Rowhouses are not known for being the widest of living arrangements; the houses are generally three or four times longer than they are wide. Space is achieved through levels, but this creates its own dilemma: where to put the stairs.
While some of the grander (and wider) rowhouses in our fair city were built with curved grand entrance stairs up front and servant’s stairs in the back, our houses were built as modest affairs: minimal encroachment on the already limited 11 foot wide living was achieved through a straight shot stairway built flush against the party wall. As you can see in the photo above, the stairways themselves were both steep and narrow, the idea being to take up as little floor space as possible.
As building codes became stricter and more detailed throughout the past century, rowhouse stairs became subject to new requirements. While original stairs (such as the ones in the photo above) could be grandfathered in, significant alterations or replacements were required to comply with the code’s specifications for riser height, tread width and depth and stringer pitch. If that last sentence sounded like a bunch of jargony carpenter-speak, see the diagram below.
Code-compliant stair renovations have often resulted in bulky winder or half-landing stairs that eat up most of the building width. In the photo below, for instance, you can see how the newly framed stairway essentially creates a three-foot-wide wall, splitting the first floor into separate rooms.
During deconstruction of a newly renovated house, we gradually reveal the original floor plan as we strip away layers of sheetrock and framing lumber. Once the new stairway has been reduced to a neatly stacked pile of lumber, evidence of the original stairway often emerges as a barren diagonal patch of exposed brick where the stringer was once fastened to the party wall.