Jan 11, 2013


In small, tiny, or "right sized" homes, you don't want to sacrifice usable space if you can avoid it.  That's why you see so many ladders leading to the lofts of tiny homes. It's the perfect solution for some, but others may want something that makes loft access more, well, accessible.  The idea of negotiating a steeply pitched ladder in the middle of the night might deter many otherwise would-be small home owners.  I'm going to discuss space saving stairs and ladders including ship's ladders, alternating step stairs, and spiral stairs.

Gorgeous narrow diameter wooden spiral staircase.

When space is at a premium, but you don't want to climb an ordinary ladder, a ship's ladder may be just the thing.  They're steeply pitched to save floor space, but not quite as steep as ordinary ladders. They can also have wider treads, and handrails to make climbing and descending safer.  Handrails can be designed in ways that they make entering and exiting the ladder less dangerous.

Ship's Ladder
Ship's Ladder
Ship's ladders come in a variety of styles.  There are the more common variety pictured above, and the less common alternating step stair variety pictured below.

Alternating Step Stairs
Alternating Step Stairs


The advantage of ship's ladders, alternating step stairs, and spiral stairs over ordinary ladders is that they are easier to climb and they can be climbed "hands free", but keeping at least one hand on a handrail is recommended for all three types.  The advantage of all three over conventional stairs is that they save lots of floor space, enabling more useable space for other, more frequently used functions.  To get an idea of how much floor space is sacrificed by conventional stairs, take a look at the image below.  It is showing a savings of 14 square feet for the alternating step stairs.  That's equivalent to seven linear feet of kitchen counter,  two side by side three foot wide closets, or an entire two fixture bathroom.  And that's enormously significant in tiny houses, which are typically 150 square feet or less.  Truly conventional stairs are even bigger space hogs.  They are three or more feet wide (not two feet like in the picture), so that really means a savings of at least 21 square feet.  If there are landings add another 10 to 20 square feet saved.

A comparison of alternating step stairs and conventional stairs.

The picture above also illustrates that one can descend alternating step stairs facing forward, even when carrying something.  Don't try that on a ladder.  The thing about alternating step stairs is that if you get halfway down or up, and then realize you need to turn around, well, you pretty much need to finish the trip first.

Pictured below are some other variations on the alternate step stair theme.

Alternating step stairs
Alternating step stairs

View down alternating step staircase, surrounded by book shelves.

And below are a few more ship's ladder images...

Nicely crafted ship's ladder
Ship's ladder detail image

Here's an interesting space-saving staircase...
It looks conventional, but narrow, and each riser (vertical part) is actually a pull-out drawer for storage.


Spiral stairs may work in certain situations, but they are tricky.  Advantages include aesthetics and saving space.  The smallest overall diameter for this type of staircase is about four feet. Current code regarding spiral stairs says that the tread width must be at least 7.5 inches at a point 12 inches from the narrow end.  Risers can be up to 9.5 inches, and like any stair, the riser height must be consistent. 

Now the drawbacks...

One rule of thumb is that the more narrow a spiral stair is, the more dangerous it is to climb or descend.  You definitely want to keep a hand on the handrail at all times.  You also want to try to keep your feet toward the outer edge of the treads because they are wider there, and your feet are less likely to slip off.  

My research suggests that by code,  spiral stairs are only permitted for residential use in areas that are not frequently accessed.  A sleeping loft or bedroom would presumably be accessed daily, and therefor not be permissible.  In the case of a tiny home, like the kind built on trailers, codes are considerably less restrictive, but most truly tiny homes can't afford to sacrifice the space these stairs require.  Consider that in tiny homes the sleeping area is often a loft that may be difficult to sit up in, let alone stand up in.  If you arrive via ladder, you can crawl off into your loft.  When you reach the top of a spiral stair, you require plenty of headroom, something that often doesn't exist in many tiny home lofts.

Spiral Stairs
If you are going to use a spiral stair, I suggest purchasing a stair kit or buying one ready-made because working out the details of a spiral staircase is challenging.  Simply having the right diameter, tread width and riser height to span the overall rise of the staircase may not be enough.  You'll also need to figure out how to make sure you can get on and off in the places you want to be, while simultaneously being sure that the stairs "get out of their own way" so that you don't hit your head on the bottom of treads above you.  As I said, they are tricky.   Finally, you would find that you would be quite limited  in terms of the size of objects you could carry up or down a very narrow diameter spiral stair, especially considering the need to always keep one hand on the rail.

Spiral Stairs

Lastly, let's take a moment to be totally impractical but whimsical & fun.  I've yet to see anything like the ideas below incorporated into a tiny home for loft access, but who knows?  Maybe I'll start something.

Climbing Wall

All kinds of ideas for loft access here.

Bubble Wall

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  1. These are excellent ideas for space saving stairs and rails. I thought we had the most narrow staircase in our cottage until I saw some of these.

  2. Thanks Todd. Glad you liked it.

  3. simply Stunning, Here is a spiral staircase fact for everyone it Spiral stairs in medieval times were generally made of stone and typically wound in a clockwise direction (from the ascender's point of view),to place attacking swordsmen (who were most often right-handed) at a disadvantage! Weird but very true.

  4. Thanks Spiral Staircase. That's a fascinating bit of trivia!

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