant. Generally speaking, these codes outline acceptable run lengths and rise heights for each tread and riser in the staircase, depending upon whether it is in a commercial or residential setting. They also provide requirements defining an acceptable stair width, the size of the load that the treads and handrails should be able to support, and the infill and handrail requirements in terms of acceptable heights, widths, and spacing.

Most of the code requirements are the same for floating staircases and conventional staircases, with one notable difference. Conventional staircases include a vertical riser in-between each tread. This is referred to as a closed-riser design. The IBC allows a staircase with a closed-riser design to have a rise, which is the vertical height between two adjacent steps, up to a maximum of 7 inches high. A floating staircase does not include a riser between each tread and, instead, features an open gap. The IBC requires that the open gap between each tread not exceed a maximum of 4 inches. This aligns with the rule for the railing infill, commonly referred to as the 4-inch sphere rule, where the railing system must be designed so that a 4-inch sphere cannot pass through any portion of the railing. This rule was created to prevent small children from passing through the railing system or through the gap between the treads and hurting themselves.

Here is a high-level overview of some of the design guidelines that floating staircases in commercial buildings must satisfy to be compliant with the IBC. For the actual criteria that apply to a specific staircase on a project, please refer to the authority having jurisdiction.

  • The open gap between the treads cannot exceed 4 inches.
  • The stair tread depth should be a minimum of 11 inches on commercial applications.
  • Each step must be able to bear at least a 300-pound concentrated load.
  • Spindles or cables in the guardrail system should not be placed more than 4 inches apart.
  • Handrails should not be less than 36 inches in height.
  • Guardrail systems must be capable of withstanding, without failure, a lateral force of at least 200 pounds applied in a downward and outward direction within 2 inches of the top edge at any point along the top rail.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in March 2019