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A French-Inspired Garden and Home by Judith Stringham

3 Design Factors for Exterior Stairs

Saturday, July 20, 2019

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Tips for designing beautiful exterior wood stairs in the backyard to lead to a second floor storage area above the garage include design ideas for style, safety, and durability. 

If you have ever fallen down steep stairs, you know how important good design is to building stairs. Like all good designs, each of the three factors of style, safety, and durability is intertwined with the other two. Each decision for how to create the new stairs was based on all of these factors. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs include style, safety, and durability
Finished last winter, the stairs are beautiful to see from inside looking out through our dining room windows. 

T H R E E   D E S I G N   F A C T O R S   

F O R   E X T E R I O R   S T A I R S 

style, safety, durability 


S T Y L E 

b e f o r e 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs before replaced
The old stairs were not a pretty sight after thirty-one years of exposure to the elements with no repairs in the past ten years. The beautiful new wood stairs in our backyard replaced this set of steps that were old, dangerous, and an eyesore. Fortunately, no one fell down the old stairs, but we held our breath the last year before replacing them. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs required new stone retaining wall before new stairs
Last year, much-needed repairs and upkeep in the backyard began with repairing the existing stone steps. Then the deck leading to the back door was replaced.  Once those repairs were finished, the old stone retaining wall on the upper terrace was torn out and replaced with a new, relocated retaining wall. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs required style to blend with existing cedar siding
Then the new stairs to the second-story storage room began. Materials for the new stairs needed to blend with the existing stone steps and retaining walls as well as the cedar siding on our house in the countryside. 

The redwood boards in the old stairs were a good choice when the stairs were first built because of the availability, durability, and cost of redwood. Redwood was a little less expensive than cedar and easily found in neighborhood lumber yards thirty years ago. In today's market, redwood is no longer easily found at local lumber yards, and the price reflects that. There was only one lumber yard in the Dallas metroplex that I could find that kept redwood in stock which was a major factor in material choice.  

a f t e r 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included using pressure treated lumber for new stairs
The new stairs are made from pressure-treated lumber and fit the style of our country house. 

One style decision was to add facing boards to the risers on all of the steps. This keeps leaves from blowing under the stairs and helps keep rain water out of the space beneath the steps. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs used trellis under the stairs
Trellis covers the side of the stairs facing the dining room windows to hide what is underneath the steps. Eventually there will be a small flower bed on this side of the steps which will be look good with the trellis background. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs include using under the stairs as storage
The other side of the stairs is open for easy access to store extra cedar siding, under a tarp for additional protection. This space is also used for storing other items which are somewhat protected from the elements. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included using wood caps on each post
Wooden caps atop each post were selected to add a decorative touch to the overall design.

Galvanized utility panels on the handrails match the ones on the decks around the house. The panels are inexpensive, extra sturdy, come in sixteen-foot lengths, and are available in stock at our local Tractor Supply Company. 

S A F E T Y  

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included improving safety with new stairs
A snowy scene from a few winters ago shows how close the old steps were to the old retaining wall, the lack of handrails on the lower steps, and how high the first landing was from the ground. All of which were concerns for safety. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included building new steps with a shorter rise for safety
One of the things I wanted in new steps was a shorter rise between steps so they would be easier to climb, especially when carrying an armload of things to the storage room above the garage. 

A shorter rise meant more steps extending beyond the original stair design footprint and steps bumping into the old stone retaining wall. Hence, one of the reasons for removing the old retaining wall and installing a new retaining wall further up the hill was to allow more room for a longer run of steps. The other reason... the old wall had collapsed in a couple of places. 

The old handrails did not have supports between the handrails and the steps which was a safety issue. Building codes specify the height of handrails and the distance between the spaces in the vertical side rails. The galvanized utility panels have 4-inch square openings which meet building codes for handrails. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included building a larger landing at the top of the stairs
The new stairs have a larger landing at the top which allows room for the door to swing open a greater distance and out of the way of large items being moved into the storage room. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included building a larger landing at the bottom of the stairs
The bottom landing is also larger to allow more room for moving large items like chests and sofas up the stairs into storage. 

The lower landing can be entered using steps on either side coming from the house or from the sidewalk that leads to the front driveway. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included adding handrails for safety
For added safety there is a handrail on one side of the lower landing. The previous lower landing was about 30" off the ground. The new lower landing is about 13" off the ground. If someone stumbles on the new lower landing, the distance to the ground is low enough they probably can step off without injury or grab one of the handrails. 

D U R A B I L I T Y 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included using pressure treated lumber for durability
Pressure-treated lumber is treated to resist termites and fungal decay. In addition, there are pressure-treated boards designed to come in contact with the ground. Years ago, redwood was deemed a good product for deck and stair footings. Over time, the national standards in the United States for wood used in deck foundations changed and now call for pressure-treated lumber designed specifically for coming in contact with the ground. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included using wood post caps to prevent post rot from rain
Another durability design feature is the wood cap on each post. By using wood caps on top of the posts, water runs off the posts instead of pooling on top of exposed, squared-off posts and causing the posts to rot. 

3 design factors for exterior wood stairs included style to fit a country house
We love our new exterior stairs leading to the storage room above the garage. Their style, safety, and durability fit our needs and the style of our home in the country with its fields of bluebonnets in the backyard. 


If you are considering new exterior stairs, be sure to research your local building codes to insure your new stairs will pass a building code inspection. Each area has its own set of rules to insure your safety. 

While contractors probably know and follow codes for your area, do not assume they do. Check their credentials, references, and ratings with your local business bureaus. 

Botanic Bleu is a home decor/lifestyle blog, and my posts are meant to inspire you for creating a home you love. Botanic Bleu is not intended to provide expert information, but to provide experiences with personal projects. You should not rely on my stairs, information, or photos for what you need to do, but should use my information and photos for ideas only. My photos and content do not show/discuss all of the codes you should follow. Plus, codes change. 


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